UCLA plays Houston at 8:30 tonight (the game will be televised on ESPN2) in the opening round of the Maui Classic.
Houston finished 9-20 last year and lost talented 6-8 PF Alton Ford to the NBA after just one year, but second-year head coach Ray McCallum built up a very solid program at Ball State and is expected to do the same here. Houston has added some talented newcomers to a group of good returning starters, and will likely move towards the .500 mark this season in the Conference USA.
The main returning players are George Williams, 6-8 220 JR SF/PF, Patrick Okafor, 6-8 235 SR C, Dominic Smith, 5-10 175 SR PG, and Marcus Oliver, 6-3 200 JR SG. Williams was rated as a top 50 prospect out of high school and he's played like it in college. He averaged 14.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg last season and is a superb athlete with a strong post game and good slashing moves. He's starting to pop the outside shot and is basically a consistent jumper away from a long future in the NBA. Okafor was pretty much unheralded by scouts out of high school, but he's a very good post player who's likely to post double-doubles this year. He averaged 10.7 ppg and 8.6 rpg last year and reportedly has improved his low post offensive skills considerably over the off-season. However, his range remains limited and, surprisingly, he affords a mostly ineffective defensive front to opposing big men, possibly because he fears foul trouble, and possibly because his instincts and fundamentals are still pretty raw (shotblocking is actually one of the more refined skills in the game). Smith is perhaps the real key to Houston's season. He came in as a PG last year as a JC transfer and his scattergun, out of control style severely hampered the Cougars' efforts to reach any kind of consistency. He scored 12.6 ppg, but managed only 111 assists in 970 minutes, and he averaged only 3.8 assists per game, compared to 3.7 turnovers per game. However, Smith has done a fairly good job in Houston's first two exhibition games of distributing the ball and cutting down on his mistakes (13 assists to 3 turnovers in Houston's final exhibition game), and his emergence this year as a floor leader could really change the level of this team's performance. Smith is a streaky outside shooter (35.6% from 3 last year). Oliver is a good athlete who hustles and works hard, sort of a Rico Hines-type of player, lacking highly-developed skills. He averaged 5.9 ppg and 3.2 rpg last year, but only made 23.7% of his 3s. Oliver missed Houston's final exhibition game with a strained groin muscle, and it isn't clear if he will play against the Bruins.
Louis Truscott, 6-7 215 JR PF, is Houston's top newcomer, at least until Michigan transfer Kevin Gaines, 6-4 SO PG/SG, becomes eligible in mid-December. Truscott is a transfer from Nebraska. He's a true prototypical modern college power forward, athletic, strong and able to run the floor like a wing. He lacks wing skills, but is very tough in the paint and on the glass and gives Houston a very powerful, athletic frontline. He had 17 points and 20 rebounds in Houston's exhibition game against a team called Texas Blue Chips. Other top newcomers include Bryan Shelton, 6-3 180 FR SG and Jeremee McGuire, 6-10 JR PF. Shelton was rated a top 100 player nationally in high school. He has good size and should be a good defender with time. Offensively, he's more of a slasher than a shooter. McGuire, who played his high school ball in San Diego (Lincoln Prep), is a tremendous athlete with limited skills and strength. It might take him until January before he starts to give Houston some depth up front off the bench.
Finally, walk-on Terry Price, 6-4 SR SG, may play a key role for the Cougars this season, mainly because he's the only guy on the team who can consistently hit the broad side of a barn from more than 15 feet from the bucket (though Smith is streaky and can get hot). Price will likely start for Houston if Oliver is unable to go because of his injury. Jarrett Sidney, 6-1 JR SG, is a quick JC transfer who shot the ball well from 3 in junior college, but so far he hasn't found the mark in college and hasn't made an impact in the exhibition season.
In short, Houston has a very athletic, powerful frontline and an erratic, but a very quick and potentially very good, senior point guard. After that, Houston has serious problems: A lack of outside shooting. A lack of depth. If Smith makes poor decisions, Houston's offense will spin out of control. Ray McCallum was known for playing ball control at Ball State, but with all due respect to Ball State, Houston wants to be a big-time program in a conference with Louisville, Cincinnati and Memphis, and McCallum is a smart guy, so this team will run and play up-tempo this year as it struggles to find a perimeter attack and improve its defense. Early season exhibition games showed that Houston is a long way away from either goal. Defensively, Houston will mix and match, playing man and zone, sometimes pressing, sometimes trapping between 15-35 feet out, sometimes laying back and packing it in. Expect a lot of high-low looks on offense, plus a lot of motion with body-shaking picks designed to create slashing lanes more so than open jumpers. And expect Houston to run…
Of course, UCLA's two first exhibition games have shown that UCLA isn't a very good defensive team, either, at this stage of the season. On the other hand, UCLA has also shown that they can already cause of a lot of turnovers, and that they have the size and athleticism down low to square off against a power team like Houston. With all of UCLA's tall perimeter players, Houston's outside shooting isn't likely to improve drastically on Monday. Smith is a good player, but he isn't a great player, and if Houston's half-court offense is reduced to him penetrating and jacking it up a lot, rather than feeding Williams, Truscott and Okafor, Houston could find itself in a deep hole pretty quickly. Adding to Houston's woes: That powerful frontline isn't going to go chasing Jason Kapono, Matt Barnes, TJ Cummings and Dijon Thompson outside the key, and the Bruins' frontcourt players other than Dan Gadzuric and Andre Patterson have shown a marked tendency to bury jump shots when left open. Okafor is mechanical on defense and doesn't cover a lot of territory, and Matt Barnes and Andre Patterson especially are particularly well-suited to do damage in the paint if they can slip past guys like Williams and Truscott.
Cedric Bozeman is expected to be 100% for this game, and at 6-7 should present some unique matchup problems for the 5-10 Smith. If Oliver isn't 100%, it's unlikely that Rice and Shelton are going to be able to keep track of Billy Knight and Dijon Thompson all night long outside the arc. If the Bruins can keep Houston off of the offensive glass, force some turnovers and play under control, minimizing their own unforced mistakes, they should win this game by 20 points or more and they might hit the 100 mark in doing it. Because of the three freshmen, Lavin has been installing both the 1-4 and the press in small increments, rather than all at once, and UCLA fans should realize that the Bruin team they will be seeing out here (and have seen in the exhibition games) will look like a completely different team by January 1. Although Lavin keeps talking about how great it is to have all these veterans, he knows that the true "difference factor" for this team, what will take this team to the Final 4 rather than just the Sweet 16, are three young guns named Bozeman, Thompson and Patterson. They give the Bruins a dimension of athleticism, skills and creative ability that the team has simply lacked in prior years under Lavin, except for Baron Davis.
Prediction: UCLA 101, Houston 77.