Let's digress a little and discuss the strategies of college basketball coaches for both making and preparing their teams for the NCAA Tournament. Some coaches schedule a series of games against tough, ranked competition, figuring that such games will prepare their squads for the more competitive play of conference and then the heights of the NCAA Tournament, where you often have to face really good teams in the very first round, let alone after that. Other coaches take another tack: They schedule a series of preseason games against average or bad teams, figuring to work out the kinks on their own squads at their leisure as they rack up a series of wins which they hope will look good to the Selection Committee even if their RPI isn't that strong.
Apparently, Ben Howland has chosen the second path this season. Apart from the game against Memphis, UCLA plays only one more ranked team in the preseason, Nevada, which might be ranked because of last year's success and not this year's talent. And, while teams like Drexel (maybe), Temple and Michigan are good clubs (Michigan actually has a veteran team with good big men and they'll be playing in Ann Arbor, so don't look for UCLA to win that game), they're all going to struggle to make the NCAA Tournament this year. And UCLA also has some pretty mediocre teams on their schedule.
Take Albany (1-3). So far, Florida, San Diego State and a school called Sacred Heart have all taken Albany already. San Diego State beat them 80-53 and the Aztecs aren't as good as the Bruins, but Albany had just flown to San Diego the morning of the game and could have been fatigued. Albany is probably not as bad as all that. They return all 5 starters from a team which won 16 games last season and they are favored to win the American East Conference this year. But let's speak plainly: Despite their obvious weaknesses, the Bruins should beat Albany and they should do it easily.
The strength of the Great Danes lies in their backcourt, but UCLA won't be facing the imposing physical specimens they've faced in recent games. Jamar Wilson, 6-1 185 JR PG/SG, is Albany's star. He's averaging 17.5 ppg and 5.0 apg, but he's turning the ball over almost 6 times a game. He can hit the 3 or take it to the hole with equal facility. Despite his size and speed, the Bruins should put their best defender, Arron Afflalo, on him. Arron should use his listed 6-5 height to play a foot off Wilson to prevent him from beating him off the dribble, but still staying close enough to bother his outside shot.
Lucius Jordan, 6-2 207 SR PG, was a top gun for Albany last year, scoring nearly 15 ppg, but he's been struggling this year. I assume he's either recovering from an injury or battling an injury, but I can't find any information on that. When healthy, he's a power guard who uses his strength to get to the basket. Right now, he's barely scoring over 4 ppg and is obviously a shadow of his former self. Assuming he's still struggling on Tuesday night, the Bruins should let Jordan Farmar take a whack at him. Jordan is 6-2, has decent strength and very quick hands, and he could do a good job on a player with limited options for putting points on the board.
For a big change of pace, the Great Danes will bring 5-9 SO SG Jon Iati off the bench. The super-quick Iati doesn't come in to make plays for his teammates, he comes in to shoot the ball and shoot it often (13.3 ppg, 47.8% from 3). If Albany sets some nice picks in the lane, the Bruins might have a hard time finding this guy and preventing some high percentage shots from the wing. The Bruins will just have to work very hard to keep track of him; Darren Collison might be able to keep track of him all by himself, but that's asking a lot of the inconsistent freshman who's still struggling to adjust to the big time college game.
Up front, Albany has a man named Kirsten. I guess that's okay, he comes from Germany and his parents probably didn't know or care that Kirsten is a girl's name in this country. His full name is Kirsten Zoellner, and none of the Bruin post players should call him a girl to his face, because he's 7-1 and weighs 280 pounds (5.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg). Not surprisingly, he's slow and doesn't have much in the way of post offense and doesn't react quickly to the ball coming off the basket. He's a factor on defense, though, blocking 2.0 shots per game, and it will be interesting to see if Ryan Hollins, Mike Fey and Lorenzo Mata can score against him. Defensively, they just need to get between him and the basket and box the hell out. I realize that's a tall order for the Bruin big men.
The "star" frontcourt player for Albany is 6-8 240 SO PF Brent Wilson (12.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 43.5% from 3). He could give the Bruins some trouble. He can hit the outside shot (42.1% from 3) or post up strong inside. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute will again face a challenge on defense. He simply lacks the size and strength to keep Wilson out of the lane, and his inexperience may show in Wilson getting some wide open looks on the perimeter. Cedric Bozeman has more experience than Luc, but even less strength and physicality, so if Wilson hurts the Bruins too much inside we might see them go with two post players at times (meaning Lorenzo Mata is going to play power forward). Lorenzo is a bad one-on-one defender and he might not be much help in this case. But Luc can use his quickness to compete with Wilson on the boards and beat him down the floor and help UCLA's transition game. Wilson is a good player and a strong player, but he's no Shawne Williams. He likes the outside shot and sometimes takes himself out of being a strong post presence underneath. Hopefully, the Bruin defense can encourage that tendency.
The other starting frontcourt player for the Great Danes is Levi Levine, 6-6 220 SR SF/PF (7.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), a veteran player who will knock down a jumper or muscle up underneath. He passes the ball well and makes few mistakes. Ced will try to use his own experience and wiles to keep Levine off-balance and keep the ball out of his hands. Because Levine is not a focal point for the Great Danes' offense, Ced may leave his man at times to help his teammates on players like Wilson and Wilson. I would like to see a lot of double-teaming and trapping in this game from the Bruins. But the coaches don't listen to me.
Albany has a thin bench after Iati. Jason Siggers, 6-4 190 JR (3.5 ppg), is a tall guard who doesn't shoot the ball well, but he plays good defense and can take the ball to the rack. Keil Graham, 6-9 245 JR C, and Jimmie Covington, 6-7 240 FR PF/C, are a couple of guys who have given the Great Danes some unproductive minutes off the bench so far. Perhaps one or both of them will be more productive against UCLA's doughnut hole in the middle.
The good news for the Bruins is that Albany has made a lot of mistakes so far this year. They're averaging over 18 turnovers per game. Wilson and Jordan like to go one on one a lot and will cough up the ball. Iati isn't a careful ball handler and Levine is the only frontcourt player with solid ball handling and passing skills (Wilson can shoot and post up, but he isn't a strong ball handler). So, while Albany has some quickness in the backcourt in Wilson and Iati, they shoot a lot of long shots, turn the ball over going one on one a lot and a strong defense should produce turnovers and the Bruins' seldom-seen transition game might kick into gear. Apart from those guards, UCLA is quicker than Albany at every position and that should also help the transition game. Perhaps we'll actually see some of those easy baskets the coaches have been telling us about all year.
Even if the Bruins are forced into a half court game, they should find it easier to score against Albany than they did against teams like Temple or Drexel. Albany's guards aren't very tall, and Jordan (14.0 ppg, 7.0 apg) and Arron (17.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg) should be able to shoot over them and take them to the basket. I'd love to see the Bruin big men (or even their guards) set some picks near the free throw line and set Arron and Ced (12.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) up for some post up moves under the basket (I realize that isn't in the Bruins' play book, but it's about time it was). It will also be very nice when Jordan is 100% and gets his groove back; Arron, Ced and Mike Roll (4.6 ppg) can actually kick the ball back to him and the Bruins might start seeing 18-20 ppg from that position. Jordan is shooting 37.3% overall and 23.8% from 3 and I refuse to believe that he's playing at full health. It's a tribute to his game that he's averaging 7 assists per game with a 2-1 A/TO ratio going up against a lot of quick guards in slow down games not calculated to generate points (and thus assists).
Arron is hitting 44.1% from 3 and Mike Roll is making 53.8% of his treys, so at least the Bruins have two outside shooters. Unfortunately, neither player is very quick or can shoot off the dribble, so they're both highly dependent on the team setting some very good picks for them. But both players will be taller than the guys guarding them and they should get their shots. If they do, Albany will lose track of Jordan and Ced and those two could score well against the defense when it shifts. I'm getting tired of repeating myself, but Ced has to get more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. Maybe Jordan will be in top form real soon. Maybe not. Until Jordan is back a high level of effectiveness, the Bruins need more options on the floor and Ced is the only candidate. I love Luc's physical play at both ends of the floor (he's averaging 7.0 ppg and 7.8 rpg), but he isn't a scorer and he shouldn't be expected to score at this stage of his development. Ced has to pick up the slack. Given the Great Danes' lack of size in the backcourt and lack of speed and depth in the front court, this would be a good game for Ced to score 15 points and make of himself a real weapon.
Once again, the Bruins' post play in a half court game is most likely going to be a source of constant frustration for UCLA's coaches, players and fans, although it's notable that the three Bruin centers are averaging 13.8 ppg and 10.7 rpg and that's more production than the majority of NCAA teams are getting from their center position. Zoellner presents a legitimate defensive presence inside, Wilson is wide and strong and Levine is a good, physical defender. On offense, the Bruin big men are in there mainly to set screens. Sometimes they remember to roll to the basket after setting a screen and Jordan or Arron or Darren will sometimes even hit them with a pass (they did that a lot in the Memphis game for some reason, but one game out of five isn't a great track record) or they'll get an offensive rebound. Assuming they actually catch the ball, Ryan Hollins, Mike Fey and Lorenzo Mata have all shown they can score inside when they move their feet and keep their hands up. Only Mike seems to have a back to the basket post move; his shoulder may still be hurting him and he still hasn't had much practice time this year, so perhaps the coaches just haven't had time to put in a play for him. They need to do that one of these days. Mike had some effective scoring games last year, he's had a 13-point effort this year and as a senior there's no reason why, if healthy, he can't score 10 points per game consistently against the level of competition the Bruins will be facing. Luc, Ced and Arron will have to continue to get the rebounds, but UCLA isn't the only team facing a similar situation.
So, once again the Bruins are facing a team with decent guards combined with post players who, apart from Wilson, don't score much (and Wilson is just as likely to be jacking up a s jump shot as posting up inside). But the Albany guards don't take care of the ball like the Drexel guards and Zoellner isn't Frank Elegar or Chaz Crawford. They just don't have that kind of agility and athleticism. So unless Wilson dominates Luc and Ced inside, UCLA ought to be able to force some turnovers and get some easy baskets, and they should find it easier to run their half-court offense as well. Defensively, they will face some quick guards, but the Bruins can make up for that with size and intensity and for this game their lack of post defense shouldn't hurt so much. Plus, the Bruins are playing on their home court, but apart from the student section the fans who half-fill Pauley Pavilion these days and make it perhaps the worst homecourt advantage in the country rarely make much noise unless the Bruins are up by 20.
In this game, even the Alumni should make some noise.
Predicted score: UCLA 82, Albany 58