It appears that this is where UCLA's magnificent run of … um, one game… comes to an end. The Bearcats are 31-3 on the season, 8-2 against NCAA Tournament participants (with victories over Marquette (twice), Charlotte (three times), Wake Forest, Mississippi State and Xavier). Cincy's three losses were all on the road, to Oklahoma State, Marquette and Louisville.
The Bearcats have four main strengths, three of them obvious: Great team defense, great rebounding, few mistakes and the best guard (and possibly player) in college basketball, Steve Logan. Cincy led Conference USA in FG% defense (37%) and finished 2nd in 3-point FG% defense (30.3%). The team also led its conference in rebounding margin (+7.1 rpg). Something most people miss: Cincy made fewer mistakes than any other team in the conference (12.5 tpg) and finished second overall in TO margin (+3.2). In other words, they don't beat themselves.
And then there's Steve Logan, 6-0 SR PG (22.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.1 apg, 45.6% FGs, 37.6% 3s, 86.9% FTs). Logan is a powerful (200), consummate one on one artist who beats people with savvy, strength and change of speed more so than amazing quickness. He's like Earl Watson amped up by two entire levels. His A/TO ratio is 2.1/1, which must put him near the top of all college PGs and is pretty remarkable considering how much opposing defenses key on him. If he has a weakness, it's a streaky outside shot.
Streaky outside shooting might be Cincy's only weakness as a team. The Bearcats average 71 ppg and shoot 46.6% from the field and 35.9% from 3 for the season. In their three losses, they managed 64.3 ppg and made only 8-46 from 3 (17.4%). Logan was 23-61 from the field for those 3 games (36.9%) and made only 3-20 from 3 (15%). Remember that…
Cincy runs a motion offense that includes a lot of clear out plays for Logan and isolation plays for almost everyone on the floor, since almost everyone on the team has some advantage over defenders, either in quickness or strength (or both). Defense is strictly man to man and in your face.
Leonard Stokes, 6-6 JR SG (12.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 47% FGs, 27.8% 3s, 71.3% FTs), and Immanuel McElroy, 6-4 SR SG (9.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 46.5% FGs, 20.8% 3s, 71.1% FTs), start in the backcourt with Logan. Whether you call Stokes and McElroy wings or guards doesn't really matter. They can guard either, and they excel at slashing and running out on the break. Both players have had weird hot streaks where they nail five 3s in a row. McElroy is a particularly hard matchup one on one because of his strength, athleticism and ballhandling ability.
Field Williams, 6-3 SO (6.4 ppg, 42.9% 3s, 84.6% FTs), is Cincy's designated zone buster off the bench and he could see a lot of action if UCLA's 1-2-2 stifles Stokes and McElroy. Taron Barker, 6-0 JR PG (2.6 ppg, 1.5 apg), is a very solid backup point who plays good d and shoots it well enough (31.1% 3s) to give Cincy Coach Bob Huggins confidence to use him for 15-20 minutes in given situations.
Up front, Donald Little, 6-10 JR C (7.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg), Jamaal Davis, 6-9 SR PF/C (7.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), and Jason Maxiell, 6-7 FR PF (8.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg), make up a post triumvirate. Little and Davis usually start, but Maxiell might be the best frontcourt player on the team. Little is a very mobile banger who might have the combination of athleticism and strength to keep up with Dan Gadzuric. The Bearcats rarely set him up to score, but he's capable of much bigger production than his season stats suggest. Davis is a less mobile banger who can nonetheless step out and hit a midrange J on occasion. Maxiell is a quick athlete who weighs in at 240 and he's a load to handle in the paint with his footwork and good post moves. The Bruin zone and Big Dan will have to work overtime to keep these guys in check.
Rodney Crawford, 6-5 SR SF/PF, is a quicker post player who sees limited action when Huggins wants a change of pace. BJ Grove, 6-11 JR C, a disappointing big man, might see some time if Little gets in foul trouble, which would not be unusual.
Unless Earl Watson comes back for one last hurrah, the Bruins don't seem capable of harassing Logan into a bad shooting game. If you can't stop a big-time scorer from scoring once he has the ball, the next best thing is to keep the ball out of his hands. So, you can expect that Billy Knight, Ced Bozeman, Rico Hines and Ryan Walcott will try to run through a series of picks in an effort to deny Logan the ball as much as possible. The success or failure of their efforts will be one of the five keys to the game.
The second key will be UCLA's overall d. With Cincy quicker or stronger or both at virtually every position, I expect the Bruins will stick in their 1-2-2 matchup, try to disrupt passes and dribble penetration into the lane and force the Bearcats to take too many lower percentage 3s. The Bruins have done this successfully against quite a few quality teams this year and they can probably do it here.
The third key will be rebounding. I don't think UCLA can compete with Cincy straight up on the glass. Cincy is just too tough and has the better, stronger athletes. Since Logan, McElroy and Stokes like to get out in transition, look for the Bruins to concede the offensive glass in order to cut of Cincy's break opportunities.
The fourth key will be the play of the FR and TJ on offense. Ryan, Dijon, Andre, Ced and TJ will no doubt scrap, and they did well against Oregon and Mississippi, but the Bearcats present a level of athleticism and physicality they've never faced before, though USC was a pretty tough team in both departments. Will the FR wilt against Cincy's pressure, or will they continue to rise to the occasion? If they struggle early, will Lavin scrap his plan to play the second team significant minutes, and how will that affect UCLA's depth and defense as the game wears on? Stay tuned…
The fifth and final key will be the ability of UCLA to score against Cincinnati's great defense. We've seen other instances (Duke last year, and Oregon at Pauley this season) where a wonderful defensive performance by the Bruins was negated by an even better defensive performance by the opposing team. Cincinnati is the best defensive team the Bruins will have faced this year (and if UCLA beats Cincy, maybe the best team UCLA will face all year). The Bruins' offense has been mediocre for 2 months. Some 1-4 and a good contribution from the bench really helped against the Rebels on Friday, but Jason Kapono and Matt Barnes continued to struggle. UCLA must find a way to score against the Bearcats. I vote to keep the 1-4, but maybe go with the motion when the second unit is in the game.
Before the Ole Miss game, I would've thought UCLA would lose to Cincinnati by 30 points in a blowout, with Cincy racking up 90. Now, I think the Bruins will lose by considerably fewer points in a low-scoring slugfest…
Prediction: Cincinnati 69, UCLA 59.