11th ranked UCLA (11-3) takes on 1st ranked Kansas (13-1) at High Noon at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday (the game will be broadcast on CBS).
The Bruins might feel like Billy Clanton and the McLaughery brothers at the Gunfight at the OK Corral (according to the autopsy, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday fired off 53 shots to 12 for the "bad guys").
Kansas rides into town as the nation's top pistoleros, firing in 92.6 ppg. The Jayhawks are second in the country in FG% at 51%. Lest you think of them as mere marksmen, the Kansas Bunch is also holding opponents to 39.8% shooting from the field. They're outrebounding opponents by over 11 per game, and probably rank in the top 5 in team assists as well. In short, Sheriff Roy Williams has his posse firing on all cylinders.
(If you're wondering about all of the Western references, the Earps did make their rep in Dodge City, the Daltons and several others notable outlaws came from Kansas, and I was up late until 3 a.m. Friday morning, writing the USC report while watching "Destry Rides Again" on cable)
Williams is known for his motion offense, but Kansas in fact has reached the momentary summit of college basketball by scoring the bulk of its points off the "speed game." Watch Kansas bring the ball up the floor off an inbounds pass: They have the fastest set-up in college bb, even faster than Duke. Two quick passes and a "PG" (they start 3 of them) hurries the ball onto one side of the floor (it doesn't matter which). The PG reverses the ball to the "4" up top. The other 2 "PGs" are above the 3-point line on the weakside wing. The "5" is posting up for the entry pass.
Against a man d, the 4 will hit the 5. Basket. Or, if the defense is sagging, the 4 will hit the midrange J. Basket. Or, if the defense on the strong side of the ball shifts towards the paint, the 4 or 5 as appropriate hits that PG who initiated the offense for an open 3. Basket. Or the PG dumps it back again if the defense shifts back again. Basket. If the defense collapses from the weakside, the 5 dishes it back out to a weakside shooter for a 3. Basket. Or, if the 5 has passed it back out, to the 4 or a weakside wing, the PG who initiated the play will often rush into the lane, set a pick for the 5 to curl around, and then the 4 or the wing hits the 5 with the pass. Basket.
Most of that takes place in about 10-15 seconds, as far as I can tell from watching Kansas's games. It's only if Kansas doesn't score off this sequence that they actually start running a motion offense: PG takes up position at the top of the key. Big men set picks for little men. Little men either come around screens to spot up for the J, take the ball the hole to draw the defense or make the layup or kick it out back to the post player for a J, or else dump it in to the post player for a pick and roll. Be kind. Rewind. Repeat procedure until the patient dies. The operation is a success. Of course, a "speed game" involves, well, speed. John Wooden said, "Be quick, but don't hurry." Kansas doesn't listen. They make over 18 turnovers per game.
Defensively, Kansas runs a strict man to man, but everyone on the team is quick enough (and alert) enough to pop out into a passing lane and initiate a break off a steal. The Jayhawks don't usually try to double-team the ball in the post from the strong side of the ball. They do play very good weakside defense. So, they tend to cause a lot of turnovers (about 18.5 per game), score well in transition and get themselves extended against very quick teams. Unfortunately, UCLA isn't very quick.
Andrew Gooden, 6-10 230 JR PF (20.6 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 2.1 spg, 49.5% FGs, 71.3% FTs) leads the country in rebounding and is a sure-fire lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He's undoubtedly drawn a lot of Danny Manning comparisons, and with good reason: He's as agile, and as good a ballhandler as a wing, but he has the body and power game of a post player. He's a terrific shooter from 17 feet in, and can score underneath with a nasty jump hook that's pretty much unstoppable in college. Drew is an underrated defender, the most improved aspect of his game this season. He does like to create off the dribble, and this leads to turnovers.
Nick Collison, 6-9 250 JR C (15.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 64.1% FGs, 54.7% FTs), is not your typical KU post player. He's strong, quick, agile and coordinated. He can knock down the 17-footer with ease or score inside on a variety of back to the basket moves. He likes to take traditional post players away from the basket or create a little space between them down low and abuse them. He's an excellent weakside help defender and does a good job of muscling people out of the post. In the Big 12. If Nick faces Pac-10 officiating against UCLA, he might be wondering what planet he's on. He sometimes coughs the ball up against quick double-teams. Oh, that's right, I keep forgetting: UCLA isn't quick…
Jeff Boschee, 6-1 185 SR PG (14.0 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.5 spg, 86.7% FTs, 42.7% 3s), Kirk Hinrich, 6-3 185 JR PG (13.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.6 spg, 52.9% FGs, 75.9% FTs, 34.5% 3s), and Aaron Miles, 6-1 175 FR PG (7.0 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.1 spg, 74.3% FTs), make up a whole lotta PGs. All 3 are former McDonald's All-Americans, as are Drew and Nick. In fact, KU is the only team in the country that starts 5 former Mickey D's. Jeff is a terrific shooter who's equally good at spotting up or coming off a pick and popping it. Kirk is arguably the team's best player after Drew. He's a very good athlete and superior all-around player with no apparent weaknesses in his game, though he has had to work extra hard this year matched up against a lot of natural wings. OTOH, Kirk beats a lot of those guys up the floor, too, and he drives them nuts as they try to match up with a tall, natural PG. Aaron is extremely quick: Quick hands, quick feet, quick brain, etc. He usually doesn't shoot unless it's a layup or a drive into the lane.
Wayne Simien, 6-9 250 FR PF/C (10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, 58.9% FGs), has helped push Kansas' game to the new level since returning from early knee surgery about 4 weeks ago. He's an agile, bruising post player who again brings a certain dimension of mobility and transition ability that we aren't used to seeing from the Jayhawks. Keith Langford, 6-4 200 FR SG/SF (8.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.1 spg, 48.8% FGs, 72.5% FTs), wasn't highly recruited in h.s., which just means that ordinarily he would've gone to Ball State. Instead, Williams knew he needed some quickness and speed on the wing, so Keith wound up here, where he's turned into one of the top FR subs in the country. His forte is transition, the baseline and d. The Jayhawks don't want to see him firing up too many 20-footers.
Jeff Carey, 6-10 250 SR C (2.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg) is a solid banger with a soft touch around the hoop who plays less now that Simien is back in the fold. Bryant Nash, 6-6 205 SO PF (1.4 ppg, 0.9 rpg) is an athletic, undersized post player who finds himself in the same boat. But both players have made key contributions to the squad this season and may yet do so again.
So, how does UCLA beat these guys? Simple: They don't. At this point in the season, UCLA's best hope is to just give Kansas a good game. Apart from their season-opening loss to Ball State in the Maui Classic, Kansas has had the most trouble this year with teams that play a lot of zone and have the ability to force Kansas to play defense for long stretches of time without turning the ball over, as well as the quickness to get back on defense. UCLA kind of, sort of, fits that profile. They do play a zone defense. With their great quickness on the perimeter, they ought to easily be able to contain the KU big men while keeping a hand up… oh, darn it, I forgot again! We're not quick! UCLA's 1-4 offense does do a good job of forcing teams to defend for long stretches, especially teams like KU, who only defend about 1/3 of the floor. If the Bruins don't turn the ball over and keep the Jayhawks' transition game under control, they ought to make a good game of it.
That really sums it up. It's hard to pick out key individual matchups like they'll probably do on CBS. Dan has to stay in the game, in every sense of the words. No one else on UCLA can remotely obstruct Drew, Nick and Simien down low, and no one can draw fouls down low, either. Well, Matt can, but he's liking his J. Matt will likely have a fight on his hands scoring against the long but strong Drew, so Jason Kapono and Billy Knight are going to have to come up with big games against their much shorter counterparts. It's time for TJ to make a statement: Nick probably doesn't want to follow him around outside.
Kansas has done a great job defensively this year, but I expect that UCLA will hit them a lot harder than most of the teams they've faced. The Bruins have a lot of weapons, their 1-4 spreads the court and generates open shots and KU's tough man d will break down if it becomes too extended. So, I see this as a scoring contest, one the nation's most offensive team will ultimately win.
Prediction: Kansas 90, UCLA 80