#20 UCLA (3-2) takes on #16 Alabama (6-1) in the John Wooden Classic at the Pond this Saturday at 4 P.M.
This game not only features two nationally-ranked teams, but two teams coached by former Jim Harrick assistants. So much for the dramatic interest…
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried has averaged 18 wins per season in his first three years in Tuscaloosa, including 21 wins last year, and his team returns 4 starters, but the key player for Alabama is a freshman point guard named Maurice "Mo" Williams, 6-1 185. Williams might be the best pure point guard entering college this season, and he's averaging 10.4 ppg and 5.6 apg to prove it. With Williams at the QB spot, Alabama looks like a well-organized team, a distinct change from prior years. The Tide seem to utilize some motion along with a lot of old-fashioned Harrick/Cunningham/Wooden high post offense, but ultimately everything seems to revolve around Williams either nailing people with pinpoint precision passes or breaking down entire defenses single-handedly.
Or else Alabama just gives Rod Grizzard, 6-8 205 JR SG/SF, the ball and Rod does his thing. What Rod's thing is exactly is the question. An extremely athletic, versatile player who can nail 3s (35.5%) or drive and soar above the crowd for eye-popping dunks, Grizzard makes for a matchup headache for opposing teams, but will sometimes give his own coach a headache with his improvisational moves. He's averaging 16.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 spg and 1.6 bpg, and he has the ability to be a first round NBA pick in the future.
When Alabama's offense is running on course, you will see Erwin Dudley, 6-8 240 JR PF (12.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Kenny Walker, 6-9 220 JR C (9.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg) coming up high to set picks for Grizzard, Williams and Terrance Meade, 6-2 190 JR SG (12.0 ppg, 31.6% from 3). Dudley is a deceptively skilled player. With his big bruiser's body, he's one of the top rebounders in the SEC. However, he can step outside, set the screen and then nail the wide-open 17-footer if left alone. Bama likes to use Meade, Grizzard and Williams to (UCLA) shuffle screen off Dudley and Walker up at the FT line, then have Walker roll to the basket first. If Dudley is left alone 16 feet out, he'll get the pass and nail it. If Walker gets the ball inside or someone on Alabama turns the corner, Dudley barrels to the hoop and becomes a monster on the offensive glass, as you can't really box out a moving target. When the Alabama offense is working, it really works.
The Alabama bench boasts some good outside shooters in Antoine Pettway, 6-0 165 SO PG/SG (6.3 ppg, 41.2% from 3), Earnest Shelton, 6-3 190 FR SG (5.1 ppg, 44% from 3) and Travis Stinnett, 6-0 JR PG/SG (3.2 ppg). Pettway and Shelton can penetrate as well as shoot, and together with Stinnett they do a good job of taking care of the ball and not making mistakes (Alabama barely averages 12 turnovers per game as a team). Demetrius Smith, 6-3 215 SO SF (3.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg) is a good athlete playing out of position and Reggie Rambo, 6-7 220 SO PF (4.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) has a great name and a bruiser's mentality. If Pettway or Shelton are having an off-night, Alabama becomes a team with little consistent outside shooting, but this team has a lot of quick guys who hustle and play d and they will keep Alabama in games even if the offense goes south for long stretches.
Defensively, the Tide usually play a straight up man-to-man, and they have the quickness to both double-team down low and still rush back out at the jump shooters. They can press at times. They sometimes converge on the middle and let the outside shooters alone if they think they can get away from it, since it's essential that Grizzard, Dudley and Walker all stay out of foul trouble. Williams has had some foul trouble early, as you'd expect from a freshman. The Tide are a pretty good team overall. Not a great team, but a pretty good team, who can look ordinary if Williams gets in foul trouble or if they have trouble getting the ball inside on offense. They've beaten a pretty good Memphis team, lost to a great Missouri team, and struggled against some teams who would lose to Pepperdine by 20. Apart from Memphis and Missouri, Alabama has played a very weak schedule, one thing that last year helped keep them out of the NCAA Tournament.
I imagine UCLA will zone Alabama and let Grizzard, Meade, Williams, Pettway and Shelton shoot a lot of 3s until the Tide players prove they can make them. The Bruins can't match up with Williams, Meade or Grizzard on an individual quickness level, so I don't expect we'll see much man defense unless one or more of those players get in foul trouble. If the Bruins can generate some early offense inside from among Gadzuric, Barnes, Cummings and Patterson, Alabama's defense will contract rapidly and Kapono and Knight should get some good looks. The Alabama perimeter players are quick and short, UCLA's slow and tall. Based on UCLA's performance to date, I wouldn't be surprised to see Alabama try to press the Bruins and I wouldn't be surprised to see Alabama try some zone itself. The UCLA zone offense against Pepperdine was sporadic, at least in the first half; if it's improved, Alabama will change its mind about zoning really, really fast. UCLA will undoubtedly press Alabama and see if they can't hurry the always in a hurry Grizzard (and Meade) into firing up some quick, bad shots.
This should be a good test for both ball clubs. Both have definite weaknesses and definite strengths, and they are both looking for a badly-needed win against a ranked opponent to boost their RPIs and give them some momentum heading into conference play. After UCLA's play against Pepperdine and UC-Riverside, it would seem foolhardy to predict that UCLA will beat a nationally-ranked team. However, that's just the sort of thing we've all come to expect of the Bruins over the last few years.
Prediction: UCLA 68, Alabama 67