For most teams, that would be a brutal schedule, especially since the Bruins faced good opponents on Tuesday and Thursday night who made them work hard for their wins. Add in the fact that UCLA will be sans Jordan Farmar and Michael Fey due to minor injuries and the Bruins are seriously lacking in depth and will be relying on a freshman point guard for at least 25 minutes. But this seems to be the best conditioned Bruin squad in many, many years. Head Coach Ben Howland has obviously emphasized conditioning this year, despite the preseason expectations of a deep team, and it's been paying off both in the Bruins' renewed transition game and strong performances by the starters at the end of games.
This is Delaware State's first regular game of the season and I couldn't find any information on their exhibition games, so it's hard to present a rational analysis of their personnel and style of play. We know that last year they went 19-14 overall. They began the season getting rolled by a succession of high caliber NCAA squads, then used that preseason experience to their advantage by winning the weak MEAC Conference and conference tournament, thus earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament. Their non-conference performance had been so abysmal, they received a very low seed and a first round match up with Duke. They then proceeded to give Duke a solid battle, often keeping the game in single digits before falling in the end, 57-46.
On the strength of the last game, the Hornets are perhaps a little overrated coming into this game. They lost two key starters and a key reserve from last season and are counting on newcomers rather than experienced reserves to fill the gaps. But they do have a semi-secret weapon. His name is Jahsha Bluntt, and he's from our very own Fairfax High School right here in Los Angeles. The Fax seems to have developed a habit of producing underrated players and Bluntt is no exception. He is a 6-6 220 JR swingman who averaged 13.6 ppg and 4.0 rpg while hitting 40.8% of his 3s last season. This summer, there were some who swore he looked like a future NBA player and was the best player in the LA Summer League at West LA College playing with the likes of Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo. Delaware State is not a high-scoring team, but look for Bluntt to have a breakout season and emerge as a real star for the Hornets. Fortunately for UCLA, Afflalo and Ced Bozeman are their best defenders and one or both of them will get the job of keeping Bluntt in check.
The Hornets' two other returning starters are both role players. 5-9 SR Darrin Shine (6.0 ppg, 3.4 apg) is a very quick guard who will run the club without committing too many turnovers (but he hasn't faced too many teams like UCLA). He's a poor outside shooter, having hit only 24.3% of his 3s last season, and will look to score off his defense (1.6 spg last year) and penetration. Melvin Smith, a 6-1 FR PG, comes in with good marks from recruiters and could push Shine for playing time. Darren Collison will no doubt start for the Bruins and he should have the physical tools, if not the experience, to match up with Shine fairly well. Darren's performance will be a key for the Bruins in this game. No doubt, Cedric Bozeman will see substantial time at the point as well, but his defense and rebounding are badly needed up front and I don't know how long you want him matched up against a 5-9 player. Still, Ced has pretty much done it all this season so far, so I'm not betting against him at all.
Troy Roundtree, 6-5 JR SF/PF (5.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is a short, bullish player who did a lot of the dirty work for Delaware State last season. He will undoubtedly be asked to produce more this year, but his physical limitations (not really quick enough to be a superior wing and too short to be a real force inside and simply not a good shooter) may limit him to playing a role once again. His lack of offensive production should enable UCLA to make use of Mike Roll for solid minutes in this game and free Ced up to play multiple positions.
The other two starters for the Hornets are anybody's guess. Tracey Worley, 6-3 SO SG (5.5 ppg, 35.1% from 3) provided some instant offense off the bench last season (he only played 13 mpg) and he could nab one of the starting spots if Hornets' coach Greg Jackson decides to go small. Aaron Fleetwood, 6-9 JR C, is another returning bench player. He only averaged 2.4 ppg and 2.4 rpg in 13 mpg, but he did show an ability to block shots (1.1 bpg). If I had to guess, I would pencil him in as the starting C for this team.
Or the other starters could come from any one of three newcomers, slender Joe Dickens, 6-7 JR SF/PF, Frisco Sandridge, 6-6 FR PF or Marcus Johnson, 6-7 JR PF/C. Dickens played at a JC and showed a gift for rebounding despite weighing only 175 pounds. Sandridge put up good numbers in high school. Johnson is a bull at 250 pounds. He transferred from the University of the District of Columbia, where he failed to make a big impact in two seasons. But he has the most bulk of anyone on the team and surely will challenge Fleetwood for playing time under the basket.
Despite its tough season-ending performance against Duke, Delaware State does not sound like an imposing team. They shot 42.1% from the floor last year while allowing their opponents to shoot 47.1%. They averaged only 61.9 ppg as team while their opponents' averaged 61.7 ppg. It sounds like they like to control the ball and keep the score down, but again, these stats are misleading. Delaware State really had three seasons last year: An abysmal record against a very tough pre-conference schedule in which they sometimes struggled to score 50 points, a strong run through the weak MEAC Conference where they sometimes scored in the 70s (which still only brought their overall record to 16-13 at that point), and then a run through the MEAC conference tourney and that final showdown with Duke. As I noted before, despite the expected improvement from Bluntt, they lost three key players from last season and UCLA is more like the teams they faced in their pre-conference throes rather than a team from the MEAC.
I believe UCLA's stifling defense and Delaware State's overall lack of good shooters and questionable post play should combine for another strong effort for the Bruins with plenty of opportunities for transition basketball and easy baskets at the other end, even without Jordan Farmar. Notwithstanding a lack of strong post play, the Bruins are proving themselves to be a good rebounding team and that trend should continue against the smallish Hornets with their untested big men. Again, this is UCLA's 3rd game in 5 days and they are two players less deep than they were a day ago and perhaps we will see some weariness seep into the starters and slow the team down and lead them into more turnovers on offense and more mistakes on defense. But I don't think so. I look for Darren Collison to take a big step up in this game, Arron and Ced have emerged as real leaders on the floor and Luc and Ryan (especially Luc) have been doing a credible job on defense and a better job on the glass and once more UCLA faces a team with a suspect post game.
My score: UCLA 70, Delaware State 58.