Of course, these two teams faced each other over 5 months ago in the preseason NIT in New York, but I'm not sure how much relevance that game has now. 5 months ago, Memphis was a very young team consisting mainly of sophomores and freshmen. Arguably the Tigers' second best player, Darius Washington, Jr., was playing at about 60%, according to press reports, due to a bad ankle. UCLA was also a very young team, with players like Darren Collison and Mike Roll hardly having seen any action at all. Alfred Aboya was out with an injury. Lorenzo Mata was deep on the bench in the player rotations. No doubt, both teams are much improved from that time. Certainly, all of the young players have had a whole season to grow up and gain experience.
That early UCLA/Memphis game was one of those contests where the Bruins started out by appearing to be entirely outclassed by their opponent. As 6-9 freshman forward Shawne Williams bombed in 5 threes, the Tigers built a 51-34 halftime lead. But as the Bruins have done so often this year, UCLA staged a furious second-half comeback, combining stellar all-around team d with poise and a series of high-percentage shots on the other end of the floor. Jordan Farmar scored 20 points in the second half of that game and almost brought the Bruins to the brink of victory before UCLA finally slipped back down the stretch and wound up losing 88-80.
Memphis is still a deep, athletic and very young team led by a senior starter, Rodney Carney, 6-7 SR SF (17.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 39.5% from 3). Carney is a freak athlete who can hit the long J or take his man off the dribble and to the rack. Memphis looks to set back screens for him from the weak side of the ball for high lobs for dunks and Carney also keys the team's transition game. I expect that both Bozeman and Afflalo will see action against Carney.
On offense, when they're not scoring in transition Memphis likes to isolate players for one- and two-man games. Washington (13.4 ppg, 3.2 apg) is exceptional at driving into the lane and reserve point Andre Allen, 5-10 205 SO (4.2 ppg, 3.1 apg), also excels at dribble penetration as well as the open floor game. With a cadre of big men in Joey Dorsey, 6-9 SO C (7.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Robert Dozier, 6-9 FR PF (5.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Kareem Cooper, 6-11 FR C (4.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg), Memphis will isolate its mobile, strong bigs inside for easy scores and to draw fouls. A key to stopping Memphis is to force them out of their comfort zone of creating favorable isolation matchups. You want the guards to shoot the J, not put the ball on the floor. And you want to deny entry of the post pass so the big men can't pin a less athletic or physically-imposed opponent on their backs and body up to them to make them start their offense farther from the basket. Lo Mata could be a key factor here. UCLA will be hard-pressed to take Memphis out of its rhythm, but the Bruins did it in the second half of the game in New York and they've done it to other opponents all year long, but especially in their current 10-game winning streak.
The Memphis wings again are better suited to attack the basket of the dribble than shooting up the long Js. Williams (13.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg), despite his 5-7 shooting from 3 against UCLA in New York, is only hitting 31.5% of his 3s overall. Chris Douglas-Roberts, 6-6 FR SG (8.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 31% from 3), who has the potential to be a future star for this team, is also much more comfortable giving his man a head fake and then driving it baseline rather than launching a 3 from the corner. Antonio Anderson, 6-6 FR SG/SF (7.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.6 spg, 37.5% from 3), reminds me a lot of a young Ced Bozeman before the injuries took their toll. We will likely see Anderson and Douglas-Roberts assigned to shut down Afflalo. Again, the Bruin defenders will try to deny the handle to these players and encourage them to take jump shots. If Memphis can be pushed into a streak of jump shots, their defense can just go stone cold in the water, just like UCLA's offense does for the same reason from time to time. Memphis makes a lot of mistakes, due no doubt to its immaturity and the inconsistency of Washington as a playmaker (they settle way down when Allen takes over at the point, and again, like UCLA, you will see the Tigers play both point guards at the same time in spots).
Memphis plays a variety of gimmick defenses, full-court pressure, half-court pressure that then sags back into a man in which the big men look like they're playing in a zone, more comfortable in clogging the lane and clearing out space under the rim than in bodying up with their opposite number. Mike Fey had 13 points and Ryan Hollins had 8 points against Memphis in New York, and scoring in the paint remains an Achilles' Heel for the Tigers. If the Bruins can do a good job of feeding Hollins and Mbah A Moute down low, they can get the Tigers' big men in foul trouble and keep the Memphis defense back on its heels, limiting looks in transition. The Bruins in general must do an exceptional job of limiting their own turnovers. Memphis causes over 16 per game and UCLA has had streaks of turnovers this season, especially when Farmar tries to make too many things happen with the ball. Coach Howland has no doubt tried a number of motivational techniques with Farmar this season, but the young man does seem to think of the NBA a lot and that could prove the Bruins' downfall. But if Farmar comes out focused and playing 100% within himself and the team concept, he can overwhelm Washington and pull UCLA to victory.
That's what I think is going to happen here: Farmar has the confidence of the first game between these two teams and the emotional springboard of his own and his teams' remarkable second-half play from Thursday night. I think Farmar steps up and has a big game. With Afflalo, Collison and Bozeman firing on all cylinders, UCLA beats Memphis at its own game, shredding the Memphis defense off the dribble on one end of the floor while forcing Memphis into too many jump shots at the other end of the floor. Hollins, Mbah A Moute, Mata and Aboya muscle their counterparts and rotate over on defense to shut off the baseline for Douglas-Roberts, Washington, Anderson and Allen and cut off the sharp interior passes that can make Dorsey and Cooper so effective down low. They battle on the boards and neutralize the ordinarily large rebounding margin enjoyed by the Tigers. Thursday night was UCLA's night to finally play like a young team in the post-season. Memphis hasn't had that game yet, but it's coming. It has to, sometime, at least once. Saturday is the night.