Well, tomorrow UCLA does in fact face UC Irvine, but we want to tweak that assessment a bit.
After watching Irvine against USC last week, you'd have to say that the Anteaters are better than Chicago State while still being an average Irvine team.
But an average Irvine team is very capable, at this point, of knocking off UCLA. Very capable.
And beyond just what's a typical or average Irvine team, the one UCLA plays Saturday actually matches up pretty well against the Bruins.
UCLA's weaknesses so far this season have been its perimeter quickness on defense, and its sloppiness on offense. The Bruins have struggled to stay with opposing guards defensively, and have been careless with the ball offensively, limiting their offensive opportunities.
The Anteaters' strengths play right into UCLA's weaknesses. They love to push the ball and look for points in transition, setting the tempo at a quick pace and forcing their opponents to play sloppily.
Irvine has some good, potent perimeter players that like to play fast. It begins with lead guard Aaron Fitzgerald, a 6-2 junior who likes to score more than pass. And that's fine with Irvine, since he can score very prolifically. On Monday against USC, Fitzgerald was the high scorer for the game, totaling 24 points and 3 for 6 shooting from three. He can score quickly, loves to both shoot quickly and put the ball on the floor, and get open looks in transition. Running next to Fitzgerald is 6-4 junior wing Jeff Gloger, who also is enamored of pushing the ball and trying to find open lanes in transition. Gloger is easily the team's best passer and generally likes to push it, both in the open court and half court, while having just a decent shot. Trying to keep up with the frenetic Fitzgerald and Gloger is the other wing, 6-5 junior Ross Schraeder, who is easily one of the best three-point shooters in the Big West, averaging 41% from threes for his career. Schraeder isn't as quick-twitch as the other two but he's a very good complement, adept at stepping into the open space the other two create with their penetration.
UCLA looked lazy at transition defense against both Chicago State and Western Illinois, and now they face a backcourt that seems like it needs some ADHD medication, they like to push the ball so much. In fact, the Anteaters, against USC, didn't seem bothered too much by their 20 turnovers, attributing it to their speed-ball approach. That kind of tempo, pushing the ball at all times, forcing it much of the time and committing turnovers, is not the type of game UCLA wants to get into with a defense that seemed susceptible to transition scoring, wasn't good at staying in front of its man defensively and very prone to turnovers itself.
UCLA needs to stay with Irvine defensively, but then not get wound up into the Irvine tempo and take care of the ball offensively.
Inside is where UCLA has the definite advantage it should exploit to beat Irvine. The Anteaters start 6-8, 250-pound senior Greg Ethington at center. Ethington isn't horrible, but he's limited athletically and reliant on using his big body to push opponents around in the paint for rebounds and putbacks. UCLA's two towers, Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins, having shown good interior defensive play in their first two games, should be able to handle Ethington. UCLA should, then, try to get the ball inside to Fey and, if he's settled down and not hurrying, he should be able to score fairly easily against Ethington.
The other starter against USC was 6-6 freshman Darren Fells, who is limited athletically and raw offensively, but tried to throw his body around against USC. Fells is playing mostly because Irvine, really, doesn't have many other frontcourt players who can play at the D-1 level at this point. Their only other option is 6-10 junior Adam Metelski, a JC transfer who is a big, slow body. You can probably expect Metelski to get more time against the Bruins, trying to get someone who can body up on Fey and Hollins.
Overall, the Anteaters don't have a great deal of depth, either in terms of bodies or talent. Besides Metelski, they use 6-6, 220-pound forward Nic Campbell to give their frontcourt players a breather, but Campbell is someone UCLA's frontcourt should jump on to exploit when he's in the game. In the backcourt, Irvine brings in 6-3 junior Shamar Armstrong and 6-6 freshman Patrick Sanders, both of whom are just guys.
Irvine's engine is definitely Fitzgerald. With so little depth, Fitzgerald will play just about every available minute (38 against USC), dominate the ball and force the action. Schraeder will get his 12 or so points, and Gloger his ten. But UCLA needs to rein in Fitzgerald, in terms of scoring and tempo, if they want to dictate this game and keep Irvine out of it.
It will be interesting to see if that defensive responsibility falls strictly on the shoulders of freshman point guard Jordan Farmar. You would think the Bruins would also utilize the quickness of Brian Morrison to try to get up into Fitzgerald. It would be a matchup of two very manic players in Fitzgerald and Morrison.
Irvine, with the speed-ball philosophy, looks like they can easily stay in the game against UCLA, but sustaining that style with not more than Fitzgerald and some help from Gloger and Schraeder is tough. It initially got them in the game against USC. In fact, they were leading at halftime, but couldn't sustain it. When USC played some stronger perimeter defense and limited Irvine's perimeter scoring in the second half, Irvine looked like they ran out of gas. Playing that way offensively also empties your tank for on the defensive side, especially if your top two players are playing 38 and 34 minutes a game.
UC Irvine 70