Preview of Wooden Classic: Texas A&M

The #1-ranked Bruins face their first Top 10 opponent this season when they take on #6 Texas A&M in the first game of the John R. Wooden Classic at 11:30 a.m. at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The game will be televised nationally on CBS...

UCLA faces a major hurdle when they take on the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday in the John Wooden Classic. The Bruins are coming off three successive less than inspiring performances, all victories, against Long Beach State, Cal-Riverside and Cal Sate Fullerton, all from the Big West Conference. In all three contests, the Bruins started slowly, were in a close game at the half and then pulled away for double digit wins. The effort and focus, or lack thereof that the Bruins showed in those three games probably won't be enough to get the job done against the Aggies.

Texas A&M has become a bit of a basketball force under Coach Billy Gillespie. The Aggies, who for years were at or near the bottom of the Big 12, have now become, arguably, the best team in the conference. As of this past Monday they were ranked higher than at any time in their history; sixth in both polls, though they lost at LSU this past Tuesday. They present the Bruins with a unique set of challenges that UCLA hasn't seen yet this season. They are an experienced team, starting two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore, although their three main bench players are all freshmen. There is an interesting dichotomy here in that A&M hasn't really played anyone of note yet, having lost to the one real power team they've played, LSU. A&M's best win of the year so far has probably been a 12 point victory over Pacific, a team that was picked to finish behind Long Beach State in the Big West. And this will only be A&M's second road game.

The Aggies typically have played a pretty soft non-conference schedule. That was the biggest reason that 2 years ago, a 20+ win Aggie team was left out of the Big Dance. This season, however, Gillespie has tried to upgrade the schedule, in part because he knows he needs a stronger out of conference RPI, and in part because he has some very talented veteran leadership. And that leadership starts with the backcourt.

Most basketball coaches realize that it's vitally important that a good point guard is essential to a team's success. A&M has one of the best point guards in the country in senior Acie Law IV, (6'3" 195 lbs.). Let's get this out of the way quickly; Law will be one of the best players that the Bruins face this season. Assuming Coach Ben Howland rotates both Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo defensively on Law, both will have their hands full. Besides the statistics that Law brings, (13.6 PPG; 4.8 APG; 53% 3 pt. %), Law brings intangibles that many times only a senior can bring to the court. Law is a heady player who knows when to play fast and when to slow it down. In the Fullerton game review, Tracy spoke about how the Bruins, specifically Collison, were having trouble slowing the game down when necessary. Law has no such issues. He generally controls the pace of his team's game and really is a giant on the floor in terms of composure. He is the heart and soul of the Aggies, much like Afflalo is for the Bruins. To watch Afflalo try to impose his defensive will on Law will be a fun game-within-a-game. As I stated earlier, Law, who shoots 75% from free throw line, will probably be defended by both Afflalo and Collison. This combination of strength, determination and quickness, if it can tire Law out and force him into some bad decisions, may be where the game is won and lost.

Law's backcourt mate is junior Dominique Kirk, (6'3" 180 lbs.). Kirk is definitely more of a perimeter player than is Law. Kirk is also a bit quicker than Law, (although he doesn't have Law's game savvy). That's why I think it makes more sense defensively to have Afflalo take Law while Collison takes Kirk for the bulk of the game. Law is the stronger Aggie, and Afflalo is the stronger Bruin. Kirk is the quicker Aggie and Collison is the quicker Bruin. Kirk only averages 7 PPG, but he is a decent rebounder at 4 RPG. Now even though he scores the least among the starters, he is key because he has attempted more outside shots than anyone on the team, (36), and is shooting a respectable 36% from behind the arc. Kirk has only been to the foul line 8 times, so you know that he doesn't like to get bumped around in the lane. The key to Kirk is forcing him constantly to his left. He is second on the team in assists with 29 but also 2nd on the team with 14 turnovers. This is from a guy who is a catch and shoot type. Collison HAS to be dominant on defense against Kirk. So does Russell Westbrook, who I am sure will be matched up against Kirk.

Up front Gillespie will start junior Joseph Jones, (6'9" 250 lbs.), a big bruising power forward. Needless to say the Luc Richard Mbah a Moute better come with his ‘A' game. Jones is the leading scorer for the Aggies at 14.8 PPG and the second leading rebounder at 5 RPG. But don't let the rebounding total fool you. A&M generally likes to play at a controlled pace so any one of their games is bound to have less total possessions for each team involved, thus less chances at boards. Jones is even a threat to hit the 3, and even though he hasn't attempted all that many, he is averaging 38% from behind the arc. Jones is very good on the mid-range jumper and will be a real tough assignment for the Prince. Luc definitely has length and quickness on Jones, but Jones has strength and bulk on Luc. The pace of the game is going to help determine how this match up turns out. If the Bruins can quicken the game, even a little, then it will help Luc. If it is A&M's more deliberate slow down game, then look for Luc to have trouble with Jones.

The other post starter will be senior Antanas Kavaliaukas, (6'10" 250 lbs.), from Lithuania. Unlike most eastern European players, Kavaliaukas is not a perimeter-oriented big man. He loves to bang. He averages 12.8 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 5.5 RPG. He does a good job of screening for his teammates, and this may be the most important part of the match up that he has with Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya, James Keefe and Ryan Wright. First, expect to see a lot of Mata unless he gets into foul trouble. Right now, of the Bruin post players, he's the only one, especially on the defensive end with the combination of power, athleticism and court sense, (who'd ever thought I'd say that about LoMata?), to be able to somewhat neutralize Kavaliauskas. Mata will have to be good with his hedging, thus forcing Aggies coming off Kavaliauskas screens to have to go wider and longer to get to their spots. This will help the Bruins who are chasing.

The final starting spot goes to sophomore Josh Carter, (6'7" 195 lbs.). Carter will have a great match-up with Josh Shipp as Carter is a little bigger but Shipp is probably smarter. Carter is the Aggies' best 3 point shooter, hitting 14 so far on the year. Generally, Carter plays more like a small guard, with more than half his shots coming from behind the arc, and he usually isn't comfortable with his back to the basket. The one thing I've noticed about Carter is how careful he is with the ball. He has an assist/turnover ratio of almost 4-1, which is amazing. He's a good player, and if Shipp gets lax at all with his defense, then Carter will win this match-up.

Off the bench, Gillespie primarily brings in 4 freshmen, both true and redshirts. Donald Sloan, (6'2" 210 lbs.), gets the primary back-up minutes at the guard positions. Bryan Davis, (6' 9" 245 lbs.), is primary post substitute, while Chinemelu Elonu, (6'10 225 lbs.), will spell both the posts and Carter. Finally, Derrick Roland, (6'4" 185 lbs.), is there to supply instant offense, but even though he has taken a great many shots in his 9MPG, he is shooting quite poorly. The bench is an area where the Bruins have a distinct advantage. A&M has its 5 starters averaging 30 MPG or so, and only Sloan is averaging even close to 20 of the bench players. Plus, they are ALL freshmen, and they have made freshman mistakes time and time again. They will all be nice players, but for now, a solid fundamental team will give these guys fits. Aboya is flat out better than any of the forwards that Gillespie can bring into a game, and Westbrook, although just a newbie himself, seems much more ready to play at this level and contribute meaningful minutes then do some of the A&M frosh. If you saw any of A&M's loss to LSU this past Tuesday, you could see that some of their freshmen were very much deer in headlights.

The match-ups, as you look at them, seem very close. But this game shouldn't, at least most of the time, come down to individual match-ups. Both Gillespie and Howland have brought the idea of the "team" game to both squads. This means that this game will ultimately be about tempo.

The Bruins want to speed the game up. Now this is not to say that they want to play like Arkansas' old "40 minutes of Hell," but the Bruins would rather be on pace to at least hit 75. Conversely, A&M would much rather play the game in the low 60's. I am sure that Gillespie and the A&M players have looked at tape of the Riverside game and saw how much trouble the Highlanders gave the Bruins with a slowdown approach. You can count on A&M to value each possession and make the Bruins work very hard on the offensive end. Collison will have to use his quickness to get around the length of Law and/or Kirk. A&M isn't really a zone team, so the Bruins will have to be able to run their man offense. Further, A&M, like the Bruins, are a very physical team. This game has the makings of a "slobberknocker," and should be fun to watch, but as I said, it will ultimately come down to tempo.

So, how do the Bruins dictate the tempo? First, they must own the boards. Holding A&M to one shot will greatly increase their ability to get out and run a bit on the Aggies. Second, the Bruins must be patient in the half court offense. If they try to "push" and rush their offense, that will lead to turnovers and put more pressure on the Bruins on the offensive end. Finally, the Bruins must play with focus and patience on defense. The Aggies really won't work the clock like, say, a Princeton, but they will be patient enough to wait for a good shot. So many of A&M's possessions will go deep into the shot clock. In a way, this will be like playing Dick Bennett's Washington State teams, only A&M has better personnel.

In the end, though, when you look at the level of competition, the Bruins have played a tougher schedule. Plus, this is only A&M's second road game, and their first, at LSU, really wasn't that far from home. Finally I don't believe that these teams are as closely matched as some may think. While A&M is known for their defense, watching them against LSU made me realize that they are still a step or two below the Bruins and the Bruins have more offensive options. Many have looked at this game as the one out o conference game that the Bruins may lose. I don't see it. Let's talk when it's time to go to Morgantown. As for Saturday, if the Bruins "show up," I expect them to pull away again in the second half.

UCLA 70
Texas A&M 56


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