If the Bruins can't win this game, they're in big trouble.
The Highlanders of UC-Riverside are playing their first full-time season of college basketball, and they're 0-4 so far, with the losses all coming on the road, to Portland, Arizona State, Fresno State and Montana State. They're making 40% of their FGs, 25% of their 3s, 61% of their FTs, 18.5 turnovers per game and they're getting killed on the glass. Oh, yeah: They don't have a point guard, either. Or a center. Nonetheless, D-2 legend John Masi has been getting enough defense out of his squad to keep his team fairly close (average loss margin is 11 ppg, inflated by the 17-point defeat to nationally-ranked Fresno State). Hopefully, they're getting good guarantees to be playing all of these teams on the road…
UC-R does have depth and versatility, and one very tough inside player in 6-8 SO PF Villi Morton, who's averaging 12 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.0 bpg. Morton is a legit Pac-10 level player, and UCLA must not only contain him, but put foul pressure on him to take his shotblocking skills out of the picture as much as possible. A veritable tag-team surrounds Morton. 6-6 JR SF Mark Miller has led the Highlanders in scoring the last two years, but hasn't played well so far (8.8 ppg). He's a player with good all-around skills, shooting, passing and ballhandling, but he doesn't really do anything great. Lloyd Cook, 6-6 SR SF/PF, is an excellent athlete with raw skills (6.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg). JC transfer John Galbreath, 6-6 JR SF/PF (7.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) came in with a reputation as an inside-out scorer, but has scored mainly inside so far this year. Aaron Hands, 6-7 SR PF (4.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a banger who scores mainly off the offensive glass. Mike Zepeda, 6-10 SO C (1.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg), is the closest thing to a true C on the team, but only plays 7 mpg. Apart from Miller, this team lacks creative scorers up front, and should be defensible, even by the Bruins.
The backcourt picture hasn't developed as well as Coach Masi planned so far. The team has some promising young players, but they haven't shown much improvement from last season. Kevin Butler, 6-3 SO PG (5.0 ppg, 2.8 apg) plays the point by default, because no one else can. He's tall, and a good defender, and he showed flashes of potential in high school at fabled St. Joseph-Notre Dame in Alameda, so he might still develop into a solid PG down the road. Ted Bell, 6-3 SO SG (5.0 ppg), is a very quick, athletic player who's just very inconsistent in his shooting and all-around play. He sometimes seems to do things too quickly, and he makes a lot of mistakes at both ends, but then sometimes he plays great d and makes some great things happen on offense. Ted Bell taketh, and he giveth away. As a result, two other vets and a transfer have all gotten starting nods this year. Jason Perkins, 6-4 SR SG/SF (7.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg) can swing up front and hit the outside shot, and UC-Riverside will frequently go with a 3-guard lineup. Zadkiel Elder, 6-2 JR SG, has a great name and can shoot the ball decently. Jake Wessel, 6-4 JR SG, is a JC transfer with a solid outside shooting touch. Ricky Porter, 6-2 FR PG/SG (3.5 ppg), out of Mater Dei, handles the backup PG duties, but he's more of a 2 guard himself.
UC-R will employ a motion offense and switching defenses, a lot of zone, and might press some fullcourt. John Masi once played semi-professional basketball, on one of those teams that used to play the Harlem Globetrotters. He might get a strange sense of déjà vu if both UCLA and UC-R are going to turn it over 40 times between them. Even without Ced Bozeman, and even with Dan Gadzuric and Matt Barnes still not at 100%, the Bruins ought to be able to beat the Highlanders by more than 10 points. Morton is a terrific young inside player, but TJ Cummings and Andre Patterson should wreak enough havoc with their quickness and versatility to get Morton in foul trouble. The Bruin wings, Kapono, Thompson and Knight, are just too tall and talented for UC-R to match up with them effectively over 40 minutes and keep them in check. Riverside is deep, but they can't press effectively for long stretches, and even if the Bruins field only 8 players, they likely won't get tired. With Riverside having especial trouble hitting the outside shot consistently, this would seem to be a great opportunity to try out an extended zone, especially if the Bruins are going to be playing shorthanded.
Although the coaches have been very cagey, I expect Rico Hines and TJ Cummings to step into the starting lineup tonight, with Dan Gadzuric taking a temporary seat on the bench. Rico will start, but Dijon Thompson will see the bulk of the minutes at the PG spot. I also expect Ryan Walcott to see his most extended action of the season. And I expect we will see a lot more zone defense from UCLA not only against the Highlanders, but for the rest of the season…
Prediction: UCLA 75, UC-Riverside 63.