UCLA (4-2) takes on UC-Irvine (5-3) at Pauley Pavilion this Saturday at 1 PM in one of those matchups against local teams that always give UCLA fans the "wiggins", as Buffy would say. Plus, both teams are named after animals with large, sharp claws (the Bruins and the Anteaters). I don't know if that's significant or not…
Perhaps Bruin fans have good reasons for worrying. Last year, UCLA struggled to beat UC-I, 65-60. Then again, that was last year, when UC-I went 25-3 on the season. They've lost 3 starters since then, and as they scramble to find their rhythm, they've already matched their loss total from all last season, with defeats at the hands of Illinois State, Kent State and San Diego. Of course, UC-I also managed to defeat Pepperdine, something neither UCLA nor USC could accomplish this season.
The key player for UC-I is obviously Jerry Green, 6-3 190 SR SG. Green, formerly of Pomona High (he came this close to becoming a Trojan rather than an Anteater 4 years ago) was the Big West Player of the Year last season. He entered the NBA Draft, went undrafted, paid all of his expenses to tryouts and camps, never signed with an agent, and is thus eligible to persecute the Big West all over again this year. Jerry's currently averaging 23.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.6 spg, and hitting 53.4% of his FGs, 41.9% of his 3s and 82.8% of his FTs. In other words, he's hard to guard and he can go off for 40 points on any given night. He can nail the long jumper, create his own shot or break down a defender off the dribble, and the whole Anteater motion offense is designed to get him as many looks as possible. UCLA will key their 1-2-2 matchup zone on Green; don't be surprised if you see a box and one at times…
After Green, Irvine has some talented starters who really haven't jelled or found their roles yet, as the departed PG Malachi Edmond, swingman Sean Jackson and wing Ben Jones did so smoothly last year. Mike Hood, a 6-4 190 JR PG, redshirted last year after suffering a knee injury following his transfer from the College of Southern Idaho. Despite his size, Mike is a pure point guard, well-suited to the motion offense, but he lacks the quickness to penetrate and has had trouble bringing the ball up the floor against pressure defenses and getting UC-I into their flow. He's a good spot-up shooter, but if you keep a hand in his face he can be stopped pretty easily. He's averaging 8.0 ppg, 3.8 apg and hitting 35.6% of his 3s, which is a little misleading: He's either gotten open and drilled it, or not gotten a lot of easy looks and been just awful.
Another newcomer to the starting lineup and team is Jordan Harris, 6-5 217 JR SF. Jordan is a transfer from Colgate, where he was all-Patriot League as a SO, and he might've been a Bruin if Spencer Gloger had not returned temporarily from Princeton (the Bruin coaches very seriously considered offering him a scholarship). Jordan is very athletic and pretty quick, sort of a Toby Bailey-type of player, who originally played his h.s. ball at renowned Brophy Prep in Phoenix. He can post up inside and score off of slashing drives to the basket. If he has a weakness, it's his long jumper and his FT shooting. Actually, apart from Green, the whole Irvine team has trouble at the FT line (if you subtract Jerry's numbers, UC-I is barely shooting 60% from the line as a team). Jordan is averaging 10.9 ppg and 5.6 rpg so far this season.
Adam Parada, 7-0 240 SO, continues to develop into one of the top Cs in college basketball. He's not there yet, so Irvine is only an average club under the boards, and it's crucial for them to keep Adam out of foul trouble. Another local product (Alta Loma High), Adam entered college as a 195-pound freshman. He redshirted and then became a starter midway through his freshman eligible year. This year, he's averaging 11.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.9 bpg and making 59.4% of his FGs. With those kinds of numbers, he's almost a first round NBA pick already. His range extends to 15 feet, and he has excellent back-to-the-basket moves. Obviously, the Bruin zone will be geared toward keeping the ball out his hands, and the Bruins will hope to challenge him with Dan Gadzuric at the other end of the floor.
The final starter for the Anteaters is Czech Stan Zuzak, a 6-10 230 SO PF. Zuzak is a very traditional European player, which means he's much more comfortable shooting and handling the ball 20 feet from the basket than he is at banging inside. He's the best outside shooter on the team, by far, one of the best in the country, and is presently making a rather remarkable 64.7% of his 3s. He's averaging 7.2 ppg overall, and almost all of his points come from 3s. He also collects 4.6 rpg, but isn't much of a factor on defense. He is a pretty solid ballhandler and passer, and his height and skills will put a lot of pressure on the Bruins' zone. UC-I is going to try to hit a lot of 3s against the Bruins, who will have to be on their toes all game long.
Without meaning to sound harsh, UC-I doesn't have a strong bench. Matt Okoro, 6-7 SO PF (3.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) is an athletic player with raw skills, but plenty of promise and potential for the future (he's gained about 30 pounds since high school). He will get some putbacks and defensive rebounds, but his shooting range is within 5 feet from the basket. Aras Baskauskas, 6-3 190 SO (1.9 ppg, 1.6 apg) came in as a walk-on from Santa Monica High, where he had great grades. He had a lot of interest from the Ivy League. For the Anteaters, he tries to take good care of the ball and shoots it as little as possible. J.R. Christ, 6-9 245 SR (1.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg) is a big banger who sets good picks to free up the jump shooters, so his value isn't reflected by his statistics. Dave Korfman, 7-2 275 SR C (0.9 ppg, 1.0 rpg) is huge. That's all I can say about him.
So, Irvine presents UCLA with some interesting matchup problems. If the Bruins focus their zone too much on Green, Zuzak and Hood might get too many open looks from 3 (if you're wondering how a zone might "focus" on one player too much, remember that in a matchup zone, the perimeter players are actually playing man to man). Apart from Green and Harris, UC-I doesn't really rely on dribble penetration to beat people, so a major reason for UCLA to use a zone doesn't exist here. Parada is the team's only credible inside threat (though Harris will also get inside), so you might see the Bruins' post players stepping out a lot higher than usual. With Matt Barnes, UCLA's best and most versatile post defender out with an ankle injury, TJ Cummings and Andre Patterson are going to have to get out on Zuzak all night. UC-I doesn't handle fullcourt pressure well at all and they prefer to play at a very slow pace (they still make over 17 turnovers per game), but the Bruins have decided not to apply fullcourt pressure anymore, except in select situations. Oh, what is a coach to do!? Well, that's Lavin's job. Let him figure it out.
Defensively, UC-I has mostly used man to man in the game tape I've seen. Pat Douglass and his staff are excellent coaches, so I assume they can see how much trouble UCLA had with Pepperdine's zone, so maybe UC-I will play some zone against the Bruins. Basically, Douglass will have to find something that works, because UC-I will actually be slower than the Bruins at 3 positions, another rare event for UCLA. And they will get even slower when they go to their bench. I think it will be hard for Irvine to get a lot of consistent stops against the Bruins. They lack the quickness and depth to apply a lot of pressure on the ball, and with UC-I's overall lack of foot speed, the Bruins' 1-4 will generate a lot of high percentage shots. If UC-I zones, the Bruins just need to be patient, run TJ, Dijon, Andre and maybe Jason through the paint and let them break the zone down from the inside-out, like it's supposed to be done, before turning Jason and Billy loose along the baseline. With Irvine's lack of pressure defense, I assume TJ Cummings will start in place of Matt, and this should help the Bruins place additional pressure on Parada. And look for Andre Patterson to see a lot more minutes, and he matches up well with Okoro and has the quickness to get out on Zuzak and still collapse if Zuzak gets the ball inside.
I expect UC-I to duke it out with Utah State and UCSB for the Big West title this year. But the Big West isn't the Pac-10, and the Bruins seem to be playing a heck of a lot better than they were two and a half weeks ago against Pepperdine.
Prediction: UCLA 70, UC-Irvine 55