Villanova Preview

UCLA travels cross country to face the Wildcats of Villanova. UCLA has a considerable advantage in this game, but it's a good road test for the Bruins...

Yes, the Bruins are playing the Wildcats again. What I don't understand is why the team has to fly all the way to Philadelphia to play Arizona when both schools have perfectly good gyms right on campus. If this doesn't prove the case that fan interest in basketball is waning in Westwood, I don't know what…

Oh, it's those other Wildcats. Well, fine, I still don't see why we have to go to Philadelphia in the middle of winter to play these guys. In fact, I don't see why Lavin booked Kentucky this late in the season anyway when the team should be focusing on the Pac-10 race. Is it any wonder that Lavin has trouble motivating his team when he can't even bother to…


Sorry, I couldn't resist.

UCLA (16-6) takes a break from the wild, wooly west to swoop down on the Villanova Wildcats (12-8) at the First Union Center in Philadelphia Saturday morning (the game is on CBS at 10 AM).

Villanova has a new head coach this season, Jay Wright, late of Hofstra. You'll remember him from last year's NCAA Tournament matchup with UCLA: He's the guy who claims that he keeps getting mistaken for Steve Lavin at coaching conventions. This game could be billed by the network as the Battle of the Hair Gel. Perhaps after staring into a virtual mirror for 2 more hours, Lavin will decide to go au naturale for the rest of the season.

Wright has quickly gotten into the swing(ing of elbows and feet) of how things work in the Big East. His team combines a rugged motion offense in the halfcourt that's designed to generate a lot of 3s, and the Wildcats will get out and run as much as possible. So, they make a lot of mistakes. Villanova has the quick guards and depth to apply extended pressure on defense and I've seen them play extended pressure. Once you beat the pressure, they don't have much defense inside. But then they're playing UCLA and you beat the Bruins with pressure, so we'll see.

The top player for Villanova is Gary Buchanan, 6-3 205 JR SG. No longer forced to stand around and watch First Round NBA Draft pick Michael Bradley put it up, Buchanan has emerged as one of the best long-range threats in the country. He's hitting 47.5% of his 3s and 90.8% of his FTs while averaging 19 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg and 1.3 spg. He's quick, strong and has the handle to create his own shots, and he will prove difficult for the Bruins to track outside.

Derrick Snowden, 6-0 160 SO PG (9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 66.7% FTs, 23.4% 3s), is a quick player whose at his best in the open court, finishing the break rather than running it. His assists mainly come from throwing it to Buchanan or inside to a post player, rather than dribble penetration. The Bruins will want to keep in front of him, just in case. Reggie Bryant, 6-2 185 SO PG/SG (9.3 ppg, 2.2 apg, 76.9% FTs, 45.3% 3s) is an athletic combo guard who can also nail the 3 (Villanova leads the Big East in 3-point percentage as a team). Wright likes to play all 3 guards at once, though Bryant comes off the bench to start games, so the Bruins will have some matchup problems, which is what their zone is for anyway.

Up front, the Wildcats are led by Ricky Wright, 6-7 215 JR PF (14.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.0 spg, 1.0 bpg, 58.8% FGs, 76.2% FTs). Wright looks a lot stronger than his listed 215 weight, but they do say that the TV makes people look heavier. He is a good athlete who plays a real power game and, along with Buchanan, should present the Bruins with a real matchup problem. He jumps quickly and has a lot of nice scoring moves down low. He will also often beat opposing post players down the floor in transition. This guy is talented and physical, and should be an All Big East player next season.

Brooks Sales, 6-10 220 SR C (9.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.6 bpg, 53.2% FGs, 72.9% FTs) doesn't look much bigger or stronger than he did in h.s. 4 years ago (when I was doing West Coast Hoops, some Rhode Island fans told me Harrick was recruiting Brooks and asked me to scout him a bit more than I normally would an east coast player). As his stats reflect, he plays with more finesse than power, but has a fairly good skills set and looks comfortable handling the ball outside and taking the 17-footer. Most likely, Dan Gadzuric will be on Wright while Matt Barnes takes on Brooks, to the extent that the Bruins matchup in the interior of their zone, which they've been doing a lot more of lately.

Andrew Sullivan, 6-7 215 JR SF/PF (6.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 60.8% FGs, 66.7% FTs), is the third starter along the frontline. He's another pretty good athlete, but his J is very inconsistent and he typically limits his shot selection to within 2 feet of the basket, although he will nail the occasional spot-up J if left open. His ability to create for himself is limited, but he sets good screens and can be tough on offensive boards. Off the bench, freshmen Marcus Austin, 6-8 215 PF (2.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Chris Charles, 7-0 220 C (2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg) have not had much of an impact so far. Wright uses them to bang and give fouls while the main guys up front rest. Austin is strong and mobile and has some potential, but his offensive post game is underdeveloped. Charles blocked 2 shots in one of the games I saw on TV, and he definitely looks to be 7 feet tall, but he's slender and also seems raw on offense.

UCLA crushed Villanova by 28 at Pauley last year, and that team had All-American C Michael Bradley on it, but that was a very different team. The Wildcats were very passive on defense and basically walked the ball up the floor, making them very susceptible to pressure, especially when Snowden and Bryant were skinny freshmen matched up against Earl Watson. Snowden and Bryant are more grown up and mature, Buchanan has emerged as a real scoring star, Wright was improved considerably and the team is breaking a lot and being much more aggressive on defense. And there's no Earl Watson or UCLA press to bother them this season.

But Villanova is still only an average Big East team, at least a year away from competing for the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins should be able to handle their pressure fairly easily, and the Wildcats' own propensity for unforced errors will even out any UCLA turnovers anyway. Apart from Wright, Villanova just isn't that strong inside and shouldn't be able to put enough pressure on Dan to take him out of the game. At the other end, Dan could give the Wildcats a lot of problems.

With the Wildcats' general lack of depth, as well as a lack of size in the backcourt, the Bruins should get a fair number of high percentage shots inside and out if they run their offense patiently. Of course, with the Bruins that's often just too much to ask. On the defensive end, UCLA's 1-2-2 matchup zone, with its tall perimeter players and Matt and Dan springing out to surprise people on switches, should give Villanova a lot of looks from 3 that aren't nearly as open as they appear. So, Villanova might think the Bruins are playing right into their hands when just the opposite is happening, as USC, Cal and other schools better than the Wildcats have later discovered to their chagrin.

UCLA always seems to play well in these late season national TV games.

Prediction: UCLA 80, Villanova 68.

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