The UCLA Men’s basketball team begins its quest for a twelfth national championship on Friday night when the Bruins take on the Golden Flashes of Kent State in Sacramento (7 PM PDT; TruTV).
The Bruins are the third-seeded team in the South Region while Head Coach Rob Senderoff’s Golden Flashes are the fourteenth-seeded team. Kent State punched its ticket to the Big Dance by winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament title last week while the Bruins received an at-large bid after falling to Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. UCLA enters the game with a record of 29-4 while Kent State comes in with a record of 22-13.
As is the case with most NCAA Tournament games, this contest is about match-ups, and on paper at least, UCLA is a really bad match-up for Kent State.
The Golden Flashes are not a strong shooting team and they are not very big. Further, the roster is not littered with superior athletes. That means the three things that have arguably bothered the Bruins at time this year shouldn’t be a factor in this game, namely a team that can make a bunch of three-point shots, a team that is going to be able to defend the Bruins with length or a team that can drive the lane at will. Make no mistake, Kent State has some weapons, but the reality is that UCLA has faced teams like this earlier in the year and the Bruins dispatched them, although both Western Michigan and San Diego gave the Bruins a bit of a run before UCLA put them away.
Speaking of Western Michigan, Kent State and the Bruins have faced two common opponents this season, the Broncos and Oregon State. UCLA went 3-0 against those opponents this season, while Kent State lost both games. Granted, both games saw the Golden Flashes on the road (Kent State is in Kent, Ohio, by the way), but with the game in Sacramento, this will feel more like a UCLA home game than not. Kent State didn’t play a particularly strong non-conference schedule, but the Golden Flashes did defeat Texas in Austin in December. Obviously Texas had a very poor season, but it was a victory over a major conference school and something the Golden Flashes couldn’t replicate in Corvallis.
Kent State had success against teams that had big issues at the point guard position, something that UCLA doesn’t have. That’s because the Golden Flashes saw much of their offense come from points off of turnovers. Certainly UCLA has had turnover issues in games this season and that fact alone is the single reason Kent State has something close to a puncher’s chance in this game, although the talent disparity is pretty significant.
Senderoff has basically narrowed Kent State’s player rotation down to six players. The two key members of the squad, and the two leading scorers, are senior post Jimmy Hall (6’8”, 235 lbs.) and sophomore shooting guard Jaylin Walker (6’1”, 180 lbs.). Hall, who averages a team-leading 18.9 PPG, is really the danger man on this squad. He leads the team with a 10.5 RPG average and has 48 blocks on the season. He is a very active player with a motor that doesn’t quit. If he were on UCLA he’d be the primary back-up behind T.J. Leaf ahead of Gyorgy Goloman. He has the most turnovers on the team, with 104, but he also leads the team in assists with 91. Basically everything Kent State does in the halfcourt runs through Hall. Knowing that Senderoff will consistently run a small lineup, Bruin Head Coach Steve Alford will certainly start Thomas Welsh on Hall. He will bring Welsh out of the paint, although it will still be inside the arc, but Hall won’t park himself under the basket. It will be interesting to see if UCLA will move to the 1-2-2 zone defense for much of the game or even if Alford will choose to go small against the Golden Flashes. To be frank, he shouldn’t have to choose either of those options. Hall hasn’t seen an offensive post player like Thomas Welsh, one who can consistently hit the mid-range jumper, so Hall will have to do things on defense differently than he is used to doing.
Walker is second on the team in scoring at 15.6 PPG and is coming off a 30-point performance in the MAC Tournament finals against Akron. He isn’t a great shooter by any means, hitting only 40% of his shots from the field and 33% of his shots from the three-point line. However, he has a knack for hitting big shots, and the bigger the moment, the better his shooting percentage seems to be. Walker is a solid player otherwise, but outside of his scoring ability there isn’t anything else in his game that truly stands out.
The other three starters are senior guard Deon Edwin (6’3”, 210 lbs.), sophomore Jalen Avery (6’0”, 185 lbs.) and freshman wing Mitch Peterson (6’5”, 190 lbs.). Edwin and Avery basically share the ostensible point guard duties but neither is a true point guard. Because of Kent State’s lack of size, the Golden Flash offense is basically a 4-out offense with ball screens. It even turns into a 5-out offense when Hall is setting the screens. Neither is a particularly great shooter, although Avery is hitting just below 40% from behind the arc. Edwin brings a senior’s savvy to the floor and is the “glue guy” that most mid-majors seem to have on their rosters. Avery may not be a true point guard but he is very good at valuing the ball, having only 19 turnovers on the season.
Peterson brings some shooting ability to the floor, being able to help the 4-out offense stretch the floor, but he isn’t terribly quick and is probably the last option on offense of the starting five. Leaf should be able to guard Peterson effectively even with the ankle injury. Peterson doesn’t rebound well; in fact Edwin is the team’s second-leading rebounder at 5.6 RPG.
Junior guard Kevin Zabo (6’2”, 180 lbs.) basically is the bench player who subs in for everyone but Hall. He plays starter’s minutes and often gives the team a true four-guard look when he is subbing in for Peterson, who averages the fewest minutes of the starters. When Zabo is in for Peterson, Kent State will have four players on the floor smaller than any of the Bruin starters. Like many of his teammates, Zabo is a mediocre shooter, hitting 35% from the field and less than 30% from distance.
Sophomore Adonis De La Rosa (7’0”, 261 lbs.) will be the player to spell Hall, but he’s only playing about 8-9 minutes per game. In all honesty, if Hall gets into any sort of early foul trouble, Kent State is done. De La Rosa is a mediocre athlete and not a very good offensive player. He brings size and not much else when he’s in the game.
Again, Hall is the key for the Golden Flashes. If he has to sit for long portions of the game then this is going to be a blowout of 40-50 points.
If I had to venture a guess, Senderoff is going to play Zabo quite a bit at Peterson’s expense. This will force a quickness mismatch for the Bruins with regard to Leaf and Goloman, assuming Alford uses both Welsh and Ike Anigbogu. That’s why liberally employing an active 1-2-2 zone might be the answer. It keeps Hall from becoming a real threat and it possibly forces Kent State into settling for shot attempts that the Golden Flashes don’t want, namely three-pointers. Kent State doesn’t have a single player shooting north of 40% from behind the arc. The Golden Flashes are hitting less than 32% of their long distance shots as a team. In fact, they are only shooting 43% from the floor overall.
Kent State is also going to look to slow the tempo a bit. They won’t milk the clock every possession, but they will look to make the Bruins work on defense. Still, Kent State’s main plan to stay in the game is to force turnovers. That may be difficult against the Bruins, though, because the Golden Flashes don’t have the length to bother the Bruins unless UCLA is passive, and there’s really no way to see if that will be the case until the game starts. The Bruins could simply throw the ball over pressure much of the time, which could serve to get Hall in foul trouble as the Bruins pound the ball inside. And make no mistake, regardless of whether Kent State plays man or zone defense, the Bruins should absolutely pound the ball inside on every possession. Heck, Lonzo Ball should be able to park himself on the low block at will as he should see a mismatch every possession just from a size standpoint.
Kent State is actually a fairly good rebounding team, averaging 6 more RPG than its opponents, and the Golden Flashes are especially good on the offensive glass. Cleaning the defensive glass has been a bugaboo at times for the Bruins this season, but there is such a size disparity between the teams that if the Bruins simply work hard then they are the ones that should enjoy a massive advantage on the glass. The key, though, is bringing energy to the floor.
There really isn’t much Kent State can do to make this game competitive. If the game is close then it speaks more to the Bruins than anything else. Alford doesn’t have the best track record in the NCAA Tournament when a heavy favorite, at least not before he came to Westwood. He will certainly have to get his charges motivated for this game, and there’s really no reason not to be ready to play. The Bruins should be a bit angry after the manner of their exit from the Pac-12 Tournament, and seeing a Bruin squad engaged and energized from the get-g would be a good sign moving forward. If we see a squad playing with a chip on their shoulder then things actually look good for a deep tournament run.
We started this preview with a comment on match-ups and this is really one where UCLA holds all the advantages. The Bruins could play a poor game by their standards and they should still win rather handily. However they will face a much sterner test on Sunday in the second round, so it would be beneficial for the Bruins to come out and end the competitive portion of this game early so that players get some rest and, more importantly, the Bruins send a message.
Kent State 72