UCLA was supposed to be playing Kansas tonight in an early season squaring off of two highly-ranked teams playing typically bad early season defense. Unfortunately, Roy Williams' Jayhawks squad got cramped up, fainted and did such a poor job of playing typically bad early season defense that they lost 93-91 to Ball State last night, setting up a match between the Bruins and the pride of Muncie, Indiana, the Cardinals of Ball State.
The Cardinals are coached by Tim Buckley, who is the same age as Steve Lavin. Buckley was an assistant to current Houston coach Ray McCallum at Ball State for five years, then spent one year as an assistant at Marquette before returning to Ball State last year, when he led the Cardinal to an 18-12 mark overall, 11-7 in the Mid-American Conference. With three returning starters and the top 1-2 low post punch in the MAC, Ball State should be considered a strong contender for an NCAA berth this season.
That 1-2 punch consists of Theron Smith, 6-8 225 JR PF (16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Lonnie Jones, 7-0 225 SR C (9.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.5 bpg). Smith is the top player in the MAC and an honorable mention All-American candidate who would be welcome on all Pac-10 teams. He's a superior athlete with good wings skills, a solid outside shot, a nice handle, and plenty of explosive power underneath the basket. He's a potential future first-round NBA pick who will give the Bruins all they can handle inside (actually, the Bruins can handle a lot inside). Jones is a somewhat willowy shotblocker with very raw offensive skills. He makes Dan Gadzuric look smooth on the FT line, but he's a solid rebounder who definitely blocks or alters a lot of shots. Robert Owens, 6-7 195 SO PF, is a slender, athletic leaper who registered 11 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks against Kansas. If he can produce anywhere near that for the whole season, Ball State should consider applying for the Pac-10 (he averaged 2.9 ppg and 2.3 rpg as a FR). Michael Bennett, 6-5 195 FR SF, is another very athletic frontcourt player who was off to a promising start last season before being injured and redshirting. Bennett might be called upon to shadow Jason Kapono a lot. The Cardinal frontline thus combines a degree of quickness and height rarely found on the so-called "Mid D-1" level.
In the backcourt, returning leader Patrick Jackson, 5-10 160 SR PG (13.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.5 spg) is joined by two newcomers, Matt McCollom, 6-2 195 FR PG/SG, and Chris Williams, 6-3 180 JR SG. Jackson is cat-quick, a harassing man defender and a deadly outside shooter (42.8% from 3). McCollom and Williams are perhaps just as deadly from 3. McCollom did not shoot well against Kansas, but he was known in his high school days as a very good shooter and a very heady player, and he will likely lead the team in assists this season. Williams, a transfer from Loyola-Chicago, where he was a 2-year starter (some people are never satisfied), came out gunning against KU and bombed in 5-10 from 3 en route to a team-high 24 points. The big gun off the bench for the Cardinal is vet Rob Robbins, 6-4 190 JR SG, another deadly shooter who made an unreal 51.8% of his 3s last season while scoring 6.6 ppg. He made 3-7 from 3 against Kansas to account for all 9 of his points. Indeed, the Cardinal made 13-30 (43.3%) overall from 3 against Kansas and that was that, as they say. So, this is a team which can really light it up from 3.
Ball State plays a Midwestern motion offense in which 4 players have the green light to shoot at any time. Jackson and McCollom are both adept at driving and dishing. With Smith and three guards often gracing the floor at all times, they will run on an opportunistic basis. Defensively, they will play every kind of halfcourt defense imaginable, anchored by Jones' long body and even longer reach, and Ball State will also utilize some fullcourt man pressure.
With Ball State having a strong 3-point attack as well as a good inside game, they present the Bruins with a much bigger challenge than Houston did last night. If Dan Gadzuric is out with an ankle sprain, UCLA theoretically won't put any foul pressure on Jones inside, but then TJ Cummings would prefer to shoot 17-footers anyway, so this could be an interesting night. Jones is unlikely to go to town against the Bruins inside even without Dan, and Matt Barnes will be ready, willing and able to take on Smith, so this game should come down to two factors: UCLA must choke off Ball State's outside shooting, and UCLA must minimize its own mistakes so that Jason Kapono and Billy Knight can shoot the ball as much as possible. UCLA's perimeter players once again have a huge size advantage over their opponents at both ends of the floor. Andre Patterson might have to play 25 or more effective minutes tonight, so he could be in for a big night. Don't be surprised if he gets 15/10. Of course, all of this is just theory. But then, that's why they play the games (besides the money).
Prediction: UCLA 78, Ball State 75.