Bruins to Fight Catamounts

UCLA faces Vermont in its season-opening game at Pauley Pavilion Saturday. The Bruins start a brand new era, with a new coach and a new outlook, Vermont, though, isn't a cupcake by any means and presents an interesting -- and dangerous -- matchup...

UCLA opens the 2003-2004 season Saturday against Vermont. It's the christening of the Ben Howland era.

It'd be great if the christening was with win.

Like with just about any first game of any season, it's difficult to foresee what's going to happen. But it's especially difficult with this game, since this UCLA team is a complete unknown quantity at this point, employing three new starters and a new head coach, coming off its worse season in 55 years.

It makes it more difficult to predict given that Vermont has been fairly unpredictable in its first two games of the season. Vermont was picked to win the America East Conference, coming off a 21-12 season, a second place conference finish and an appearance in the NCAA tournament (first round loss to Arizona, 80-51) last year. On paper it all looked very promising heading into this season, returning the America East Conference player of the year in 6-9 JR post Taylor Coppenrath, and then also having the conference player of the year from the previous season, JR PG T.J. Sorrentine, returning from an injury that made him sit out last season. The Catamounts also return two other starters, 6-4 JR small forward Germain Njila and 6-5 junior shooting guard David Hehn. So, you'd naturally think that Vermont this year would be able to take it up a notch, as did many who predicted that first place conference finish.

But the Catamounts have tripped up a bit on the beginning of that journey to taking it up a notch. They've lost their first two games of the season, to a good Nevada team, 69-49, and to a solid Iona squad, 56-53. In the Nevada loss, the Catamounts didn't really mount that much of a challenge. Against Iona Monday night they blew a 10-point lead and lost the game in the final minute.

Now, along the same theme that it's the beginning of the season and there isn't much context to judge, it could be that Vermont is every bit as good as most predicted, it's just that they went up against some better-than-expected teams in Nevada and Iona. With Nevada that's definitely the case; the Wolfpack also have beaten UNLV 74-62, and played then-#1-ranked Connecticut very tough until losing 93-79. Nevada very well could be the team to beat in the WAC this year.

So, Vermont, despite two losses, still isn't a team to take lightly. They have proven, veteran players, and now, having lost their first two games of the season, will have even more motivation to get a win and stop from going 0-3. What's worse? A team that might be a bit better and 2-0, or one slightly worse but more motivated?

The biggest challenge for UCLA will be Coppenrath. He represents, in one player in UCLA's first game, the typical player that will present UCLA with its toughest type of matchup throughout the season. Coppenwrath is a low-block bruiser, at 6-9 and 245 pounds. He's actually a bit reminiscent of a player that still gives UCLA fans shudders from a year ago, San Diego's tattooed bruiser Jason Keep. He might not be as much of a physical brute, but he presents a similar challenge to UCLA as Keep. Coppenwrath averaged 20 points a game last season. In his first two games, he scored 19 in each, and pulled down a total of 13 rebounds. The Catamounts don't have much to back up Coppenwrath, though, and have to play him the majority of the game, playing for an average of 37.5 minutes in his first two games.

It will be a good test defensively for UCLA's two big men, Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins. They really didn't face anyone of Coppenrath's caliber in their two exhibition games, and not really anyone similar to bang up against in practice. In trying to stay with Coppenwrath, fouls could be a question, but there is an advantage that Coppenwrath has to play a majority of the game for Vermont and UCLA has 10 fouls to give combined in Fey and Hollins. Watch for UCLA to also use quite a bit of defensive help on Coppenwrath in the block, keeping one of the big men in good defensive position and one of the UCLA wings or guards trying to disrupt his flow from the perimeter.

In doing so, UCLA might challenge Vermont to beat them through outside shooting. It might be a good idea, too, with Vermont not shooting the ball very well so far in its first two games. Sorrentine is a bit rusty, having shot almost 40% from three in 2001-2002 when he averaged 18 points a game, but coming out this season as cold as the Vermont winter, shooting 25% from the floor and just 2 of 12 from three. You'd hate, though, for the UCLA game to be the one where he gets his shooting touch back. The rest of the Catamounts aren't particular great shooters, with Hehn and Njila known more for defense and rebounding. If UCLA can double down on Coppenrath and keep him out of rhythm, but use its length to still put enough of a hand in the faces of Vermont's outside shooters, defensively the Bruins should be okay with the Catamounts.

Vermont's other starter is 6-7 senior PF/C Scotty Jones, who is a dirty-work kind of player in the paint. Vermont doesn't get a lot of lift from its bench, with its best backup being 6-2 junior guard Alex Jensen, who will be needed to boost their outside shooting. Jensen is the only one who's consistently hit an outside jumper in Vermont's first two games and could see more time subbing for Hehn against the Bruins.

Vermont is a very half-court oriented team, and will try to slow the pace, similar to San Diego a year ago. UCLA, with its new motion offense probably still needing to get on track, will be looking for some cheap baskets in transition. Luckily the Catamounts aren't a great rebounding team and UCLA should be able to beat them on the defensive boards, keying their transition game.

The Catamounts will be on the road again, for the third time in three games so far this season. They'll be pumped to try to win their first game, with it being especially motivating to do it in Pauley Pavilion, against Ben Howland in his first game as UCLA's coach.

However, if you're looking for a team with motivation, UCLA wants to erase the memory of the disastrous season a year ago. And you can expect that Howland has done, and will do, just about everything in his power to win the opening game of his UCLA coaching career.

And for those curious, a Catamount is a general name referring to a variety of wild cats, like a puma or a cougar.

Vermont 59

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