But really, UC Riverside is better than they appear, and as Ben Howland said in his press conference yesterday, UCLA is not good enough to be looking past anybody.
UCR has three players that could probably do fine in the Pac-10: 6-8 senior center/power forward Vili Morton, 6-3 senior shooting guard Kevin Butler, and 6-7 sophomore wing Nate Carter.
Coming out of high school, Morton was a sleeper in his class. We at Prep West Hoops thought he was at least a lower-level Pac-10 player and was a steal for Riverside. He's proven us right, as he's gotten bigger (250 lbs.) and more skilled. Morton redshirted last year to work on his game and to get healthy. He's still bothered by a nagging foot injury that can limit him at times. But Morton is a strong, skilled, low-post presence who uses his body well on the low block. After getting back into the swing of things in his first two games this season against Washington and Loyola Marymount, Morton looked warmed up against Arizona State Saturday when he scored 19 points and had 9 boards. He was the Big West Defensive Player of the year in 01-02. Morton, though, is a true inside player who doesn't step out, so he won't present the kind of problems that Taylor Coppenrath did in getting UCLA's defense over-extended.
Riverside plays small, using the 6-7ish Carter, who is really a wing, as a combo 3-4. Carter, like Morton, was also under-rated coming out of high school, but was recognized as another steal by Riverside's head coach John Masi, who is a very good and persistent recruiter. Carter is long and fairly athletic. He's developed a nice shot, shooting 57% from the field and 3 of 4 from three in leading the team in scoring at 15.7 points a game. He's Riverside's ironman, the guy who doesn't come off the floor much. Not being a true baseline player, he can struggle a bit matching up defensively against true post players, and UCLA starting two towers, Michael Fey at 6-11 and Ryan Hollins at 7-0, will present problems for Carter. Offensively he'll try to pull out Hollins, who will probably get the assignment of guarding him, keep him away from the basket and try to take him off the dribble. Hollins playing good positional defense and containing Carter is critical for UCLA defensively.
Riverside's best athlete is Butler who, like Carter, is a bit small to play the three, but makes up for it with his athleticism. Butler was Riverside's point guard a year ago, but was always thought to be more of a wing. So far this year that hypothesis has proven out, with Butler averaging 15 points a game playing off the ball. Butler relies on his athleticism, primarily his leaping ability to score in transition and within 15 feet. He takes the most shots on the team, and is really given a green light to create, either by shooting from the outside, trying to find a midrange look or driving to the hoop. UCR's offense is efficient at setting good screens and running plays for Butler, trying to give him space to score.
The other starters consist of Brett Ost, the 6-1 junior JC transfer at point guard, and Ted Bell, the 6-3 senior guard. Ost is a pass-first kind of point guard, not looking to score much, and knows his role, which is to get the ball to the Morton-Carter-Butler triumvirate. He's actually struggled doing that some in the first three games, and has appeared over-matched by more athletic defenders. Bell, as the shooting guard, isn't much of a shooter, and is in the lineup for defensive purposes.
Masi uses his bench pretty extensively, going to sophomore 6-6 wing Matt Benson and 5-10 senior point guard Mark Peters first. Benson brings a a good outside shooting touch and another definite scoring threat to the floor. Also spelling the starters is 6-11 sophomore center Klaus Schille, who, at this point, is just a big body and in there to give out his fouls liberally; and the former Mater Dei guard who played in the same backcourt with Cedric Bozeman in high school, junior Rickey Porter.
Offensively, the Highlanders go through Morton down low in the halfcourt, but also try to get some points on breaks with Carter and Butler in transition. They're collectively a pretty good 3-point shooting team when they can get hot.
Defensively, UCR has struggled so far this year. They've allowed opponents an average of 76 points per game, and gave up 91 to Washington. Opponents are shooting a nice 52% against them. They've rebounded poorly this year, on the bad end of it by a whopping 12-rebound margin. Washington outrebounded them 44-22. They're particularly weak on the defensive boards, allowing teams to get many chances.
UCLA has a size matchup advantage at just about every position, and should exploit it to beat the Highlanders. While Hollins is still learning the ins and outs of the four position in Howland's system, just his physical presence alongside Michael Fey should create problems for the much smaller Highlanders. Watch for Masi to substitute liberally early in his frontline to try to draw Hollins and Fey into foul trouble. If Riverside can keep Fey and/or Hollins on the bench for a good portion of the game, and UCLA is forced to play John Hoffart or Josiah Johnson for longer than they'd like, Riverside has a chance. Look for UCLA to be more in sync in their second game of the season, with less first-game nerves. And watch for the Bruins to continue their offensive philosophy of the second half of the Vermont game – to look inside to its big men to score and then look for kickouts. With its size disadvantage, Riverside doesn't have much to match up against Cedric Bozeman, and Bozeman should be even more confident after a good showing against Vermont. Riverside, because of their ability to score and better level of athleticism than Vermont, will probably be able to stay in the game for a stretch, especially if Hollins/Fey are in foul trouble. Thjey stayed with Arizona State for at least halfway through the second half. But a looser, more comfortable UCLA matches up well against Riverside. With UCLA having struggled a bit offensively, and having the potential to struggle in its rebounding, Riverside, with its poor defense and rebounding, is a nice matchup.
While the Highlanders are looking at this game as potentially one that can "put them on the map," Howland will have UCLA not looking past them.
UC Riverside 66