Coach Steve Alford’s UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court Sunday night when the Bruins host the Long Beach State 49ers (7 PM PST; Pac 12 Network).
The Bruins are coming off a very lackluster performance in Thursday night’s victory against an overmatched San Diego squad while Coach Don Monson’s 49ers are on a three-game losing streak with all three losses being blowouts at the hands of high-major competition. We said in the San Diego preview that the game against the Toreros and Sunday night’s game against LBSU represented a great opportunity for Alford to work on issues that are clearly concerns for this year’s Bruins, namely intensity and defensive effort, as neither opponent represented a particularly difficult challenge. The Bruins showed little on Thursday that would indicate they’ve committed themselves to either intensity or defense and this LBSU game represents the last opportunity for this team to be more than the individual talent of its roster before the schedule becomes quite a bit more demanding.
UCLA may be 3-0 on the young season but there are some tangible areas of concern for this team going forward. The biggest area, with respect to the defensive problems, is the intensity, or lack thereof, that this team has shown. It has been clearly evident at the beginning of the past two games, wih the Bruins are showing a penchant for playing down to their competition initially. That’s not a recipe for success against more talented, more athletic teams. Offensively gifted players unquestionably populate this UCLA squad, but even the offense has been inconsistent in the past two games.
That leads directly to the issue with the defense, but that’s been a two-headed problem, both of which are going to rely on Alford’s ability to coach this team. The first part of the defensive problem is the lack of intensity manifesting itself by a lack of collective effort on the defensive end. In order to be successful the Bruins must make on-ball defense more of a priority. The Bruin offense is going to struggle at times this season, particularly when the Bruins play those better teams who can defend the Bruins in larger spurts. At those times the Bruins need to be able to rely on their defense to get some stops, until the offense reestablishes itself. There has been no indication yet that the Bruins will be able to do that.
The second defensive problem is strictly a tactical issue, namely how to adjust the team to account for the fact that opponents are clearly going to try and exploit Bryce Alford’s defense. Two of the three Bruin opponents have clearly played with an offensive game plan designed to allow players to have a run at Alford. Unfortunately for the Bruins, Alford has yet to give opponents pause for that strategy. If that continues to be the case then Coach Alford needs to develop a tactical plan to account for that kind of offensive attack. The simple answer is to cut into Bryce’s minutes, but based on what we’ve seen in the past, that just won’t happen. That leaves two possible solutions for the coach: either move the Bruins to more zone defense or find other ways of motivating Bryce to give more of an effort on the defensive end. Obviously Alford could assign Bryce to guard the team’s weakest perimeter player, but the Bruins have a tendency to switch on screens and both CSUN and San Diego clearly saw that on film and adjusted their respective tactics accordingly. Both teams made it a point to work their offenses through several rotations until the UCLA’s switching-man defense gave them the advantage they were looking for, and then they attacked. Unless the Bruins suddenly become a team that almost never switches on defense, the idea that guarding a particular player can hide Bryce is a moot point. Going to a zone defense really won’t hide any player that lacks defensive effort for long stretches as well-coached teams will recognize the hole in the defense. That leaves the motivational solution as really the only one where the Bruins can expect a somewhat positive outcome.
The Bruins will be facing a 49er team that, quite simply isn’t as good, at least not yet, as its preseason hype suggested. Keep in mind that Monson has once again designed a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule, which is in keeping with his scheduling history while at the Beach. The issue is that the 49ers have not been competitive in the least against Wichita State, North Carolina or Louisville. They’ve been beaten by 37, 26 and 32 points respectively and all three games were essentially over by halftime. Part of the problem has been Long Beach State’s youth; the 49ers have one senior on the roster and it shows. The other part of the problem has been LBSU’s lack of size. The first issue should alleviate, at least somewhat, over time, but there’s nothing Monson can really do about the height issue.
The 49ers do have some talent, though not as much as was expected in the preseason, and the roster does have some players who can really hurt the Bruins.
Junior Gabe Levin (6’7”, 215 lbs.) has been LBSU’s best player and the one player who hasn’t looked out of his depth against the high-major competition. He leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at 13.3 PPG and 7.5 RPG. He hasn’t been a great shooter overall or from distance, averaging 41% from the field and only 23% from behind the arc, but he is fully capable of having a monster night. UCLA’s T.J. Leaf will probably start on Levin, but don’t be surprised if Monson goes with three forwards at times in this game, thus forcing the Bruins to have Isaac Hamilton guard him.
If Monson goes to a three-forward line-up then expect the majority of the other frontcourt minutes to go to sophomore Temidayo Yussuf (6’7”, 250 lbs.) and junior USC transfer Roschon Prince (6’6”, 235 lbs.). Both are strictly low post players but having them on the floor at the same time as Levin would force Leaf to guard one while Thomas Welsh takes the other. It should be noted that Prince was pegged to be a key player for the 49ers but certainly hasn’t lived up to his billing when he transferred from South Central.
Freshman Javonntie Jackson (6’6”, 190 lbs.) and sophomore Mason Riggins (6’8”, 255 lbs.) have also been averaging double-digit minutes, but they have been far fewer than their aforementioned teammates.
The Niner backcourt is populated with similar type shooting guards and none has done a particularly good job of shooting the ball yet this season. Junior Evan Payne (6’1”, 190 lbs.) is the second-leading scorer on the squad at 10.8 PPG, but he has struggled with his shooting, hitting only 30% from the field and 26% from behind the three-point line.
Freshman Jordan Griffin (6’3”, 165 lbs.) has been somewhat of an exception to the poor shooting of the 49ers, hitting 36% of his long distance shots. He is a bit of a one-trick pony in that 2/3 of his shots have come from beyond the arc.
Sophomore Noah Blackwell (6’2”, 190 lbs.) adds depth to the shooting guard spot, but his shooting has been awful as well.
The point guard spot is manned by junior Justin Bibbins (5’8”, 150 lbs.) and freshman Loren Jackson (5’8”, 145 lbs.). Bibbins is the unquestioned starter, but he has almost as many turnovers as assists. Jackson is even worse, averaging only one assist for every three turnovers. Physically they represent a traditional match-up problem for the Bruins in that UCLA has struggled at times to keep smaller, jitterbug-type guards out of the lane.
The one elephant-in-the-room-type question is how much of Long Beach State’s offensive woes this season have been the result of the level of competition the Niners have faced and how much of those issues have been caused by a lack of ability. The 49ers have been getting hammered in virtually every statistical category. They are shooting only 37% from the field and 26% from distance. They are being outrebounded by 7 RPG and have 18 more turnovers than assists. They are allowing the opposition to shoot 46% from the field and 35% from behind the arc. They are forcing almost as many turnovers as they are committing, but they’ve allowed their opponents to make almost as many free throws as the Niners have attempted.
Again, though, the question is how much of those disparate numbers are the result of their own issue and how much is the result of the quality of the opposition?
The 49ers will be facing a UCLA team that, on paper anyway, should be every bit as good offensively as any team Long Beach State has yet faced. However, the intensity question dogging the Bruins at the start of games will continue to be an issue until proven otherwise.
The key for Monson, though, and a point he is sure to make with his team, is that this UCLA team is nowhere near the defensive opponent that LBSU has faced up to this point. Again, the intensity question will be front-and-center until proven otherwise. Further, it will be interesting to see if Monson has coached his team to attack Bryce, as others have done.
Assuming that the 49ers will go after Bryce, a big subplot to this contest will be whether Coach Alford will adjust in ways to make that a non-factor, if he adjusts at all.
Bruin fans should also pay particular attention to how focused the Bruins are over the first five minutes. If Alford is getting through to the players then the Bruins will show a more spirited effort tonight from the opening tip.
From a strictly competitive standpoint, the 49ers really don’t have an answer for Lonzo Ball, Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf when the Bruins are on offense. To Alford’s credit, after the poor first half against San Diego on Thursday, it was clear that at least some of the halftime talk revolved around focusing on getting the UCLA post players touches when on offense. If the Bruins start with that strategy tonight then this should be a relatively easy game.
One other aspect to watch is UCLA’s effort to get easy buckets in transition. Against San Diego the Bruins really settled for a halfcourt-style of offense that played into the hands of the Toreros. It is another aspect of the game that should speak to UCLA’s relative effort and focus overall.
The Bruin schedule will begin getting more difficult in the next week, with the game against Portland in a few days looming as the one mid-major banana peel the Bruins could face, to be followed by at least one, if not two games against possible high-major conference teams who will be much closer in talent to the Bruins than what they’ve yet faced.
If the Bruins don’t address the intensity and focus issues, both at the beginning of games as well as throughout, then the Bruins will probably be facing the prospect of losing a game they probably have no business losing in the next seven days.
We’ll see if the Bruins have learned anything in the past few days of practice when they take on the 49ers.
Long Beach State 72