The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court Sunday night when the Bruins take on the Texas A&M Aggies as the Honda Center in Anaheim in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy (5:30 PM PST; ESPN).
Coach Billy Kennedy’s Aggies represent the toughest test the Bruins have faced yet this season. In fact, the Aggies may be the toughest non-conference opponent the Bruins will face this season outside of Kentucky. Texas A&M will be the first team UCLA has gone up against this season that will have a clear match-up advantage in certain areas of the floor. However, the Bruins will certainly have some advantages of their own they can exploit. The key to this game will be which team can impose itself on the other in those areas.
Texas A&M comes into the game with a record of 4-1, with its only loss being a come-from-ahead home loss to USC roughly two weeks ago. In Friday’s Wooden Legacy semifinal game against Virginia Tech, the Aggies were the ones coming from behind, overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit against Virginia Tech and winning by 2. That game, and the USC loss, actually provides a pretty clear blueprint on how and where to attack the Aggies.
Texas A&M is a frontcourt-heavy team and the Aggies will probably have an advantage at the forward position this season regardless of the opposition, and that includes the aforementioned Kentucky. The Aggies have size, muscle and a fair amount of athleticism. A&M’s best scorer this season has been sophomore small forward D.J. Hogg (6’9”, 220 lbs.). His size alone will make him a match-up nightmare for the Bruins. UCLA simply has no one on the roster who will be able to guard Hogg outside of T.J. Leaf or Gyorgy Goloman, and Bruin Coach Steve Alford won’t want them on the perimeter when they will be needed to help Thomas Welsh down low. Hogg averages 15.6 PPG, with just under half of his shots coming from the three-point line. He is able to shoot over virtually any defender assigned to guard him. What really makes him dangerous, though, is his consistency. He shoots 50% from the field and from beyond the arc. He also averages 6.2 RPG.
Kennedy has sophomore man-child Tyler Davis (6’10”, 270 lbs.) at center, and he is going to be a handful if the Aggies work the ball into the paint, as they undoubtedly will. He averages 12.2 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 7.2 RPG. Because most of his shots come around the basket, he’s averaging 61% from the floor. He isn’t a great athlete, but he is a defensive wall that affects opponent’s drives and helps to clean the glass. He’s not a great shot blocker, but he’s not going to lose many battles when opposing players run into him.
The starter at the power forward spot will be junior Tonny Trocha-Morelos (6’10”, 224 lbs.). He is a “glue guy,” doing the little things to help the team be successful. He sometimes falls into thinking that he’s a three-point shooter, but he’s only at 20% for the season beyond the arc. The Bruins would only be too happy to see him start gunning from deep. However, Trocha-Morelos has been seeing less and less of the floor because of the development of freshman Robert Williams (6’9”, 234 lbs.).
If Hogg is A&M’s best scorer, then Williams may be the best all-around player and pro prospect. Kennedy wanted to bring him along slowly, especially considering the depth in the low post, and knowing that Williams was facing a great deal of pressure being a top-level recruit. However, Williams has proven to be too good to bring along slowly. He is averaging 10.2 PPG and 6.6 RPG, all in 18 MPG. Most impressive, though, is his ability to defend and block shots. He is averaging almost 3 BPG and, coupled with Davis, provides the Aggies with a formidable low-post defensive presence.
Freshman Eric Vila (6’11”, 206 lbs.) and senior Tavario Miller (6’8”, 227 lbs.) provide further frontcourt depth. Vila is a three-point threat.
The Aggie front line is truly formidable and one that has a clear advantage over Leaf, Welsh, Goloman and the recently returned Ike Anigbogu (although it would be nice to see how Ike would handle the Aggie bigs in a few weeks time when he really has his playing legs back under him). However, as tough as A&M’s forwards and posts are, they are really only as good as the guards feeding them the ball, and Texas A&M has a collectively weak backcourt.
Kennedy really only plays three guards: sophomore Admon Gilder (6’4”, 198 lbs.), graduate transfer J.C. Hampton (6’1”, 192 lbs.) and freshman Caleb Smith (6’0”, 178 lbs.). Gilder and Hampton start, with Gilder handling the point. He is averaging 11.2 PPG, but he doesn’t have a great feel for the game. He’s not a great shooter by any stretch and struggles to make quick, incisive passing decisions. However, he’s the only serviceable point guard that Kennedy trusts. This team really struggles on offense when he isn’t on the floor. Not coincidently, he was in foul trouble against both USC and Virginia Tech. When Gilder is off the floor, Hampton takes the point guard duties. Hampton was an above average player at Lipscomb University in Nashville, but he wasn’t a star. He was second-team all Atlantic Sun Conference in his final year at Lipscomb. It was pretty clear against both USC and Virginia Tech that he struggles, at least right now, with the speed of the high-major game.
Kennedy was counting on more contributions from his freshmen guards, but up to now only Smith has logged any decent playing time.
In addition to the point guard issues, the A&M backcourt is not terribly athletic, certainly not as athletic as what UCLA faced in Friday night’s win over Nebraska. UCLA will have a decided advantage in the backcourt with Lonzo Ball , Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday.
Texas A&M struggles in a couple of areas, namely three-point shooting and free throw shooting. Hogg is hitting 50%, and Vila is 4-9 from deep, but the next best Aggie shooter is hitting only 29% of his outside shots. The Aggies only hit 30% as a team from behind the three-point line. This is a team that clearly does well when it pounds the ball into the paint, but it is one that can also fall in love with the three-point shot even when the shots aren’t falling. Coach Alford and many of these Bruins have played a team like this before and had a game plan that proved successful. That was when the Bruins beat Kentucky last season in Los Angeles. In that game the Bruins played a pack-line man defense, almost daring the Wildcats to beat them from the perimeter. Kentucky obliged and had a poor shooting night. The Bruins rebounded well, were smart on offense and came away with the win. Look for the Bruins to play a similar defense on Sunday night.
A&M tends to play bit of ball-pressure defense because of the low post presence of its front line, but because Aggie guards lack athleticism, they can be had. Lonzo Ball in particular, should be highly anticipating his night against the Aggie guards.
Taking advantage of A&M’s mediocre backcourt is the blueprint put forward by both USC and Virginia Tech. Tech was forcing turnovers, rebounding well and hitting shots, which is what got the Hokies their big lead over the Aggies on Friday. The Hokie shooting cooled off considerably in the second half, and that, coupled with Tech continuing to play at a fast pace, allowed the Aggies to ultimately steal the win.
USC’s guards, who are admittedly more athletic than anything Texas A&M will see this season outside of the aforementioned Wildcats, compared to A&M’s lack of it in the backcourt led to the comeback for USC. Remember as well that USC actually led that game at halftime.
UCLA doesn’t have the kind of backcourt athleticism that USC does, in fact Virginia Tech’s backcourt may be more athletic than UCLA’s, but what UCLA does have is shooters. Because of the funky way Texas A&M plays its man defense, the Bruins should get open looks from the outside. UCLA has proven pretty good from the perimeter this season. Further, Texas A&M hasn’t faced a frontcourt line like Welsh, Leaf and Goloman this season, posts who can step out and hit jumpers. Pulling the Texas A&M posts away from the basket is obviously going to take them out of their comfort zone and allow more room for UCLA’s guards to operate in the paint. Then, of course, there’s Ball, and Texas A&M has not seen anything like him when trying to defend.
Obviously the game is played on both ends of the floor and UCLA’s defense is average at best. The Bruins will have to develop a plan to try and limit the advantage of the A&M front line, and the Kentucky plan would be a start. Certainly fans can expect the Bruins to sprinkle in some of the 1-2-2 zone they saw the Bruins play the last 9 minutes or so of the Nebraska game.
UCLA has also proven to be a pretty good rebounding team this season and if the Bruins can keep that up then they can somewhat neutralize the offensive rebounding that makes A&M so tough down low.
If the game is close at the end then the game could very well come down to free throw shooting. While Williams is a perfect 7-7 on the season, the next best regular is Gilder, at 67%. Surprisingly, Hogg only hits 57% of his free throws, although because his game has such a perimeter orientation to it, he doesn’t get to the line as much as one would think. The Bruins have a clear advantage at the free throw line.
Predicting the outcome of this game is really a crapshoot because no one really knows how each teams’ advantage is going to play out. Will the backcourt or the frontcourt dominate?
The guess is that the Bruins will be a bit more rested, especially mentally, having spent Friday and Saturday nights in their own beds. Further, UCLA played a tough physical opponent in Nebraska on Friday, a team who has some significant tendencies that mirror A&M’s. The Aggies haven’t faced anyone remotely resembling the Bruins yet this season.
A&M will try and control the pace, liking the game to be in the low 70s or even the high 60s. UCLA would obviously like the game to be in the 80s or 90s.
This is completely a guess, but with the pseudo-home court advantage and the fact that UCLA has played a somewhat similar opponent, coupled with the uniqueness of Lonzo Ball, UCLA should pull out the victory…but it will be close.
Texas A&M 77