This game presents the Bruins with their second biggest challenge of the season to date, only after its match-up with Memphis. Nevada is a quality team with a huge frontline and an athletic backcourt. Their undefeated record is impressive; their non-conference schedule isn't so impressive. They did win 3 straight games on the road, at UNLV, Kansas and Pacific, but none of those teams are likely NCAA Tournament participants this year and in fact have a combined record of only 10-11. So it's hard to gauge whether Nevada and its players are legit or have built their ranking and reputations against inferior competition.
The Wolf Pack does go 7-0, 6-11 and 6-7 on its frontline and the play of UCLA's post players to date suggests that this will present a big problem for the Bruins. The 6-11 guy is a 235-pound JR named Nick Fazekas (20.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.5 bpg, 56.9% FG%, 89-7% FT%), who might be an NBA Lottery pick in the next draft. Fazekas has the complete package. He can shoot 3s, has a deadly turnaround jumper in the 8-12 foot range and can bang underneath the basket. At the defensive end, he blocks shots and moves extremely well for a big man. He is the best player UCLA has faced so far and it is unclear how they will stop him. Kansas tried using two pretty good young big men, Sasha Kaun and C.J. Giles, and Fazekas scored 35 points. Both Kansas players are better than any of UCLA's post players.
Fazekas does have a tendency to drift outside and perhaps the Bruins will use the long-armed, athletic and energetic Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, physical Alfred Aboya and even agile 7-footer Ryan Hollins to tag-team Fazekas and keep him under control.
The other frontcourt starters for the Wolf Pack are 6-7 SR SF/PF Mo Charlo (14.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and 7-0 270 SR C Chad Bell (3.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg). Nevada runs a motion offense, although guard Marcelus Kemp has the green light to go one-on-one a lot, and that offense generates a lot of open looks in the lane for Fazekas and Charles. The quick, athletic Charlo really plays like a post player, much like Luc Richard, and has been very effective getting a lot of short shots or dunks in the lane either through the motion or offensive rebounds. If Cedric Bozeman guards him, Ced will face the challenge of checking a taller, quicker, more athletic and very aggressive player and try to keep him outside, where Charlo simply lacks an effective jumper more than 10 feet from the basket. Ced will have to do a great defensive job to keep Charlo from having a big game (he is capable of going off for 25 points). At the other end of the floor, Charlo is not as comfortable playing away from the basket and Ced, if he is aggressive, may be able to take advantage of that.
The massive Bell is a player with limited skills and he doesn't see the ball much, but he moves surprisingly well in transition and he is a solid defender in Nevada's good man defense. If Mike Fey was healthy, perhaps he could have put a body on Bell, screened him off the glass and grabbed some rebounds that might otherwise fall to Charles and Fazekas. But it looks like Mike isn't ready to go, so it will be up to Hollins, Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya and possibly Ryan Wright to do that job. UCLA has had very poor post play so far this year, but maybe this is the game where they can find one of their players whose energy or mobility or strength will give them a good match-up with Bell.
Nevada's front court reserves have limited skills, although DeMarshay Johnson, 6-9 SO PF (4.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg), is a superior athlete who can be a force on defense and he plays substantial minutes off the bench. When he does, Nevada's offense usually suffers, though he did score 10 points against UC-Davis. David Ellis, a slender 7-1 SO C (1.7 ppg, 1.0 ppg), will also play a few minutes to give Bell and Fazekas a breather. He, also, has been ineffective on offense. UCLA might be able to take advantage of Nevada's lack of depth up front, especially if they can get one of the Wolf Pack starters in foul trouble by attacking the basket. Then again, if UCLA's post players play poorly, as has often been the case this season so far, they might make even Johnson a dangerous scoring threat inside.
Nevada has 4 guards to throw at the Bruins. The starters are Ramon Sessions, 6-3 200 SO PG (4.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.4 apg), and the aforementioned Kemp, 6-5 210 SO SG/SF (although Kemp has come off the bench as well) (17.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 55.6%FG%, 42.9% from 3, 92% FT%). These big, athletic, physical guards really make Nevada's defense work with their intensity, size and long arms. They will get in the face of their opposites and gamble for steals. Of course, it is Nevada's huge frontline which gives Sessions and Kemp the luxury of playing that way. Kemp is a very quick, superior athlete who is allowed to ignore the motion offense and go one-on-one and he does this a lot. He's generally been effective this year, and the Bruins will have to give Arron Afflalo help with Kemp because, while Arron has the size and strength to match Kemp, he lacks the quickness or leaping ability of this dangerous player. Kemp can hit 3 and draws a lot of fouls by using his skills and athletic ability to drive into the lane.
Sessions is a weird sort of point guard. He is averaging 1.4 assists per game as opposed to 2.2 turnovers. In fact, he's not really a PG at all. Nor is he a big scorer. Nevada is loaded with big scorers, and Sessions plays his role well. On offense, he runs the motion but will often hang back to cut down on the ability of opponents to run a transition game against the Wolf Pack. On defense, he usually takes the other team's best guard and shuts him down. But Sessions has not faced two guards as good as Farmar and Afflalo, and Kemp sometimes loses concentration on d and gambles a little too much. The starting backcourt of UCLA, when at 100% health, is one of the best in the country and will certainly present Nevada with more of a challenge than they have faced so far. The Bruin offense has perhaps limited what Jordan and Arron are capable of doing; it has been focused so far primarily on producing long jumpers rather than penetration mixed with jumpers. As we saw in the Coppin State game, UCLA's guards are capable of doing a lot of things and perhaps they will be given more free reign within the offense in the future.
Kyle Shiloh, 6-3 JR G (5.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, 57.1% from 3), has started some games this year. He is a versatile guard with good size at 195 pounds and excellent all-around offensive skills. He lacks the athleticism of Sessions and Kemp and Nevada's defense starts to suffer when they go to their bench. Lyndale Burleson, 6-3 FR PG (2.8 ppg, 2.5 apg), is a promising young player who sees substantial minutes off the bench and has even started some games. He lacks Shiloh's offensive skills, but he is much quicker and the better defender. But he lacks the strength and experience of Sessions and Kemp, and as I said Nevada's defense will suffer when they sub out Sessions or Kemp. Given the inconsistency of Darren Collison and Mike Roll so far this year, we might see Jordan and Arron go for 35 minutes each to take advantage of Nevada's lack of defensive prowess in its back court depth. Darren is much quicker than Nevada's guards, although he is also a lot shorter and lacks physical strength. It's unclear if he can use his asset to overcome his weaknesses, but a solid game from Darren would be really welcome for the Bruins in this game.
Some interesting team stats for Nevada: Fazekas, Kemp and Charlo average 15.7 FT attempts per game between them and shoot a combined 87.2% from the line. So, the Bruins must minimize their fouls against this team. Nevada also shoots 48% from the field, compared to 39.5% for its opponents. That's a huge differential, and the Wolf Pack must be doing something right on defense, although again it has not been against strong competition.
UCLA is still very much a work in progress at this stage of the season (as are many teams). They have been plagued with injuries and as a result have had a hard time of putting together a string of successful practices in which all of their players can improve their understanding of the team's offensive and defensive schemes. This has surely retarded their development and we might not see a jolting rise in the Bruins' level of play for another month or so. They showed their potential in the second half against Memphis; even Mike Fey and Ryan Hollins combined for 21 points and 7 rebounds in that matc- up against a very good frontline.
We are unlikely to see much change in the Bruins' offense from recent games. Hopefully, Jordan is even better health-wise and he will add a jump shot to his strong driving ability and outstanding passing ability. If Jordan can hit some 3s in this game, the combination of Jordan, Arron and Ced could put a lot of pressure on Nevada's defense, notwithstanding the size and athleticism of Sessions and Kemp, especially if the Bruin big men can set some effective picks without committing too many offensive fouls. Arron and Ced have shot very well from 3 this year and overall UCLA is shooting 47.4% from the field as team, a percentage which could be better given the Bruins' own level of weak competition this season. As I said, Mo Charlo is really a power forward and he will probably dare Ced to shoot over him. Ced has shot well from the outside so far this season and he could have a big game.
I assume Ben Howland had a little "chat" with his team after the Coppin State game (and at halftime of that game as well) and we should see a much more intense, consistent effort on defense from the Bruins. However, the Bruins still face some of the old questions: Are their guards quick enough and athletic enough to put great defensive pressure on their opponents? How will the Bruins deal with the great talent and mobility of the 6-11 Fazekas and the athleticism of Charles? Can the Bruins get their transition game going against a team with so much size and athletic ability? When Sessions is in the game, perhaps Jordan can drop off of him and help double-team players in the lane. Perhaps Arron will do the same and dare Kemp to shoot 3s (Kemp can do that, but he much prefers to drive and has been off on his outside shot in some games). Kansas did a very good job of stopping everyone on Nevada except for Fazekas, and they aren't a lot more athletic than UCLA (I know, Rush and Wright are superior athletes), although their big men are better than their counterparts on the Bruins' squad. For all the criticism of the Bruin defense, they are holding teams to 43% from the field so far and that is a good field goal defense percentage to aspire to.
Nevada has not played a ranked team this season, so we haven't seen them under real fire before. UCLA has the Memphis game under its belt, and the second half of that game showed what the Bruins can do when Jordan Farmar is at his best and they get effective post play. But Mike Fey has been hurt all season and UCLA can't count on effective post play, and Jordan has shot well from the outside only in the second half of that Memphis game. Logic dictates that Nevada's frontline will be too much for the Bruins to handle, and Nevada's starting guards are good enough, tall enough and athletic enough that UCLA just won't have the talent advantage they need in the backcourt to make up for their probable deficiencies in the post.
My prediction: Nevada 75, UCLA 70.