The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court in Sacramento on Sunday night when the third-seeded Bruins face the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats in the second round of the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional (6:40 PM PDT; TBS).
The game will be a battle of contrasting styles, with UCLA relying on its offense while Head Coach Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are known for their stout defense.
Cincinnati presents a fairly unique challenge to the Bruins in that UCLA has really only faced one opponent that plays a similar style to the Bearcats. Cincinnati plays a very physical style where every possession needs to be valued because of Cincy’s ability to control tempo. The question is whether UCLA can show the toughness necessary to get through a terribly physical opponent.
The Bearcats arrived in the second round off a relatively easy fourteen-point victory over eleventh-seeded Kansas State. The Bearcats controlled the game throughout on both ends of the floor. Cincy shot over 60% while holding Kansas State to less than 40% shooting from the floor. It was a pretty typical victory for the Bearcats, one where they physically overwhelmed their opponents.
UCLA’s route to the second round was a bit bumpy in that the Bruins played an uneven game in dispatching fourteenth-seeded Kent State. The Bruins looked ready to turn the game into a rout early, but a combination of sloppy offense and poor defensive rebounding allowed Kent State to stay close for about 30 minutes. The final seventeen-point margin of victory was the result of a dominating six-minute run by the Bruin about halfway through the second half. The run was triggered by better rebounding, UCLA’s talent advantage and the fact that Kent State, which wasn’t a deep team coming in, appeared to run out of gas. The Bruins will need a more consistent effort to defeat the Bearcats.
Cincinnati will be the most physical team UCLA has faced this season and it’s not close. However, the Bruins do have a bit of experience against Cincinnati’s style because it will be very similar to UCLA’s first round opponent, Kent State. Cincy is deeper and more talented, but the Golden Flashes certainly showed the Bruins what they can expect on Sunday night.
Cincinnati is not a big team in that the Bearcats don’t trot out a couple of seven-footers. The starting frontcourt players are juniors Kyle Washington (6’9”, 230 lbs.) and Gary Clark (6’8”, 225 lbs.). Freshmen Nysier Brooks (6’11”, 240 lbs.) and Tre Scott (6’8”, 225 lbs.) provide frontcourt depth.
Washington and Clark play very similar games, with both scoring in double-digits (13.1 and 10.8 PPG respectively) and both having the ability to step outside and hit three-point jumpers. Both of them, especially Clark, are good rebounders, with Washington averaging 6.8 RPG and Clark at a team-leading 7.9 RPG. Clark is an especially good offensive rebounder. Of the two, Washington is the more consistent outside shooter. UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford will probably switch who guards each, with T.J. Leaf and Thomas Welsh starting on either. The probable return of Ike Anigbogu is an enormous boost for the Bruins as he is one player who will certainly try to match Washington and Clark’s strength and physicality on the block. Welsh was especially soft on defense against Kent State and will need to bring more intensity to the floor to match what Cincinnati will surely bring.
Brooks and Scott won’t play much, being able to simply spell the two starters more than anything else. Still, they provide the depth that Kent State didn’t have on Friday night.
The interesting thing is that Kent State’s Jimmy Hall, who is similar in size and style to both Washington and Clark, is a better offensive player than either of the Cincy forwards. UCLA struggled with Hall’s physicality on the low block, but he is better at the low-post offensive game than either Washington or Clark. He uses his body better and has a larger arsenal of moves.
The Bearcat backcourt is going to pose problems for the Bruins because of its collective size and experience. The starters are seniors Troy Caupain (6’4”, 210 lbs.) and Kevin Johnson (6’3”, 185 lbs.) and sophomore Jacob Evans (6’6”, 210 lbs.).
The defensive assignments for the Bruins are a bit of a question. Caupain is the point guard, and while not flashy, he is good. His size allows him to see over opposing defenders and get Cincy into its offense. He has 157 assists on the season against only 43 turnovers. He isn’t a great shooter by any means, averaging less than 40% from the field and under 31% from behind the arc. However, he recognizes that shooting first isn’t his role and is absolutely a pass-first point guard.
Normally Coach Alford would assign UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball to guard Caupain, but Evans’ size could see Alford moving Ball onto the sophomore. Evans is the team’s leading scorer at 13.5 PPG and is the team’s best outside shooter, averaging almost 42% from the three-point line. UCLA’s other starters at guard, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, are both smaller than Evans and he has the athletic ability to simply shoot over them.
To compound the match-up issue, both Evans and Caupain are very good rebounders for their size, with both averaging over 4 RPG.
Johnson is a solid defender and is the kind of player who does the little things to make the team successful. He provides leadership and is another steadying influence on the floor for Cronin. He is a mediocre shooter, averaging 37% from the field and barely over 30% from distance. Those facts alone mean that Bryce Alford will probably start on Johnson.
Expect Coach Alford to start Ball on Caupain and Hamilton on Evans, but if the Bearcat sophomore starts out hot from the field, expect Alford to insert Aaron Holiday into the line-up at the expense of either Bryce Alford or Hamilton, shifting Ball onto Evans and having Holiday take Caupain. Ball and Holiday both have the ability to adequately defend whomever they are guarding, but Hamilton and Bryce Alford will be at an athletic and strength disadvantage against whoever they are up against.
Cronin has really shortened his backcourt bench in the last few weeks with only freshman wing Jarron Cumberland (6’5”, 218 lbs.) getting significant minutes. He is a dangerous player because he adds instant offense off the bench for the Bearcats. He is primarily an outside threat, but he can shoot off the dribble and get into the lane. He is averaging 49% from the field and 36% from behind the arc. Look for Cronin to get Cumberland into the game if Cincy is struggling on offense, and look for him to be coupled with Evans and either Caupain or Johnson to give Cincinnati some real size on the perimeter.
Junior Quadri Moore (6’8”, 230 lbs.) and sophomore Justin Jenifer (5’10”, 175 lbs.) provide perimeter depth, with Moore’s game being more of a traditional small forward than an inside player. Still, his size will allow Cronin to create size mismatches on offense.
All of Cincinnati’s players have a toughness about them that will challenge the Bruins to bring the same kind of toughness to the floor.
Defensively, Cincinnati is going to show the same kind of in-your-face pressure that UCLA faced against Kent State. Expect Bryce Alford and Hamilton to have a hand in their respective faces at all times. They will need to be patient and not force things, but more than that, they can’t allow themselves to be frustrated. They are going to get bumped, grabbed and shoved every time they cut through the lane. They absolutely cannot allow that to bother them.
The difference between Cincy’s defense and that of Kent State, though, is that the Bearcats play more of a traditional lane denial, helpside defense on the weakside. This allows quick ball rotation to get clean looks from the perimeter and is a big reason why Cincinnati, which is a team that holds opponents to 39% shooting from the floor, allows those opponents to average a solid 35% from behind the arc. Granted, Cronin may tweak the defense so that UCLA’s shooters don’t get open looks even with the ball reversal, but that hasn’t been Cincy’s identity.
When the Bruins have the ball, they actually have some favorable match-ups, especially on the interior, but the key will be whether UCLA will be patient enough to work the ball to its forwards as the primary goal of the halfcourt offense.
UCLA’s Leaf will be the best offensive forward on the floor and someone who’s skill set Cincinnati hasn’t really faced this season. UCLA’s offense has tended to be at its best in the halfcourt when the ball has worked through Leaf. He had a solid game against Kent State, but that was partially due to Kent State lacking the size to guard him. He still has a size advantage against whoever Cincy throws at him, but it won’t be a smaller guard or wing like Kent State had.
Thomas Welsh continuing to hit mid-range jumpers will also be key. He has got to drag whoever is guarding him out of the paint in order for UCLA’s halfcourt offense to work at its best.
UCLA will have to step up on the defensive end because the Bruins should expect a lot ball screens with attempts at dribble penetration. Cincinnati’s perimeter players are very good at deciding when to go all the way to the rim and when to kick the ball out. When the kick-outs do happen, Cincinnati’s outside shooting is good enough to make the Bruins pay if they don’t close out.
The tempo is likely to be controlled by Cincinnati. That’s because they simply don’t turn the ball over much. Granted, the Bearcats haven’t played many teams with UCLA’s overall length, but that length only becomes an issue when the Bruins are working on defense and it remains to be seen if UCLA will do so.
The toughness factor can’t be overstated. It’s not just a physical toughness, either. UCLA’s mental fortitude will be asked questions of it both in patience and in areas such as rebounding and free throws.
Cincinnati doesn’t rely on its offensive rebounding like Kent State does, but the Bearcats are a good offensive rebounding team. Obviously, if UCLA had done a better job on the defensive glass against Kent State then UCLA would have won that first round game in far easier fashion.
As to free throws, and I am a bit surprised no one has really hit on this, UCLA was only 16-23 from the charity stripe on Friday. That simply cannot happen against the Bearcats. Points will be much more at a premium on Sunday night and UCLA can’t afford to leave points on the floor. For what it’s worth, Cinicnnati is a very averge team from the free throw line.
UCLA should enjoy a homecourt advantage on Sunday, but that’s only if the Bruin fans make themselves heard, unlike much of the game on Friday. Anything that will help the Bruins amp up their collective energy is only going to help in a game like this.
Lastly, in will be interesting to see how Coach Alford motivates the team coming into this game. He can be certain that Cronin has been hammering the underdog, “us against the world” mentality into his players for the past two days. Cincinnati was apparently upset that it was under-seeded by the selection committee and the Bearcats would like nothing more than to show the world that they are better than the Hollywood team that has dominated headlines for much of the season.
Honestly, this game could go either way and if Cincinnati wins, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. I could easily see the Bruins getting mentally and physically getting worn down by the Bearcats. On the flip side, while I’ve harped on the idea that each NCAA Tournament game is about how the teams match-up against each other, and I’ve never been a big believer in the transitive property comparison of teams, Cincinnati has struggled this season in games where the opponents have been offensively efficient. Again, it is up to the Bruins to be patient and work to their strengths in order to win the game.
All of Cincinnati’s losses have happened on the road this season, or at least away from its home court. Still, the two losses to SMU and the loss to Butler came against teams that can answer the toughness question.
Cincinnati would like the game in the low 60s, while the Bruins want the game at least in the 80s. This isn’t a great match-up for the Bruins, but Cincinnati has got to be concerned about some things as well. In every NCAA Tournament the eventual champion is faced with games like this, ones that will challenge their toughness and abilities. This is more of a homer prediction than anything, and I’ve admittedly struggled with how the game will play out, but in the hopes that UCLA can play to its talent level, it has to win a game like this.