That's two games in a row that the Bruins have not performed even remotely like I thought they would. No, they were not as sharp or as focused as I would have liked against both Long Beach State and Cal-Riverside. No, the Bruins weren't all that good…and they still won by big margins in both games. I believe that is a key notion; that the Bruins, in certain games, anyway, have showed the ability to just "show up," and yet they are still able to blow teams off the floor. One opponent, LBSU, tried to run a bit with UCLA and that didn't work. The other, UCR, tried to slow the game to a crawl, and that didn't work.
Now the Bruins, who seem to play much sharper and generally much better when they can create tempo, play Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday. If the Titans were a car, and they had 5 gears, the Titans would always try to shift into 6th. That's the kind of tempo they like and it's really the only tempo they've played this season and for the most part for all of Coach Bob Burton's 3-year-plus tenure.
When analyzing this game, instead of looking at individual match-ups, which I'll do shortly, I want to look at the state of the UCLA offense. First, the areas of concern. The Bruins have a tendency to be hot and cold in the half court. They can play at a very high level at times, constantly moving and setting good, tough screens that generate really good looks at the basket. That was how the Bruins played against Georgia Tech. Then there are times when the Bruins seem to stand still, over dribble, take too long to pass and don't utilize solid screens. That was, for long stretches, the BYU game, and at least the first half of the LBSU game. That concern comes down to point guard play. In short, when Darren Collison is on, the Bruins are fluid and really appear to be able to beat anyone in the country. When Collison looks tired, as he did on Sunday against UCR, then the Bruins struggle, at least a bit, to run a fluid offense.
Another concern is the up and down shooting of the team. When the Bruins are shooting well, they tend to do so collectively. It's a case where not one Bruin gets ultra-hot from the outside, but rather the team has several players that shoot around 50% from behind the arc. Again, that was Georgia Tech. When the Bruins are off, they have been putrid from the outside, as they were on Sunday. It's no coincidence that when the Bruins are shooting well, Collison is playing well. He's setting people up and getting into the lane and kicking it to open shooters. The shooters, involved in a fluid offense, look to have more bounce and knock down many of the shots Collison presents them. Conversely, when Collison is listless, the Bruins have shot poorly.
A final concern is the tendency for both Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp to try and do too much when the UCLA offense isn't in sync. There can be debate as to whether these two young men are trying to show something to League scouts, or whether they are trying to energize the offense. For me, it matters not. The bottom line is that they do it from time to time, and it causes more disruption for the offense than help. Again, when these two are at their best (and Afflalo has been better at this as of late), they let their offensive games come to them rather than try and be a one-man show. Again, it comes down to energy and where they receive the ball. When Collison is humming, both Shipp and Afflalo receive the ball where they can do some real damage. When Collison isn't playing well, then both players tend to fall back on the habit of trying to do too much. Perhaps this is because they aren't getting the ball when and where they need it, which I believe to be the case much of the time when this happens, or perhaps they have no energy…energy that is infectious when Collison is playing at or around his optimum level.
Am I simplifying any offensive issues by relating back to Collison? Perhaps, but it really is that simple if you think about it. DC is the point guard and the general on the floor. If Afflalo is the heart and soul of this team, then Collison is the engine. When Collison is playing well, then this team really is very, very good. Ask Georgia Tech and Kentucky (before he got into foul trouble) how good UCLA and Collison are. This leads me to the things that are going right with the offense.
First, when this team can get out and run, they are fun to watch. That's because they've gotten good at it, and quite frankly, when they are able to do that, it energizes all aspects of their game. It's when they play with that energy, focus and intensity that you know that you are looking at a team that can go very far in the post season.
Second, the team, and probably more specifically Coach Ben Howland, does a great job of exploiting match-ups. This is an area of offense that is rarely talked about because it goes on "upstairs," so you don't necessarily see it in a great post move or a spectacular dunk. But when you notice that an opponent has to double down, or rotate constantly into the lane, then you know that the UCLA offense has caused the opposition to alter their defensive game plan.
Finally, for all the questions about whether this team can shoot, the answer is a resounding "yes." The Bruins average 51% from the floor as a team, including having six significant contributors shooting over 50%. UCLA averages 35% on 3s as a team, which is more than respectable. Couple this with the fact that UCLA is holding opponents to 42% from the floor and committing only half as many turnovers as their opponents (or at least close to that), and you begin to realize that this team's offense is much further along than last year's Bruins were at this time.
Cal-State Fullerton comes into Tuesday's contest with a record of 6-1, but two of those wins have come against non-Division 1 competition. Of their three other wins, the Titans barely beat Texas-San Antonio for two of them (yep, a home and home in the same season) and beat a pretty poor Louisiana-Lafayette team for their third. In fact, the game against the Bruins will be the Titans' first against a non-hyphenated, non directional school (they lost at Eastern Washington).
The strength of the Titans is their guard play. Burton essentially runs a four-guard line-up and the key player for him and the Titans is senior Bobby Brown (6'2" 175 lbs.). Brown has been known to light up players in the Los Angeles summer leagues and he has relatively legitimate NBA aspirations. He is the 2nd leading scorer on the team at 16.3 PPG, and shoots 40% from behind the arc. But Brown's primary weapon is his quickness. He can quickly get into the lane from either side and has a very quick and explosive first step. The match-up between him and Arron Afflalo is going to be fun to watch. Brown will probably be one of the best 2-guards that Afflalo defends this season. Think AA will be up for this one?
If Brown is the 2-guard (and in Burton's offense, Brown will run the point, too), the point guard is junior Ray Reed, (5'11" 165 lbs.), a very quick Georgetown transfer who leads the team with 4.2 assists per game, but he also averages almost as many turnovers. In fact, Reed's assist-to-turnover ration is only 1.3-1, which on a team that averages in the high 80s isn't all that good. Reed is third on the team with a 14.8 PPG average and, more importantly, Reed is leading all Big West players with 3 SPG. He is the one Titan who plays very good defense night in and night out. Reed also averages 3.8 RPG. Darren Collison better have his A-game on Tuesday because he will have his hands full. Reed will basically make Collison feel as if he's looking in a mirror at both ends of the floor, in terms of quickness, anyway. The real difference between the two is who can make the players around them better and, up to this point the season, the answer has clearly been Collison. DC is also shooting 10% better form the floor than is Reed.
Junior Frank Robinson (6'4" 220 lbs.), a good and strong athlete, will be at the wing spot, and he's put up solid numbers this season, averaging 13.3 PPG and 5.7 RPG. Robinson, though, has only shot four free throws and half of his shots have come from 3-point land. Finally, Robinson has only 5 assists and 5 turnovers this year. Essentially, if he's not shooting, he doesn't do all that much, since he's not great at putting the ball on the floor. Because of this, there is a decided advantage here for Josh Shipp. Robinson may not play much because he has been hampered by leg cramps much of the season, which might come from him being a bit thicker than he should be for his height.
At the ‘4', the Titans start junior Scott Cutley (6'5" 235 lbs.), another transfer, this one from Kent State, and originally from Los Angeles Westchester High (most of the CSUF lineup went to high school in SoCal, went to an out-of-state college or JC, and then transferred to Fullerton). Cutley has had an amazing start to his Titan career, leading the team in scoring at 20.7 PPG and is second on the team in rebounding at 8 RPG. Cutley is a low-post player, having attempted only 7 threes and making only one. He is big and powerful, surprisingly quick for his size, and crafty around the basket. He likes to get the ball on either post, but he is almost entirely right-handed. Of the teams the Titans have faced this year, none have had a "real" power forward…like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. In high school, there was always a long-running debate among scouts about whether Cutley was big or athletic enough to play against good D-1 competition, and this is going to be my first prediction: Cutley is going to experience size enough to push him around and speed, quickness and length like he's never seen before. It's not a stretch to think that Cutley might be held to 10 points Tuesday night. Luc has a decided advantage here, but he must make the most of it.
At the "center" spot, Burton starts senior Justin Burns (6'7" 205 lbs.) who, while light, is a back-to-the-basket player, having attempted no threes this season. He has pretty good athleticism and does average 13.2 PPG while leading the Titans with 9 RPG. Again, the Bruins should have a decided advantage here with any of their three centers. Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright are all at least as athletic as Burns and they are all stronger. Now, Burns works hard, and if any of the three Bruins posts plays with little energy, then Burns can be a difference maker, as almost ½ his boards have come on the offensive end.
The first Titan off the bench, barring foul trouble, will be junior guard Marcus Crenshaw (5'10" 170 lbs.), who has started 3 game (when the Titans were without several suspended players) and averages 12.7 PPG. He is the Titan version of the "microwave" as he leads the Titans with 14 threes for the season. He also averages 3.7 RPG (What is it with the little guys rebounding so well?). The problem for the Titans is that Crenshaw is questionablefor the game being bothered by a bad ankle. If he does play, this will limit his effectiveness, especially on the defensive end.
The first forward off the bench should be junior Marcus Morgan (6'5" 240 lbs.), a big, bruising post. Morgan actually started the first three games and is averaging close to 20 MPG. He's not going to score much (3.3. PPG), but he will work on the boards (3.7 RPG), and do the little things to help his team. The only Titan with true height is sophomore Chris Minardo (6'10" 205 lbs.), who only plays about 16 MPG, but he averages 8.6 PPG and has taken 17 threes, hitting 7. He averages 3.6 RPG, which, when figured into 40 minutes of play ends up being close to 8 RPG. Junior forwards Andrew Green and Kenneth Alexander are almost mirror images of each other. Both are 6'6" while Green weighs 255 and Alexander weighs 230. Both average about 6 PPG and exactly 4.8 RPG. Alexander averages more minutes and can block shots, but Green has gotten to the free throw line a few times more (13 to 10).
This game really comes down to which UCLA team shows up. Will it be the energetic one that we all saw in Maui, or the listless one of the past two games that required serious halftime talks from Howland? The Titans are arguably a better team than either Cal-Riverside or LBSU, even though the 49ers were the preseason pick to win the Big West. The real advantage that the Bruins have is in the frontcourt where the Titans just don't have the bodies to match up with the Bruins. The other big advantage, besides the coaching advantage, is on defense. The Bruins are one of the best, if not the best defensive team in the country right now. CSUF? Well, they're not. Since they like to run a lot, and since they are generally healthy, I don't think we'll see a repeat of the slowdown game we saw on Sunday. That bodes well for the Bruins. As the tempo increases, so doe the energy of UCLA, and their focus. As that happens, Collison tends to look refreshed and firing. And when that happens, the Bruins play well. That should be the case on Tuesday.