The Michigan Wolverines have built their unblemished mark on a mediocre schedule, although they do have one quality win over a good Notre Dame squad at South Bend. Last year, Michigan was only 13-18, but that's deceptive: Like UCLA this year, the Wolverines were bit by the injury bug (and in one case, the suspension bug) and lost some key players for big stretches of the season. This year, everyone is back and healthy, although quality 6-8 JR SF/PF Brent Petway has been suspended for the first semester due to academics and I'm not sure if the first semester has ended yet at Michigan, so Petway may or may not be available for the game. If he is available, he's a terrific athlete and would add considerably to Michigan's defensive prowess and mobility up front.
Michigan presents UCLA with a much different look than Nevada. Although both teams feature a big man as their primary weapon, the two players are very different in style. Whereas Nick Fazekas was a mobile, versatile inside/out player, 6-11 245 JR C Courtney Sims (16.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 68.3% FG%) is much more of a traditional in-the-paint, down-on-the-blocks big man with a solid repertoire of post moves and good hands. The Bruins will likely have to double-team Sims down low. He's not a great passer and the Bruins could force some turnovers. When they go to single coverage, expect the Bruins to play behind Sims rather than front him, because he'd just push his defender out of the way without much possibility of any offensive fouls being called on his home floor. Ryan Wright will get the call at the start of the game to stay on Sims' butt. I think it will be hard for Wright to stay out of foul trouble on Sims and we can expect the usual tag-team effort from the Bruin post players in this game. Lorenzo Mata will be available to play in this game and will give the Bruins one more banger. It's hard to see Ryan Hollins making a big contribution against a player like Sims. Alfred Aboya's effectiveness could turn on his swelling knees.
Graham Brown, 6-9 255 SR (4.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg), starts at the 4 and his lack of offensive prowess should enable Luc Richard Mbah A Moute to give his teammates plenty of help against Sims or any penetrating guards or wings. Brown will score maybe once a game off an offensive rebound and once a game off a lay-up after the defense forgets he's on the floor. He is a very strong rebounder and presents a strong backline defensive presence for the Wolverines along with Sims. It would be very nice for the Bruins if Aboya could give them some minutes against Brown.
Chris Hunter, 6-11 225 SR C (5.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg), was the starting center two years ago until he got hurt and Sims took over inside. Hunter is more of a finesse player and often doesn't finish strongly around the basket. He also will try out a midrange game and try to hurt teams 8-12 feet the bucket. He's a decent shot blocker and Michigan remains a strong defensive post presence when Hunter is in the game. Sometimes, Michigan will play Sims and Hunter together to get a twin towers effect.
Michigan plays a mix of a post/screening game with a motion game. You will see the big men setting some initial picks both high and low early in the offensive sets or in the last five seconds to free up a jump shooter. All of the Wolverines' starting guards and wing can shoot the outside shot or take their defender to the basket. They're all big, strong and good (not great) athletes. Daniel Horton, 6-3 205 SR PG (15.1 ppg, 5.1 apg, 2.4 spg, 41.9% from 3, 87.5% from the FT line) is a multidimensional scoring, sure-handed point guard who has the whole package for Michigan. With his size and strength, he should present a real challenge for Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison, who will not only have to fight through high picks to guard Horton but also not lose track of him beyond the arc when Michigan runs its motion and the defense naturally turns its attentions to Sims inside as well as players cutting through the lane. Horton is probably the best guard the Bruins have faced to date. He is an outstanding man defender as well as a very fine offensive player, a guy who can really shoot it yet has an A/TO ratio of 2.5/1. Given Horton's size and importance to Michigan's offense probably means that Arron Afflalo is the one who takes on the assignment of guarding him. Arron is UCLA's best defender. He will have to play his best defense of the season to shut down the quicker Horton.
Lester Abrams, 6-6 200 JR SF (12.9 ppg, 1.3 spg), who missed all of last season with an injury, is another versatile player. Abrams plays very strong defense and can guard backcourt players or wings with equal facility. On offense, he has varied skills. He's shooting 46.7% from 3, but doesn't shoot a lot of 3s except as a secondary option to Horton. He prefers to take the ball inside of the dribble or cut inside for a pass from Horton as he moves through the lane. He is a very active player and Cedric Bozeman will expend a lot of energy matching up against him going both ways.
Dion Harris, 6-3 205 JR SG (9.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.4 apg) is listed here as a shooting guard because Horton is the team's floor general, but Harris is a good playmaker who is really more of an opportunity scorer than a prime cog in the Michigan offense. He shoots only 37.7% from the floor overall, but has made 37.1% of his 3s so far. Like Horton and Abrams, he is a superior defender and Michigan's man defense (they may play some zone on occasion to give an opponent a different look, but this is a man team) is the biggest factor in their games. Michigan wins by playing great position defense (they don't press or trap often) while their offense generates enough points to give them the victory. They don't blow people away with an overwhelming offensive game. Scoring against Michigan may be harder for the Bruins than defending them. I assume Farmar and Collison will take on Harris while Afflalo guards Horton.
Ron Coleman, 6-6 JR SF (3.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg) is a solid wing who lacks a good outside shot. He will score mostly in the lane and is tough around the basket despite his size. Jerrett Smith, 6-3 185 FR PG (2.4 ppg, 3.1 apg), is a true point who has performed very well as a substitute playmaker when he comes in for Horton or Harris. He doesn't shoot the ball much, but he's a pure point and excellent distributor. Another freshman, 6-5 205 SG/SF Jevohn Shepherd (2.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg), will also see time of the bench. He is quick, athletic player with good skills who only needs seasoning to become a future starter for this team. Matching up with UCLA, Michigan faces some of the same problems Nevada did. Michigan's post players are good power players, but they will be hard pressed to switch quickly enough on screens to help their guards and wings keep the Bruins from getting open looks from 3 or opportunities to come off weak-side screens and get into the lane for quick passes from the perimeter. Horton is an outstanding defender, but Jordan Farmar has great all-around offensive skills and Collison, when he's aggressive and under control, can be hard for anyone to keep out of the lane. Afflalo (18.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Farmar (16.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.3 spg), Bozeman (11.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.1 spg) and Collison (5.1 ppg, 2.4 apg) can all hit the 3, penetrate with the ball or move without the ball. Notre Dame is a good team, but the Irish didn't have guards as good as these UCLA players. Michigan, which as a team holds opponents to a 39.4% shooting percentage, will face a great challenge to accomplish anything close to that against the Bruins, especially if Farmar's outside shot is dropping.
Up front, Mbah A Moute is considerably more athletic, mobile and energetic than his counterparts, and he should be able to use those attributes to once again give the Bruins a strong presence on the boards at both ends. But he will need some help from the other Bruin post players in this game. Michigan has dominated the glass in its games so far, limiting its opponents' ability to get offensive rebounds or at the other end get out in transition off a defensive rebound. Afflalo and Bozeman (and even Farmar) get a lot of the rebounds from which UCLA starts its transition game, but those rebounds might not be so plentiful with Sims and Brown inside. The Bruins' ability to generate some fast break opportunities against Michigan will be another key to this game, as it will be a key to all of the Bruins' games this year against quality opponents.
Ryan Wright, Ryan Hollins, Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata need to really get into a battle with the Michigan big men if they want the rebounds at both ends to fall to their skill players. It is probably too much to ask any of the Bruin post players to grab 8 boards in a game like this, but if they can block out and check Sims, Brown and Hunter enough for the rest of the team to get up on the glass, that will more than make up for statistical prowess. Both Wright and Aboya showed definite signs of blocking out and fighting for position against Nevada. Hopefully, they will take another step up with still another full week of practice.
That, of course, is another factor which makes this game like the Nevada game and unlike any of UCLA's other prior games. Both coaching staffs have had a full week to study tape and make preparations for this game. Michigan will be ready for UCLA. UCLA will be ready for Michigan. On offense, the Bruins will use their big men to set screens to enhance the outstanding scoring abilities of their backcourt and hopefully overload Michigan's defensive prowess on the perimeter and neutralize the defenders inside with quickness, positioning and short jumpers in the lane. On defense, Afflalo will try to contain Horton while the rest of team tries to double-team Sims without losing tracks of Abrams and Harris. UCLA must generate transition baskets against one of the best rebounding teams in the country, a team which also doesn't commit too many turnovers.
This is UCLA's first real road test of the season, where they are playing in the home team's hostile arena. It's really impossible to project whether the Bruins will be rattled by an unfamiliar environment. The Bruins would probably have been better off playing a couple of other road games earlier in the season, but that's a dead issue now. It's also finals week and the Bruins will be taking tests the night before the game. But all they have to think about on Saturday is beating Michigan.
My prediction: UCLA 68, Michigan 66.
Player Status Update as of Friday: Mike Fey has practiced the last two days and can play Saturday.
It's undetermined whether Howland will actually play him.
Alfred Aboya has also practiced, and the knee hasn't swelled, even though he practices for limited minutes and needs to ice the knee.