Fresh off their Wooden Legacy championship from this past weekend, the UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court on Wednesday night when the Bruins host the UC Riverside Highlanders at Pauley Pavilion (8 PM PST; Pac 12 Network).
UCLA is coming into the game with a record of 7-0, while UCR enters the contest with a 1-3 record, with its only win coming against Fresno Pacific. The game certainly sets up to be a blow out, but the Bruins need to be conscious of a let-down after winning back-to-back games against Nebraska and Texas A&M and with Kentucky looming on Saturday. This is another game that will allow Bruin head voach Steve Alford the opportunity to continue to work on some of the areas that still are cause for concern, namely consistent focus and the team’s defense. The question is whether UCLA will simply coast to a win based on the talent differential between the two teams or try and work on the areas that could be the difference between a decent season and a great one.
The Bruins and Alford certainly deserve some kudos for defeating two solid high-major programs in the Wooden Legacy. They did it while facing two very physical teams in the Cornhuskers and the Aggies. The team seems to have only scratched the surface of its potential in certain areas, too. The Bruins are clearly talented enough to play with virtually anyone in the country.
http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1696132-buy-1-month-get-1-free-t... Head Coach Dennis Cutts’ Highlanders are off to a tough start. They have certainly not played an easy schedule, having lost at Portland by 15 (the same Pilots team that UCLA beat by 20 last week), at UNLV in a surprisingly competitive game, and at Utah. Cutts plays a nine-man rotation that will be physically and athletically challenged playing the Bruins. Riverside is not a good offensive team, averaging just over 61 PPG outside of the win over Fresno Pacific, and shooting less than 40% from the floor and only 31% from behind the arc. The Highlanders are consistently outrebounded, but they do play tough, tactically-sound defense, holding opponents to 42% from the field and 29% from the three-point line. However, some of that comes from that victory over a bad NCAA Division II school. The Highlanders also take care of the ball, committing only 47 turnovers on the season, while forcing 61.
The team has some size, but it isn’t overly big or athletic. The team’s strength clearly lies on the perimeter, where all three of the team’s leading scorers play.
The starting point guard, and team’s leading scorer at 12.5 PPG, is freshman Dikymbe Martin (6’1”, 165 lbs.). He is solid enough as a ball handler and decision-maker, but he hasn’t faced a team with the length and talent that UCLA will put on the floor on Wednesday. He is a very good shooter, hitting 57% of his shots from the field and going 6-8 so far this season on threes. The team doesn’t have many assists, and Martin leads the team with 12. Yes, 12. To put that in perspective, UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has had that many in a single game. Still, Martin has only turned the ball over 3 times. Martin will find it difficult to guard any of UCLA’s perimeter players and this will be a recurring theme for the Highlanders throughout the night.
Martin has only started one game, the last one played by UCR, the loss at Utah. He only started because senior Malik Thames (6’2”, 165 lbs.) was unavailable for personal reasons. Thames averages 12.3 PPG and is a legitimate three-point threat. It remains to be seen if he will play on Wednesday.
The third guard is junior Chance Murray (6’3”, 195 lbs.), a transfer from Arizona State who, you might remember, was a fairly noteable prospect out of Los Angeles a few years ago. Murray is arguably the best overall player on the squad, but it’s clear he’s still getting his legs under him after sitting for a year. He averages 12 PPG and has attempted the most three-pointer (20) on the team. He is the team’s best on-ball defender and can run the point in a pinch. He’s a solid, but not great rebounder, averaging 3.3 RPG. By contrast, Thames is averaging just under 5RPG.
Senior Secean Johnson (6’5”, 215 lbs.) starts at the small forward spot. He is having a horrible year shooting the ball so far. He is hitting less than 30% of his overall shots, including only 18% from distance. What should be alarming to Cutts is that despite the poor shooting percentage, Johnson is currently leading the team in shot attempts. He is third on the team at 4.8 RPG.
Sophomore Eric Rwahwire (6’5”, 210 lbs.) backs up Johnson and can also play other perimeter roles. His shooting is only slightly better than Johnson’s, both overall and from behind the arc.
Junior Alex Larsson (6’10”, 250 lbs.) starts in the post and is a very solid player. He averages 9 PPG and a team-leading 7.5 RPG. He isn’t overly athletic and he isn’t a shot blocker, but he is a space-eater in the paint, especially on defense, where he tries to body people away from their comfort zones.
Sophomore Menno Dijkstra (7’0”, 225 lbs.) backs up Larsson. He isn’t much of a scorer but he is a decent rebounder. He is also the one, true shot blocking presence the Highlanders have.
The rotation is rounded out by junior Brandon Rosser (6’7”, 220 lbs.), who is the team’s “glue guy.” Rosser has also been plagued by poor shooting, but he hustles well and is a solid defender. Expect him to guard UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton when both are on the floor, with Rosser also possibly guarding Lonzo Ball when the Highlanders go to a man-to-man defensive look.
Although using the transitive property in sports to try and predict an outcome is often an exercise in futility, this UCR team did play Portland earlier this season and the Highlanders were defeated fairly easily, 71-55. UCLA just defeated Portland by 20 and didn’t play particularly well in doing so. UCR simply doesn’t excel in the areas where UCLA can be had, namely with dribble penetration and outside shooting. The Highlander guards aren’t particularly athletic; certainly not anything like what UCLA saw against Nebraska and, to a lesser extent, Texas A&M. If the Bruins give any semblance of defensive effort then they should be able to shut down the UCR offense. They might shut them down without it, too.
Really, the only chance the Highlanders have to make this game even somewhat competitive is if UCLA is caught looking ahead to Saturday’s encounter with Kentucky. You’d call it a trap game, but usually trap games involve opponents that are good enough to beat you. Just from a scheduling and emotional standpoint, we’ll call it a trap game, because there is every reason to believe that the Bruins will not bring their best effort. A great deal of emotional energy was spent in the Wooden Legacy and will probably be spent on Saturday in Lexington. Chances are the Bruins aren’t mature enough to be able to keep their attention squarely focused on the opponent in front of them, at least not yet. However, UCR simply doesn’t have the kind of firepower necessary to take advantage of that probable lack of focus.
Last season’s Bruins were clearly tuning out Coach Alford by the end of the season. To his credit, he seems to have buy-in from the team this season. That can be seen in the halftime adjustments he’s clearly made in games so far this season and by the fact that the players are implementing those adjustments. That means that even should the Bruins struggle in this game in the first half, as is reasonably possible, Alford should hopefully be able to redirect the team’s focus for the second 20 minutes.
UCR will most likely try and slow down the game much the same way the Huskers and Aggies tried to do. They will force the Bruins to play defense for the entirety of the shot clock and there is a good chance they will play zone defense, at least for stretches, to try and keep Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf from doing too much interior damage and to limit UCLA’s penetration. There simply isn’t enough talent for UCR to be able to pull it off.
The Bruins could give a pedestrian effort in this one and probably still win by more than 20 points.
UC Riverside 69