UCLA squares off against local rival Pepperdine tonight at Pauley Pavilion. The Waves, owners of one of the better basketball traditions on the west coast over the last 25 years, had two terrific seasons under Jan van Breda Kolff, going 25-9 and 22-9. Then van Breda Kolff headed east to St. Bonaventure, and Pepperdine went out and hired another big gun, former USC and NBA star and former NBA coach Paul Westphal, who makes his debut this year as a college basketball coach. Former NBA coaches with zero previous college experience have a spotty track record when it comes to coaching in college, and Coach Westphal's maiden voyage won't be made easier by the loss of the team's top 4 starters from last season, including first round NBA Draft pick Brandon Armstrong.
But Westphal does have a good congregation of returning veterans to go with some newcomers with serious talent, plus he's got himself a terrific staff (including Gib Arnold, Frank Arnold's som, and Jim Nielsen, the former Redondo Union High coach), and this team should compete for the upper echelon of the WCC this year. The top returning players are Craig Lewis, 6-3 SR SG (9.2 ppg), a very good shooter from behind the arc (37.6% last year), Cedric Suitt (pronounced like what a lawyer does, not like what you wear), 6-11 SR C, a raw, but athletic, big man, and Boomer Brazzle, 6-5 JR SF, a strong, athletic player who can both post up inside like a power player and hit the outside jumper. He's also a very good rebounder and UCLA will have to keep him off the offensive glass, and he presents a tough matchup for Jason Kapono.
Newcomers Jimmy Miggins, 6-6 JR PF, and Terrance Johnson, 6-5 FR SG/SF, are the two most talented players on this team. Miggins, originally from Mississippi, somehow got stranded out in so cal all alone and ineligible as a h.s. SR, then went to LACC. He's a hyper-athletic player who might make Andre Patterson think he's staring into a mirror, but Jimmy's two years older and he could easily average 15/10 for the Waves this year and make the all-WCC team. He lacks refined wing skills and is still waiting for his fundamentals to catch up to his athleticism. When they do, he might be able to play in the NBA. With Brazzle and Miggins starting at forwards, Pepperdine gets a lot of offensive rebounds. Johnson is a redshirt freshman from Texas who's also an outstanding athlete who plays taller than his 6-5 height. He's a good ballhandler and slasher with nice one-on-one skills, a solid playmaker. He has pretty good form on his outside jumper, too, and only needs experience to display the whole package. He, too, has future NBA potential. A big key for Pepperdine's success this year will be Westphal's success (and patience) at working these two guys into the lineup in a controlled fashion (just letting the game come to them rather than forcing the action).
Westphal also added two transfer guards who will see a lot of minutes. Gary Colbert, 6-3 JR PG, is originally from Etiwanda High School in the Inland Empire. He stopped off at Utah on the way to Dixie CC. In high school, Gary was a tall, quick, athletic true point with an inconsistent jump shot. He's quickly grabbed the starting point guard job in Malibu and will likely lead Pepperdine in assists this season. Devin Montgomery, 6-0 JR PG/SG, is another local product who's already traveled around a lot, most recently at Moorpark City College. Devin might really be 5-10, instead of his listed 6-0. He's a quick, stocky, scoring-minded player who will fire up a lot of 3s, and he can make plays for his teammates as well. Both of these players are at least borderline High D 1 caliber guards, and again Westphal just needs to exercise patience before he sees progress. Gary and Devin could give the Bruins a lot of trouble if they are able to penetrate inside the defense consistently.
Off the bench, Pepperdine can offer Will Kimble, 6-9 SO PF, and Robert Turner, 6-9 FR PF, up front to bolster Suitt. Will, another former Inland Empire vet (Pacific High School) is a big, raw bruiser who will bang, board and foul. Turner is a slender post player with some very good moves who has a lot of potential down the road for the Waves. He might emerge as a real factor by January 1. Mike Westphal, 6-3 JR SG, adds some outside shooting off the bench, along with good decision-making and a minimum of mistakes. Yes, he plays for his dad, but that's not why he plays. He plays because he's a pretty solid player. Glen McGowan, 6-8 SO SG, led the Waves in scoring on a foreign tour over the summer (18 ppg), then tangled with Will Kimble in the midst of some sort of dispute before school started and got himself suspended for the first semester as a result. He's a pretty good prospect himself. On the court, not in the ring. As I said, Westphal should have this team competing for the upper tier of the WCC, 20 wins and a post-season tourney. Which post-season tourney is anybody's guess.
Westphal is hoping to have the Waves play the same style of ball they played under van Breda Kolff, which means up-tempo, a lot of man pressure and halfcourt traps, a lot of forced breaks, and a lot of motion to isolate people straight up. That worked great with Brandon Armstrong, Kelvin Gibbs and Derrick Anderson, all of whom presented great individual matchup problems and all of whom had terrific one-on-one skills, and all of whom were tall, quick, long-armed, veterans. This early in the season, Miggins, Johnson, Brazzle, Colbert and Montgomery are still feeling their way around, and Lewis and Suitt don't really fit the profile, so Pepperdine struggled somewhat in beating an undermanned Fullerton squad and then lost a thrilling overtime game to what eventually should be a good UC-Irvine squad (but the Anteaters have been very inconsistent so far). Right now, Pepperdine is flashing its potential, but needs to show more patience on shot selection (especially from behind the arc) and just play a lot better defense, especially once the opponent has crossed mid-court. The Waves are causing a lot of turnovers with their pressure defense, but they are giving up a lot of easy buckets as well.
Sound like anyone you know? UCLA has some of the same early-season woes as the Waves, but UCLA is shooting the ball like they're on fire. The Bruins came out of Maui with a combined 54.8% FG% and a 78.9% FT%, which latter mark might be some kind of record for a UCLA team in a 3-game span. UCLA is hitting 45.5% from 3 so far. The Bruins outrebounded three pretty good rebounding teams, and they did that with Dan Gadzuric hobbling his way to 3.7 ppg and 2.0 rpg in 13.7 mpg. Something tells me Dan will be a little more productive than that when his ankle and back are healthy. He's supposed to be healthy now, but he looked like he was in pain in warmups today. UCLA's opponents wound up shooting just over 45% from the field for the 3 games, which actually isn't that bad for November (compared to most of the other top 10 teams so far), but you want a 41% or below by January 1. The Bruins committed 15 turnovers against Houston and 21 against South Carolina, but they blistered the nets in both games, so it didn't matter. They also caused a fair number of turnovers the other way, and that was a big help, just as the Bruins' ability to cause a lot of turnovers was a big key to their improvement last season. Against Ball State, UCLA's 22 turnovers were matched up against just 3 by Ball State, who consequently managed to get 27 more shots than the Bruins (Ball State also got a large number of offensive rebounds, possibly a measure of the Gadzuric factor). Hence, a big loss. It's obvious that UCLA can only achieve a high level of success this year if they not only improve their defense generally, but especially if they cause turnovers. 3 won't cut it. 17 is more like the number they need to shoot for.
With Dan Gadzuric's health a question mark, and with Matt Barnes tweaking his ankle yesterday, look for TJ Cummings and Andre Patterson to get a lot of minutes against the Waves. With Pepperdine's pressure defense, quickness and depth, it will be interesting to see if Ryan Walcott sees some action. They say that pressing teams don't like to be pressed, but here we have two pressing teams, so maybe both teams will really hate this game as much as the fans will. Plus, it's still November. I expect another ragged game in which UCLA will probably score a bunch of points, even if they turn it over a lot, and give up a bunch of points as well. If Gadzuric is healthy and aggressive and the Bruins get the ball inside to him, Barnes, Cummings and Patterson early and often, this game could be over fast, but things hardly ever work out the way they ought to, and Pepperdine is a local team filled with local players who are all really mad because they think they should be starting for UCLA. So, this game will be close, but UCLA's defense should show some improvement after the coaches make the team watch the Ball State game over and over and over…
Prediction: UCLA 88, Pepperdine 78