The Dance Begins: Mississippi Preview

With an eight seed, UCLA jumps right into the fire in the first round of the NCAA. Will the Bruins put it together and beat a pretty tough Mississippi team like they should?

UCLA (19-11) takes on Mississippi (20-10) at 7 PM (PST) this coming Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. This game doesn't offer much in the drama department, except that both teams failed to meet preseason expectations and finished poorly. UCLA's Steve Lavin was last year's Pac-10 Coach of the Year. Mississippi's Rod Barnes was last year's National Coach of the Year, which sounds pretty impressive. Unfortunately, neither coach will win any prizes for what they've done lately.

A win for either team doesn't offer redemption to the coaches or the players, it just offers them a chance to get wiped off the floor by Steve Logan and Cincinnati on Sunday. If you don't know who Steve Logan is, he's the best guard in college basketball. And that includes Duke's Jason Williams…

In style and substance, the Rebels resemble Arizona State more so than any other Pac-10 team (Rob Evans used to coach here and Barnes was his assistant). They use a 3-2 and 4-1 motion offense with an emphasis on high picks to free up 3-point shooters and dribble penetration from the guards and wings. They run on an opportunistic basis, but the lack of a sure-handed point guard leads to mistakes if they play too fast, so Coach Barnes likes his team to run a lot of clock if they don't have a clear chance for an easy basket by pushing the pace. They have excellent shot selection. They rely on the 3-point shot very heavily and led the SEC in 3-point FG percentage. They have almost no post presence.

On defense, they will play in your face man to man defense, but the lack of strong post defenders makes it hard for these guys to keep good low post scorers from having a big day inside. The Rebels try to use their quick guards and wings to both take away the 3-point shot and swarm the ball in the paint. This is a good strategy in theory, but if they tire or just aren't able to move fast enough they can break down defensively very quickly. Like ASU, they're small but quick, athletic and scrappy, so they often keep pace with taller teams under the boards. Ole Miss will use a zone when necessary, usually a 1-2-2 matchup, but they played straight-up man for about 80% of their games. Media sources are calling them a great defensive because they only allow 64 ppg, but in reality they are an average defensive team that keeps the score down by milking the shot clock and hopefully forcing their opponents to do the same.

The Rebels beat Alabama by 28 points, Florida by 17 and Mississippi State by 7, all within the sweet confines of Oxford, Mississippi. They beat Memphis on the road by 4. Other than that, Mississippi's non-conference schedule and performance basically sucked. There's no other way to describe it accurately.

Justin Reed, 6-8 SO SF/PF (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 47.8% FGs, 78.4% FTs), is the closest thing Ole Miss has to a star and an inside presence, although Justin plays as much like a wing as a power player. He was a major high school star recruited by all of the SEC and ACC powers, and he's coming along quite nicely. He's strong (225 at least), athletic and agile. He has a very good handle and his best game is midrange, between 8-17 feet. He can and will shoot 3s, but that's not his strong suit. He's very good on the offensive glass and will post up once in a while. He's foul averse and should be the focus of attack for any team trying to beat the Rebels. He will likely head to the NBA after next season.

Jason Harrison, 5-5 SR PG (10 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.4/1 A/TO ratio, 86% FTs, 37% 3s), David Sanders, 6-3 JR SG (12.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.7 apg, 55.8% FGs, 70.9% FTs, 53.2% 3s), and Aaron Harper, 6-7 SO SF (11.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 40% 3s), are the guys who really do damage when Ole Miss is at its best. They can all nail the 3, then turn around and pick your pocket at the other end. No, that's not a misprint, Harrison is only 5-5. As such, he's one of the most entertaining players in all of college bb and he makes Ole Miss worth rooting for even if you're a Bruin fan. He scores his points on a variety of acrobatic shots, NBA-range 3s and impossible floaters in the lane over guys a foot taller than him. On the other hand, he makes a lot of poor ballhandling and passing decisions. He's really a 5-5 shooting guard. Sanders is the best athlete on the team and he's had an amazing year as a shooter, doubling his 3-point percentage from last year. He's a good ballhandler and passer who might be a better PG than Harrison. He usually guards the other team's best player, regardless of position except for a C. Harper is a slender leaper with great guard skills who might be better than Reed eventually. He has a great first step to go with a beautiful stroke and is a legit combo guard prospect for the next level.

Derrick Allen, 6-8 JR C (9.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), is the only guy resembling a big man on this team at about 230 pounds. He sets great picks, works his butt off and alters as many rebounds as he grabs. He has no chance of guarding Dan Gadzuric one on one, but then Dan will get double and triple teamed all night whenever he sees the ball. Allen scores mainly off tip-ins and the occasional drop-step and short jump-hook.

Emmanuel Wade, 6-3 JR SG/SF (7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 79.4% FTs, 35.1% 3s), the 6th man, is another quick athlete who can play guard or wing. He can shoot it and plays very good defense. Barnes will also use Justin Johnson, 6-0 FR PG, Kendrick Fox, 6-7 FR SG/SF and Richard Kirklin, 6-9 JR SF/PF, to play spot minutes. Johnson is a nice FR PG who should eventually start for this team. Fox is quick, athletic and shows signs of good wing skills. Kirklin is tall, but more of a finesse player than a power player.

The Bruins don't appear to have what it takes to beat Ole Miss. UCLA simply lacks the perimeter quickness to pressure the Rebels' shooters or force turnovers. Like UCLA, Ole Miss makes quite a few unforced turnovers against just about everyone, a real weakness for them that the Bruins unfortunately can't exploit. UCLA's zone is ill suited to taking away the Rebels' strengths, 3-point shooting and dribble penetration by a set of very quick guards and wings. The Bruin 1-2-2 matchup has limited the ability of some teams to penetrate (Alabama, USC, Arizona), but has been very porous at other times, especially when the other team has a tall wing who can drive. And it always concedes too many 3s. Since Ole Miss lives off 3s, you need to play them straight up with quick man to man if you want to beat them. The Bruins can't do that, so they won't win.

Just for the sake of the analysis, UCLA does have Dan Gadzuric, and he should present quite a challenge to the Rebels' defense. Big Dan averaged 14 ppg and 9.3 rpg in Pac-10 play. If I was Rod Barnes, I'd play Dan straight up and see if he could beat me, but old habits die hard and Ole Miss will undoubtedly try to double and triple team Dan down low. That could mean Dan will turn the ball over like crazy and get limited touches, or it could mean that Jason Kapono, Billy Knight and Matt Barnes will get a lot of open 3s and even be able to take their men off the dribble, since everyone on the Rebels winds up guarding two men at a time with all of their switching and swarming.

I'd like to be optimistic, but reality is knocking on the Bruins' door and refuses to go away. The 4-1 motion offense is even less effective than the 1-4, and UCLA's defense is just plain mediocre. The team that beat Alabama and Kansas with an infuriating but highly controlled offense has become an unfocused, undisciplined team with little semblance of confidence or fire. All of the numbers for Jason, Billy and Matt have gone south since the motion was installed and it's not surprising, since none of them seems suited to that offense, at least under the circumstances of an offense being installed so far into the season. Dan is scoring more, but the team is playing worse.

If anything is going to change for UCLA, it will have to come from Lavin trusting his FR. Ryan Walcott is a real PG with real quickness who led the team in 3-point FG percentage in conference (50%). He also plays with confidence, something that isn't true of any of the veterans, and has shown leadership abilities. Dijon Thompson has quietly become the team's 2nd best FT shooter at 82.4% and has averaged 7.5 ppg in just 12 mpg over the last 4 games. Andre Patterson continues to play productively and with high energy. Ced Bozeman's last 2 games have been terrible. Of course, up until the last two games he had the best A/TO ratio of any FR in UCLA history. His 31.8% from 3 is also better than Tyus, Baron and Earl managed as FR.

But Lavin doesn't trust his FR. It would be nice to see a starting lineup of Walcott, Bozeman, Thompson, Barnes and Gadzuric. But it will never happen. Lavin appears to have mailed in the season. Maybe that's why they cut him off on CBS the other day: He finally had nothing of interest to say to anyone, including himself…

The Bruins' year ended on a real down note, 8-9 over the last 17 games. Of course, 7 of the 9 losses were to NCAA teams, but the pattern seems clear: The Bruins are dead. Stick a fork in them.

Prediction: Mississippi 71, UCLA 63.

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