Wagner Preview

While the name "Wagner" doesn't strike fear, the Seahawks are 6-1, and have a couple of decent road wins. Can UCLA take care of business and not be susceptible to a letdown?

After facing two tough opponents in a row, 12th-ranked UCLA (8-1) returns to the friendly, if often quiet, confines of Pauley Pavilion Wednesday night to square off against the Wagner Seahawks (6-1), a good mid-major program which should have little chance of beating the Bruins on their home court.

Wagner is picked to finish second in the NEC this year after winning only 13 games last season, but they went 9-1 at one point and suffered a rash of injuries last season. This year, they've beaten some Ivy League schools and Rhode Island and lost to American. Much research on my part has failed to turn up any information on Wagner's style of play. We're left to guess from team stats: They score enough points (74 per game) and they shoot a lot of 3s (16 per game), so we know they usually don't try to take the air out of the ball. Most likely, they run a motion offense with some high screens to free up the jump shooters; they might start a lot of sets using a twin post high post (I would with their personnel). Look for them to try and push the ball up the floor and get shots early in the clock. They don't have much size, but their superb 3-point field-goal percentage defense (27.8%) makes it doubtful that they play much zone. It‘s unclear why anyone would zone UCLA this year anyway, not with the way the Bruins are shooting the ball from behind the arc.

Wagner's unqualified team leader is Mark Porter, 6-1 SO PG (14.0 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.4 spg). Porter is a strong player (190 pounds) with very good athleticism, a low dribble and good playmaking skills. He has a reputation as a top-notch defender. He has shot the ball poorly for most of this season (43% overall, 28% from 3), but hit 9-12 against Rhode Island. Most of his shots will come off drives into the lane or pull-up Js in the 15-17 range rather than from behind the arc. I expect Porter to go hea- to-head with Jordan Farmar in this one. Porter at least has the mindset and toughness to guard Farmar and give him trouble in return. Whether he has the skills remains to be seen.

Durrell Vinson, 6-7 225 JR PF (12.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 1.0 spg), is Wagner's big man inside. He's a force on the boards, has good post moves and foot work, a mid-range game and plays tough defense. With the Bruins' lack of an interior offensive threat, Vinson should feel free to help out his teammates when the Bruin guards and wings get into the lane. The Bruins have the depth, size and strength to bounce him off of screens all night and wear him out; the Seahawks really depend on Vinson to give them 30 strong minutes a night and they don't have quality depth behind him. I think Vinson will get his points and rebounds, but he'll be exhausted long before the night is over. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, rather than the Bruins' post players, should get the call to guard him.

DeEarnest McLemore, 6-1 SR SG (10.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 40% from 3), is something of a mystery man. He wasn't listed on the roster in any of the preseason publications and didn't play for the team last season. I don't know if he transferred in from another school or sat out last season with an injury and was forgotten. In any event, his stats show him to be a player with multiple skills, a guy who can both shoot and make plays for his teammates. Arron Afflalo will have a huge size advantage over McLemore which hopefully will negate whatever speed advantage McLemore has over Afflalo. These short Wagner guards will a hard time finding open looks over the Bruin defense if the Bruin defense plays with intensity. The key for the Bruins will be keeping up with their quickness.

The other two starters for Wagner are Jamal Smith, 6-5 210 FR SG/SF (8.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.3 spg), and James Ulrich, 6-6 215 SO PF (6.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg). Smith is a very good athlete who started out strong for the Seahawks last year, then went down for the season with an injury after just 5 games. He can hit the 3 (he's 5-8 for the season from behind the arc) or slash to the basket and he might be the team's best defensive player. He will likely guard Afflalo, but on the other end I see Cedric Bozeman assigned to him. Ulrich is the consummate role player. He'll set picks, get offensive rebounds, battle inside . . . and then step out and nail a 3 when no one is looking (4-8 from there so far). UCLA's post player will likely guard him and dare him to shoot the 3.

Off the bench, Joey Mundweiler, 6-2 180 FR SG (8.1 ppg, 2.1 apg, 46.4% from 3), and Matt Vitale, 6-6 210 JR SF/PF (6.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 42.3% from 3), are the top subs. Both players are very dangerous 3-point shooters and they will come in firing away as soon as they set foot on the floor. I imagine that they give the Seahawks a real change of pace when they come into the game and really jolt the offense into gear because of how many 3s they shoot, and UCLA must be prepared for the change in tempo and style when it comes or Wagner can very easily put on a run against the Bruins if they don't bear down on defense when these guys enter the game. They play as many minutes as some of the starters and should really be considered starters themselves.

Jamal Webb, 6-5 205 FR SG/SF (2.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg), and Jason Rudakas, 6-6 230 SO PF (2.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg), close out the Seahawks' bench. Like Smith and Mundweiler, Webb is a redshirt freshman whose season last year was cut short by injuries. He is a good athlete with developing skills. Like many players on the roster, he will shoot the 3 if given the opportunity. Rudakas is known as the club's "enforcer" and will no doubt bring a lot of hard fouls to go with his banging around under the boards (though, he too will step out and shoot the 3). I've heard that his play can get a little dirty at times and he can really get under the skin of opposing players, so the UCLA post men will have to keep their cool. It's always good to face a player like this in the preseason because play can get pretty rough in the Pac-10. At least, it can get emotional.

I really don't have much to add about UCLA at this point. The Nevada and Michigan games have demonstrated that the Bruins have created a much more diverse, efficient half-court offense even without a strong presence in the middle and with Josh Shipp and Mike Fey out with injuries, although Ryan Wright's 8 points against Michigan were a welcome sight (2 baskets came in transition, not in the post) and perhaps a sign of good things to come in the future. The transition game has resurfaced somewhat, thanks to a better mindset combined with a more intensive defensive effort, but it should be clear to everyone that the Bruins will not be a high-scoring team this year in general. The Bruins' increased energy on defense and around the glass is evident to everyone; I don't have to point it out or analyze it further for now. The coaches have had more time to work with their players and they've been successful in communicating their philosophy on offense, defense and effort. The team appears to be ready for Pac-10 play.

Wagner is better than Albany and Coppin State. But if UCLA comes out and plays with intensity for the whole game, like they did against Nevada and Michigan, the Bruins should win by 20 points. If they come out and play like they did against Albany or Coppin State, the Bruins could once more find themselves in a dogfight with an undermanned opponent.

Prediction: UCLA 78, Wagner 66

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