After playing five mid-majors to open the regular season, the UCLA Bruin men’s basketball team takes a step up in competition on Friday night when the Bruins play the undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers in the semifinal of the Wooden Legacy (9 PM PST; ESPN2).
Like UCLA’s first Wooden Legacy game against Portland on Thursday night, the contest will take place in Titan Gym on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.
The athleticism of the opposition should be increased in this game but UCLA certainly has the basketball talent to defeat the Huskers. The question is whether UCLA will put forth a decent defensive effort from the beginning of the game. If the Bruins don’t, Nebraska is athletic enough and talented enough to make UCLA play from behind.
Head Coach Tim Miles’ Cornhuskers won their first-round game against Dayton in a bit of a surprise. Although Nebraska is a Big 10 school, the thought was that Dayton was probably the better team. Looking more closely, however, Dayton was a banged up squad that was playing its first game since losing one of its two best players to a season-ending injury. It was still an impressive win for Nebraska and for Miles, one of the bright young minds in the game. The coach has simply won wherever he has gone and the Husker program appears to be built for serious success over the next two seasons. Four of Nebraska’s five starters are sophomores.
Miles knows the game and, getting right to the point, he is probably going to have his entire halfcourt offense focus on attacking UCLA’s Bryce Alford. Even though UCLA defeated Portland on Thursday by 22, that was because the Bruin offense had another good game. Portland actually was able to stay in the game in the first half by attacking Bryce and either hitting easy buckets or kicking out for open three-point shots when other Bruins gave help. As good as UCLA’s offense has looked this season, and it’s beginning to look like the genuine article, the defense is still cause for concern. The reasons for that concern are the lack of effort at times, the lack of rotation and the fact that college coaches are spotting the weak point in the Bruin offense pretty easily. Miles is a very good college coach and it’s a safe bet that he will have something planned to make the Huskers more dynamic than what the Bruins saw against Portland. The only mitigating factor could be that Miles will have had roughly 24 hours to prepare for the Bruins and probably spent much of his coaching time leading up to the beginning of the tournament focusing on Dayton.
Nebraska has solid, high-major talent across the roster, but its youth is a concern, as is its depth. The production is pretty well spread out amongst the starting five, but the unquestioned leader of the team is the program’s lone senior, Tai Webster (6’4”, 195 lbs.). He leads the team in scoring at 17.3 PPG, is second on the team in assists, rebounds well for his size (4.5 RPG) and makes his foul shots. He is one of five Huskers averaging over 20 MPG, being tied for the team lead at 28.8 MPG.
Webster’s backcourt mate is sophomore point guard Glynn Watson (6’0”, 174 lbs.). Watson is every bit the shooter that Webster is and leads the team in assists. His quickness is going to cause the Bruins some issues, depending on who is guarding him. He led the Huskers in scoring in the win over Dayton.
The issue for Miles is that he has no real capable backup to Watson outside of Webster. Junior wing Evan Taylor (6’5”, 206 lbs.) will spell both Watson and Webster, as will junior Anton Gill Anton Gill (6’3”, 195 lbs.), but they are strictly off-the-ball offensive players. That means that Webster is going to rack up some serious minutes in close games. That also means that any foul trouble to any of the three players in the backcourt rotation could be potentially crippling to Nebraska.
The small forward spot is manned by sophomore Jack McVeigh (6’8”, 215 lbs.), and this is where the Bruins could face some match-up issues. The Bruins don’t have a player who can match-up to McVeigh’s size on the perimeter. He can shoot over both Bryce and Isaac Hamilton, and putting Lonzo Ball on him means that Watson and Webster get to face arguably the two weakest UCLA on-ball defenders.
McVeigh is a microcosm of why Nebraska is a bit of a scary match-up for the Bruins; he is almost strictly an outside shooter, taking almost 75% of his overall shots from beyond the arc, but he’s hitting 46% of those shots. Watson hits 40% and Webster is hitting 46%. Those three alone could prove to be decisive against the Bruins, especially if UCLA’s defense is as poor in closing out on those shooters as it was in the first half of the Portland game.
Nebraska has two very solid frontcourt starters in sophomores Ed Morrow (6’7”, 234 lbs.) and Michael Jacobson (6’9”, 239 lbs.). They are both quite physical, especially Morrow, but are undersized a bit when compared to UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf. Morrow is also prone to foul trouble. Morrow is the best rebounder and strongest player on the roster. Jacobson is a pretty good shot blocker, averaging almost 2 BPG. Still, neither has gone up against the kind of offensively talented forwards with size like the Bruins have. Welsh is also coming off his best game so far this season.
Besides Nebraska’s questionable depth (which, by the way, UCLA also faces each night until Ike Anigbogu and Prince Ali return), there are also some areas that should cause Miles some real concern. Considering the Huskers haven’t really had a tough first four games (outside of Dayton, of course), they don’t rebound well at all. They were outrebounded by Dayton on Thursday.
The Huskers also turn the ball over more than Miles would like, averaging as many turnovers per game as their opponents. Some of that is by design as, like Portland, Nebraska plays more of a lane-denial man-to-man defense.
There is some question as to the quality of that defense. Nebraska is holding its opponents to 36% shooting from the field and 29% from behind the arc, but there is some question as to whether that is more a sign of the quality of competition rather than truly good defense. Dayton was horrible shooting from the field in the first half on Thursday, but was able to shoot well over 50% in the second half.
Nebraska was able to shoot 57% from the field against the Flyers, and while Dayton generally plays better defense than UCLA, Nebraska shot that well and was only able to win by 2 points.
The key to the game, despite the constant stress on the defensive issues in these previews, is probably the offense. If UCLA can run its offense at anywhere near the efficiency level it has over its first five games then Nebraska probably cannot keep up. There are probably very few college basketball teams who can. Of course, if UCLA does play with poor defensive effort then the outcome is anyone’s guess.
Still, with one day to prepare, Miles probably won’t be able to install a complete game plan. He’ll probably have to focus on getting Nebraska to prevent UCLA from running or he’ll have to make adjustments to his offense in order for it to make constant runs at Bryce’s side of the floor. If he can get the Huskers to do both then UCLA may be in trouble. Chances are, though, that he can’t because of the quick turnaround.
Nebraska will score and the Huskers will be able to slow down the Bruins at points, so don’t expect anything close to 100 points by the Bruins. However, UCLA’s offense will probably prove to be too much for the Huskers to hang with on this night.