The Bruins are playing very good basketball right now, having defeated three teams that should be playing in the NCAA Tournament in March. But before the followers of the Bruins start looking ahead to big games against the likes of Texas A&M and Michigan, there is the matter of dealing with the 49ers. LBSU lost on Saturday to USC by 18, but don't let that fool you. The 49ers are a solid basketball team and, of all of UCLA's non-conference mid-major opponents, LBSU is the most talented and the most dangerous.
The 49ers are the runaway pre-season pick to win the Big West Conference. The media gave the 49ers 18 out of a possible 20 first place votes (Pacific garnered the other two), and the reasons for this are pretty sound. Coach Larry Reynolds returns eight seniors, all of whom see significant minutes, and Reynolds has built his program to the point where he and 49er fans see this as "the year." The USC game was probably a bit of an aberration. Earlier this season, LBSU lost by one to a pretty good Air Force team, one that beat up on USC in a preseason exhibition game. So what can the Bruins expect when they face the 49ers?
The strength of the 49ers is clearly in their backcourt. Senior Aaron Nixon (6'2" 219 lbs.) is the leading scorer for the 49ers, averaging 17.8 PPG. Nixon is more of a shooter than a slasher and has taken more shots (69) than anyone else on the team. Problem is, for Nixon, that he is only hitting 38% from the floor. He's even worse from behind the arc, averaging only 24% from 3 and leading the team with 21 attempts. You would think that a player the caliber of Nixon would shoot better and soon. Arron Afflalo must take Nixon seriously or Nixon may find his way out of his season-long slump. Nixon isn't much threat to pass the ball (only 9 assists against 11 turnovers), so the defensive assignment is pretty straightforward. The shooting slump has followed Nixon to the charity stripe where he is only shooting 54% on his FTs. Nixon hits the boards well for his size and is the second leading rebounder on the team at 5.8 RPG.
At the point, Reynolds has senior Kevin Houston (5'10" 180 lbs.), who leads the team in assists with 19, is third on the team in scoring at 9 PPG and he, too, can't hit his FTs (42%). He's shooting poorly from the outside, averaging well under 40% from the floor. He does like to get to the basket, though, but he looks to dish first and shoot second when he penetrates. On defense, Houston tends to foul a bit more than you would like out of your point guard so Darren Collison must be ready for a lot of ball denial defense by someone who is almost as quick as he is. Collison will face a bit of a challenge on the defensive end as he must keep Houston out of the lane. Collison, if he plays well, should clearly be superior to Houston on both ends of the floor. Among the D-1 point guards Collison has had to face yet this season, Houston is probably the worst, and one can make a solid argument that Zach Whiting, Chaminade's PG is a better player than Houston.
Reynolds runs basically a three-guard lineup. The third guard is another senior, Kejuan Johnson (6'4" 195 lbs.). Johnson is a preseason all-Big West selection but he, too, has yet to play up to his ability this season. Johnson is only averaging 8 PPG and is shooting only 25% from the floor (detect a pattern here?). Johnson is supposed to be pretty good from beyond the arc, but is shooting only 19% from 3, and this while taking 21 3s so far this year. Johnson is quick, so Josh Shipp, even though he will have a decided height and strength advantage, must play focused and disciplined on defense.
The two starting frontcourt players are both short and fairly thin. Senior Dominique Ricks (6'6" 222 lbs.) is the banger of the pair and leads the team with 8.3 RPG. Interestingly, he has almost as many offensive boards (16) as he does defensive (17). Ricks also averages 7.3 PPG and shoots over 54% from the field, but he just doesn't take a lot of shots and he hasn't attempted a 3 yet this season. Expect Lorenzo Mata to match-up defensively with Ricks. On the other end, Ricks has 15 PF in only 4 games, but that has more to do with him having to guard much bigger players.
The other frontcourt starter is senior Sterling Byrd (6'6" 215 lbs.), the team's second leading scorer at 12.8 PPG who shoots over 57% from the floor. He has taken 18 3s, hitting 6, and provides the 49ers with more of a slashing threat than does Ricks. Reynolds would probably like Byrd to hit the boards better than his 4.5 RPG suggests, and that, coupled with his low PF totals, means that he really doesn't like to get physical. Now he has to face Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who should be too long and strong for Byrd at both ends of the floor.
Off the bench, Reynolds can bring senior Louis Darby (6'5" 215 lbs.) at the guard or wing positions. Although Darby has started one game, he is more of a "glue" guy and only gets about 17 MPG. He averages less than 3 PPG and about the same amount of rebounds. Also off the bench comes freshman (yes, I know, not a senior) Tim Island (6'5" 200 lbs.). Island is a shooter and is coming off the best game of his young career, scoring 12 against USC on 4-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Island is strictly an outside shooter in the mold of Chris Stephens from Oregon State. Island hasn't attempted a FT all season and has only taken 13 shots, with 12 being 3s. Senior Mark Dawson (6'9" 220 lbs.) is the one true post player the Bruins should see all game. He only plays 13 MPG and only averages 4.3 PPG, but he does pull down 4.8 RPG. Senior guard Artis Gant (6'3" 217 lbs.) should also see the floor.
As you look at the match-ups, one can't help but think UCLA has an advantage at every spot. In fact, not only would there probably be not one 49er who would get serious minutes on this Bruin squad, Russell Westbrook, Alfred Aboya, Mike Roll and James Keefe would probably start for the 49ers, while Ryan Wright would see significant time, too. But you would be wrong in thinking that LBSU is without talent. This is a good (not great), mid-major team that has been suffering through a collective shooting slump. While it's highly unlikely that all of the 49er shooters come out of their slumps simultaneously, it's not impossible, if the Bruins decide to mail this one in. That will be the key to the game: which UCLA team will show up? Will they be disinterested, or will Coach Ben Howland have the intensity up like it was in Maui? Just looking at this team, you'd have to think that they will be up for the game, but the Bruins are young, and the season is long. They will have sub-par games, and this is one of those games that sets up as a trap game. UCLA is coming off two big victories (Kentucky/Georgia Tech), while LBSU just got walloped by USC. The Bruins are probably feeling pretty good about themselves right now and they will know that they are better than LBSU in every facet of the game. That's the rub; UCLA's prime for a letdown, at least in the first half. LBSU will more than likely zone the Bruins throughout much of the game, but they will pressure the ball. If the Bruins aren't hitting, this game will be closer than it should be. LBSU has multiple incarnations of the same body (6'6"/6'5", etc.), and they can't really match up physically with the Bruins. And they are senior dominated, and that counts for something.
Expect the Bruins to win, but don't be surprised to see a close game in the first half with the Bruins pulling away in the second half after a tongue-lashing from Howland. If the Bruins go wire-to-wire in a focused blowout, then this team is much more mature than their collective years.