The Bruins open their 2006-2007 season Wednesday night in Pauley Pavilion against the highly regarded Brigham Young University Cougars. The Bruins are coming off a PAC-10 Conference regular season crown, a PAC-10 Conference Tournament title and an appearance in the 2006 NCAA national title game. The Bruins suffered losses in the off-season to graduation, (Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman), and to early NBA entry (Jordan Farmar). For Hollins and Bozeman especially, last season was a wonderful finish to what had been difficult collegiate careers for both. Farmar may go down in Bruin lore as the player who was the floor leader who returned the Bruins to prominence. Be that as it may, that was last season, and, well, now is now.
The Bruins will be tested early and often, starting with BYU on Wednesday. The Bruins have plenty of questions to answer, mostly to and for themselves. Will sophomore Darren Collison be ready to run the team as its floor leader? Will the Bruins get out and run now that they seem to have the depth necessary to push the ball? Will junior team leader Arron Afflalo and redshirt sophomore Josh Shipp be willing to play unselfish basketball? Will the UCLA big men be more of an offensive force, alleviating the pressure on the guards to score? And with that, will junior post Lorenzo Mata be make a significant contribution against the Cougars?
These are a lot of questions, but, with the exception of defending national champions, Florida, every team has questions. Can the Bruins answer them better than everyone else? The answers will start to reveal themselves against a BYU team that returns a solid nucleus from a squad that defied the predictions last season and tied for the Mountain West Conference regular season title.
BYU returns four starters and five reserves from last year's team. After being touted in pre-eason as the worst team in the MWC, the Cougars finished 20-9 and made an appearance in the NIT. The chief reason for this was the emergence of then-freshman post, Trent Plaisted (6'11" 245 lbs.). Plaisted was voted the Conference's freshman of the year, finished second team all-conference and surpassed Andrew Bogut's freshman record point totals. Plaisted led the Cougars in scoring at 13.6 PPG and rebounding at 6.9 RPG. Plaisted isn't a typical, back-to-the-basket, slow-footed post. He reportedly ran a sub-4.7 40 time as a senior in high school. He is very athletic and has a very quick first step on the block. He is a lefty, which should be a bit difficult for Bruin sophomore post Alfred Aboya to defend. With LoMata being out of practice for so long, Aboya hasn't really faced a big post, much less one that will often go to his left hand. With Coach Howland's attention to detail, however, you can bet that he will have pointed out this fact to Aboya countless times before the game tips off. Another thing Howland may notice is that Plaisted, because he's a lefty and because he's young, shows a large penchant for spinning to his right when his back is to the basket. Now Plaisted may have changed that in the off-season, but I am sure that Aboya, Ryan Wright and Mata will all be aware that they should try and force Plaisted left. Plaisted is also a pretty good passer, a fact the Bruins will need to be aware of when they inevitably double him in the low block, but Plaisted was second on the Cougars in turnovers last season. This may have had more to do with how often he handled the ball rather than a tendency to be sloppy with it.
Plaisted wasn't a great free throw shooter last year, hitting only 62% from the charity stripe, so with Mata and five more fouls at their disposal, UCLA might play Plaisted rough and send him to the line.
The probable starter at the ‘4' will be senior Keena Young, (6'6" 215 lbs.), who was third on the team in scoring last year at 10.3 PPG and second in rebounding at 5.8 RPG. Young is a banger and will work the boards very hard. He's not overly athletic and he may find it hard to defend UCLA sophomore Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Luc is quicker than Young and probably stronger, too. But Young is a senior and he will be a tough inside match-up for Luc. Young is the best passer of the Cougar posts and had almost as many assists as turnovers last year, which is quite an accomplishment for a low-block player. He is essentially BYU's version of Luc. To top it off, Young is pretty tough at the FT line, hitting 78% last year. Young was a third team, all-MWC selection last season.
So far in the pre-season, sophomore Lee Cummard, (6'6" 180 lbs.), has been starting at the wing forward spot. Cummard only averaged 4.9 PPG as a frosh last year and a measly 2.3 RPG, but he is probably the most complete player the Cougars have. He can score, he plays good defense and he is athletic. Perhaps most importantly, he hit just under 40% from behind the arc and his ability to stretch the defense by pulling josh Shipp out to the perimeter will make it that much more difficult to double team Plaisted. Cummard is also a pretty good free throw shooter, averaging 77% last year. Remember, also, this is the guy that Greg Hicks said was the best shooting guard prospect in the west in the class of 2004.
BYU has a deep and pretty talented bench, starting with senior Brazilian post, Fernando Malaman (6'9" 220 lbs.). Malaman averaged 7 PPG and 3.7 RPG while playing a little over 20 MPG last year. But what makes him truly dangerous is his ability to step out and hit the 3. He shot 43% from behind the arc last season and it will take an entirely different type of defense to neutralize him as a danger. Malaman was also the leading shot blacker for BYU last year. He is thin, but he is long and he can spell Plaisted for long stretches if necessary.
There are two other posts that the Cougars can call on, sophomore Gavin MacGregor (6'9" 235 lbs.), and juco transfer Vuk Ivanovic,(6'10" 250 lbs.), from Serbia. Expect Ivanovic to see some time off the bench as he scored 18 points in 25 minutes in the Cougars' two exhibition games.
The Cougars are just as deep on the perimeter. BYU did graduate their second leading scorer in Brock Reichner and defensive whiz Jackson Emery, so Coach Dave Rose will have to find players to fill those roles. To replace Reichner, BYU has used senior Jimmy Balderson (6'6" 205 lbs.), in the first two exhibition games. Balderson was perhaps BYU's best outside shooter last season. He is particularly sharp behind the arc where he averaged 37%, but he made 32 threes over the course of the year. He is a very good free throw shooter, hitting 80% last season. He also averaged 3 RPG from the guard spot. However, don't let the "shooter" term fool you. Balderson will drive to the hoop and stop and pop from intermediate range. He took over 200 shots last year with only 86 coming from behind the arc. He isn't the quickest player in the world, but relies on good off-the-ball movement, guile and his ability to use screens to set himself up. Arron Afflalo will certainly be challenged by Balderson, but Afflalo has faced Brandon Roy, Adam Morrison, Nick Young and numerous other very good offensive players in his two years. Balderson is not as good as they are. If Afflalo brings a very good effort on the defensive end, he should be able to shut down Balderson.
At the point is senior Rashaun Broadus (6'0" 190 lbs.), who led the Cougars with 104 assists a year ago (3.7 APG), and ran the offense very well. He averaged over 9 PPG and took over 90 threes, making 35% of them. In BYU's high-octane offense, Broadus is key and the BYU posts will be looking to find him with virtually every outlet pass. Collison must make it difficult for Broadus to initiate the offense by forcing him to move laterally while initiating the offense. If Broadus is allowed to get into the lane, it will be a difficult night for the Bruins. Obviously, while Collison will see the yeoman's share of minutes guarding Broadus, freshman Russell Westbrook will be required to play solid defense when he is spelling Collison.
The Cougars do have experienced guards on the bench starting with senior Austin Ainge (6'2" 180 lbs.). Ainge is the offensive sparkplug off the bench with his shooting ability and, unlike Balderson, Ainge is almost strictly a shooter. Ainge can play either guard spot and averaged 2.6 APG last year. Juco transfer Ben Murdock (6'2" 185 lbs.) can also play the point. Freshmen Jordan Cameron (6'5" 220 lbs.) and Jonathan Tavernari (6'6" 215) should both see action at the ‘2' or ‘3'. Tavernari, in particular, will shoot quite a bit in the few minutes he is in the game. He is Brazilian and like Malaman, he has a nice outside stroke.
There are several keys to the game and, first, is defense. BYU's defensive stopper is gone and it remains to be seen who is going to take that role. Trying to find someone to do that while opening against the defending national runner-up is a daunting task. The Bruins have their stopper in Afflalo and the solid team defense that Howland has been teaching since day one of his tenure. The Bruins, hownever, have been a step slow in their defensive rotation in the two exhibition games, which doesn't bode well when facing someone like Plaisted. The Cougars are going to try and rotate the ball quickly in their half court sets and get the ball low to their sophomore post. The Bruins should double the post much more than they did during the exhibition games. To do that effectively, they will need to force Plaisted to his off hand/side, and rotate on the perimeter effectively. If they don't, the Bruins run the risk of letting BYU shoot very well from behind the arc.
The second key will be who controls the tempo. BYU likes to run and they are much less effective in the half-court game. This is where defending both the outlet pass and then Broadus becomes important. Allowing the Cougars to get the ball out to their point and then allowing him to weave into the lane will give the Cougars easy looks and, inevitably, easy points. If the Bruins can stymie this they will have gone a long way to making this game an easier one. Under Rose, BYU likes to push the tempo, which should make for an exciting game if the Bruins continue to try to do the same.
The third key will be rebounding. While BYU had nice team rebounding totals last year, the reality is that only Young and Plaisted were really dominant rebounders. If the Bruins can keep even one of them off the boards it will help eliminated BYU's ability to get out in transition.
Finally, the final key will be how the Bruins shoot the ball. UCLA will inevitably see zone in this game. When they do it will be vital that bench players Mike Roll, James Keefe and Westbrook keep BYU honest by being able to knock down the open jumpers they should see. If they can't, it will allow BYU to remain in the zone longer and allow them to key on Afflalo and Shipp.
This is a tough opener for the Bruins. Make no mistake, BYU is a good club that has a good chance to make the NCAA tournament this year. If the Bruins come out slow or unfocused they will be in for a rude awakening. BYU is a senior-laden team that will take less time than the Bruins to "gel." However, talent and coaching go a long way, and as good as BYU was/is, they didn't really face the kind of competition that the Bruins will be on Wednesday. Although BYU barely lost to USC last season, they did lose to Loyola Marymount, too. BYU, in its first game of the season, and being the visitor, will find the Bruins too tough a hurdle to overcome. And the Bruins will learn quickly, again, they have to play superior defense to beat a solid team.