FINAL FOUR: LSU Preview

UCLA is in its first Final Four in 11 years, and will face a young but very talented LSU team in the semi-final game Saturday in Indianapolis. Can UCLA handle Glen "Big Baby" Davis inside and the springy Tyrus Thomas?

The UCLA Bruins bring a record of 31-6 to the Final 4 in Indianapolis, where they will meet up with the Louisiana State Tigers, who boast a great record of their own, 27-8.

I firmly believe that LSU is the best team that UCLA has faced all season. They beat West Virginia on the road and scored victories over Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama at home and Arkansas both at home and on the road. Their 8 losses include Florida (twice), UConn at UConn by 2 points, Cincinnati, Alabama on the road, Ohio State at Ohio State by 3 points, Northern Iowa and Houston. The loss to Houston, at home by 1 point very early in the season, when this very young team was still trying to find itself, is the closest thing LSU has to a "bad" loss and Houston went 21-10 this year.

LSU may also be the most athletic team the Bruins have faced all year, and that includes Memphis. Like Memphis, LSU plays an aggressive man-to-man defense which will chase opponents all over the floor, although I've seen them mix in some zone now and then if the big men get in foul trouble. But unlike Memphis, LSU has what is arguably the best 1-2 punch on the backline of any team in the country (the other candidate for such honors is Florida, which is also in the Final 4). The presence of Tyrus Thomas, 6-9 215 FR (12.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.1 bpg) and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, 6-9 310 (18.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.2 bpg) anchor the LSU defense with their ability to not only shut down opposing big men, but also to cut off any penetration into the lane by driving guards and forwards. LSU averages 6.5 blocked shots per game and they dominate their opposition under the glass, out-rebounding opponents by a margin of 40.4 rpg to 32.1 rpg. Opposing teams shot just 39.8% from the field against the intense, smothering Tiger defense and LSU has out-scored its opponents by a margin of 73.9 ppg to 64 ppg. So, the Tigers like to run off rebounds and turnovers. Conversely, the Bruins must value the ball more than ever and get up on the offensive glass and, if they miss the rebound, have someone stay back to harass the rebounder so he can't easily kick the ball out to a streaking Tiger racing down the other end of the floor.

Ryan Hollins has had a magnificent tournament so far, averaging 12.0 ppg and 6.3 rpg, But he has never faced a specimen like Big Baby, who can post up inside or step out and hit the 17-footer. I don't believe that Hollins can handle Davis one-on-one and he will need a lot of help from his teammates. We may even see the Bruins double team Davis whenever he touches the ball inside the paint. This, of course, opens the boards to domination by Thomas on the weak side of the court. Thomas has no range, but he‘s a total stud under the glass with amazing, quick hops. The Bruins will have to rotate especially well and in addition to Hollins, Lorenzo Mata, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Alfred Aboya must play the best basketball of their young careers to keep Thomas and Davis from dominating the game inside.

Fortunately for the Bruins, LSU is not a particularly noteworthy shooting team from beyond the arc, so if UCLA keeps track of Darrel Mitchell, 5-11 180 SR PG (17.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.5 apg, 40% from 3) and keeps him under wraps, the Tigers could struggle to score. No other player on the LSU squad shoots even 30% from the field beyond the arc. Mitchell takes the bulk of the team's outside shots and whether it is Arron Afflalo or Darren Collison who is assigned to shade Mitchell everywhere he goes on the court, this matchup might well be the key to the game. As the old adage goes, "Cut off the head and the body dies." For all the damage that Big Baby and Thomas do inside, Mitchell is the leader, playmaker and clutch performer for this team. Take Mitchell out of the game and LSU will lose. It's that simple.

The other starters for LSU are Tasmin Mitchell, 6-7 230 FR SF (11.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.8 apg) and Garrett Temple, 6-5 175 FR SG (5.2 ppg, 2.8 apg), so you can see just how young these Tigers are, with 3 freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup. Mitchell is a smooth player who can handle the ball like a guard or muscle inside to score. His only weakness is a mediocre jump shot. Temple usually draws the assignment of defending the best guard on the other team, so watch him on Afflalo. Temple shut down JJ Redick (3-18 from the field) and did a respectable job on the much quicker Daniel Gibson of Texas (5-12 from the field). Afflalo lacks the quickness of Gibson and might suffer from the same harassment that Redick faced at the hands of Temple. Afflalo will have to do an especially good job of utilizing the many screens which his big men will set for him if he wants to get some good looks from 3-point range. If Afflalo uses his muscle to power by Temple off the dribble, he will run smack dab into Thomas and Davis inside. Afflalo must go up strong with the ball and throw his body into the shot blockers to draw fouls.

LSU lacks quality depth on its bench. Darnell Lazare, 6-8 240 JR PF (6.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is a good bruiser who will contribute points, rebounds and defense in the paint, but he is still a sharp drop-off from Thomas or Davis. Magnum Rolle, 6-10 215 FR C (2.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg) is a slender, mobile young big man who will also contribute off the bench, but he might not be ready for this level of play. The same can be said for Ben Voogd, 6-1 175 FR PG (1.1 ppg). That basically does it for the LSU bench, so obviously a lot will turn on whether the Bruins can draw a lot of fouls from the starters, as they did against Memphis. This means taking the ball into the very heart of the Tigers' defense and their vaunted shot-blocking abilities. That means feeding Hollins, Mbah A Moute, Aboya and Mata the ball as much as possible, putting pressure on the LSU big men, who will probably start to tire by the last 10 minutes of the game. That's the time zone when the Bruins usually play their best ball. Hopefully, that holds true for this game as well. My prediction:

UCLA 57
LSU 55


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