Both teams were preseason top 10 picks who wound up taking 6th place in their respective conferences. It turns out that the Pac-10 and Big 12 might be the best conferences in the country, but 6th place is still 6th place. Of course, Steve Lavin was Pac-10 COY last season after finishing one game behind 2nd place Stanford and this year he's in the doghouse because he finished one game behind 2nd place Arizona… but I digress.
In addition to playing disappointing seasons, both teams boast young coaches who like to apply a lot of gel to their hair. After that, the similarities end.
The Tigers play an up tempo style that features a 21st century motion offense (a lot of 2-man game, one on one play and quick shots off a single pick sequence rather than a series of picks to isolate the best jump shooters). Mizzou relies very heavily on both the 3-pointer and dribble penetration from the guards and wings, and uses its overall athleticism to outrebound many opponents despite a lack of height. On defense, the Tigers usually don't play much of it, but when they do you can call it a man to man defense, although a man d usually assumes that the players will actually guard their men. The failure of Quin Snyder's team to guard their men with energy or concentration this year and a lack of depth in the post largely accounts for Missouri's inability to meet the high preseason expectations. Missouri's unexpectedly hard-nosed d and dominance of the glass accounted for its victories over Miami and Ohio State. The Tigers have unveiled a 2-3 zone in the last 4 weeks with mixed results.
Kareem Rush, 6-6 JR SG/SF (20.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.1 spg, 42.6% FGs, 41.6% 3s, 76.1% FTs), and Clarence Gilbert, 6-2 SR PG/SG (17.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.3 spg, 39.6% FGs, 38.4% 3s, 79.8% FTs), are the main guns for the Tigers. Both players are excellent shooters from deep downtown and consummate one-on-one artists who make too many mental and ballhandling errors. Actually, Rush is the far better shooter from 3 and Gilbert prefers to take the ball into the lane and pull up for the 5-10 foot J. Neither player has displayed an avid interest in defense once someone hits them with a hard screen, and Coach Snyder was often frustrated in Big 12 play since people in that conference tend to set violent picks. Both Rush and Gilbert are very quick and athletic and if they come to play at both ends Mizzou can play with anyone in the country.
Ricky Paulding, 6-5 SO SG/SF (11.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.1 spg, 50% FGs, 42.9% 3s, 74.1% FTs), is the 3rd backcourt/wing starter. He's a tremendous athlete and highlight dunk specialist whose outside shooting and ballhandling skills have vastly improved over the course of the season (his outside shooting has improved a lot more than his ballhandling skills). He might have more long-range potential than either Rush or Gilbert and is the better defender on a consistent basis. Wesley Stokes, 5-10 SO PG/SG (5.7 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.1 spg, 42.3% FGs, 30.8% 3s, 67.2% FTs), from Long Beach Poly, has started more games than Paulding this year but now comes off the bench. He's a scoring-minded lead guard whose struggled to find his place on a team with so many shooters who also insist on dominating the ball. He's also played porous defense for most of the season, but rarely turns over the rock (2.1/1 A/TO ratio).
Up front, Arthur Johnson, 6-9 SO C (12.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 1.0 spg, 53.7% FGs, 57.7% FTs), is a 280-pound beast. Despite his size, he's fairly mobile and athletic, but he's never had to run up and down the floor with someone like Dan Gadzuric, and UCLA might try to run out on Missouri while the Tigers are busy hitting the offensive glass. Johnson has developed some solid scoring moves within 2 feet of the basket, but gets most of his points off tip-ins and dishes after Gilbert, Rush or Stokes have drawn a defender in the lane. He plays excellent help d, but will often concede the shot and position to his own man to avoid foul trouble. If he lets Gadzuric set up deep inside, he and his team could be in trouble all night long.
Travon Bryant, 6-9 SO PF (6.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 59.2% FGs, 53.5% FTs), from Long Beach Jordan, starts at the 4 spot. He's a mobile, athletic player with a good midrange game who can step out and hit the 3 on occasion. He seems to have become more aggressive and physical as a rebounder with each game over the last month, a big breakthrough since he came into the program as a finesse-oriented combo forward despite his size. He's struggled to play good defense and needs to do a better job at that end of the floor, but he's played well in the Tournament so far. If Travon struggles on defense or gets in foul trouble (he commits a lot of silly fouls), Justin Gage, 6-5 JR PF (2.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), can come off the bench and provide a spark. An undersized 4 man, Gage is a superior athlete and banger who can hurt people with his 235 pounds.
Johnson and Bryant do a pretty effective job of setting the high and low picks that generate the open looks from 3 or the driving lanes favored by Missouri's top scorers. We'll see if they can do it against a zone when Big Dan is fronting the post…
Najeeb Echols, 6-7 FR PF (2.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg) and Jeffrey Ferguson, 6-10 FR C (1.7 ppg, 1.8 rpg), will likely see some minutes off the bench up front. Echols is a skilled player with a big body and good athletic ability who should challenge for a starting role at either the 3 or 4 next season. Ferguson can run and has size, but lacks refined skills and toughness. Josh Kroenke, 6-4 SO SG (1.6 ppg, 35.5% 3s) is a good spot-up shooter who might see action against the Bruin zone. His father is worth about $400 million, so young Mr. Kroenke isn't worried about making the NBA.
UCLA will presumably try to attack Missouri's defense in several key areas:
Go inside to Big Dan, and use Dan to beat Johnson down the floor on breaks. Get Johnson in foul trouble or, just as well, wear him out by the 30-minute mark.
Good spacing in either the 1-4 or motion to force the Tigers to play defense as individuals, rather than as a team (of course, this is the whole point of every offense, but spacing by itself is more important against a team with bad defensive habits). Attack off the dribble to draw fouls and create contact. In the motion, lay some bodies on Rush and Gilbert until they cry "Uncle!"
Don't settle for quick 3s, especially against the 2-3 zone. Against the man, the point guards have to dish and kick to Billy, Jason and Dijon. Jason and Matt have to get inside and post up, with Jason using his height advantage and Matt his quickness advantage over Rush and Bryant, respectively. If the Bruins play with patience, they'll choke off Missouri's ability to break. The more time Missouri plays its halfcourt offense, the more bad shots and mistakes the Tigers will make. When the Tigers zone, patience and finding the soft spot in the lane will determine UCLA's success or failure.
On defense, UCLA has no choice but to play its 1-2-2 matchup when the first team is on the floor. With Mizzou committed to the quick shot, if UCLA can keep Rush, Gilbert and Stokes out of the lane and Dan fronts the post well, they can limit the number of good looks the Tigers will get from 3. Missouri will get a lot of 3 attempts against the zone, but hopefully they will be bad 3s and even if the Tigers are hot early, like Cincinnati, the law of averages will catch up to them later. When the younger players (including Ced Bozeman) are on the floor, the Bruins can play man and press a Missouri team that, apart from Wesley Stokes, is prone to mental errors.
Of course, this all looks good on paper, just as UCLA has looked good on paper all season. Unfortunately, the games are played on hardwood, not 20-weight tissue. UCLA has minimized its own mistakes for two games, but asking the Bruins to go three straight without making a lot of unforced turnovers and jacking up bad shots is probably too much too ask. Gilbert, Paulding and Rush are too quick for UCLA to lock down consistently for 40 minutes, or even 30 minutes. These guys lack the power of Cincy's players, but they are the kind of sleek, quick athletes who always give the Bruins major headaches on defense.
Besides, Steve Lavin has it too good. Even Bill Plaschke and Diane Pucin are being nice to him. It's time for the bashing to start all over again.
Prediction: Missouri 88, UCLA 83.