Oakland plays in the Mid Continent Conference and has been a middle-of-the-pack team in that conference since the Grizzlies joined several years ago. They have a solid coach in Greg Kampe, who seems to do more with less, and less with more. A couple of seasons ago, Oakland had the #1 and #4 players in the Mid Con and, although Oakland was picked to win the conference, they finished a very disappointing 5th. Since then, Kampe hasn't had near the level of talent that team had, but his teams have played far more to expectation. Oakland is known in the Mid Con for playing smart basketball, where each player knows his role and plays it well. Defensively the Grizzlies are known for being tough, but they don't play exclusively zone or man. The Bruins should plan on seeing a lot of zone as Kampe starts only two forwards, and they're both short, being 6'6" and 6'7". Off the bench, Oakland has one 6'8" player and that about accounts for their height. Oakland has a +4.2 RPG advantage over their opposition over the course of the season, but that is deceiving. Those numbers were built up against pretty weak competition. When the Grizzlies have played top level talent, specifically Michigan State and Pitt, they have been out-rebounded by a fairly wide margin. UCLA Coach Ben Howland wasn't happy that the Bruins were beat soundly on the boards by A&M, so this will be something to look for; whether the Bruins can dominate the glass against a smallish opponent. Finally, although the Grizzlies play a fairly tough and disciplined style, they are probably the least athletic team the Bruins have faced up to this point, excluding Chaminade.
Oakland's best player is senior Vova Severovas (6'6" 225 lbs.), who is strictly an inside player, having attempted one three-pointer all season. He is shooting 50% form the field, is the team's leading scorer at 13.1 PPG, and the team's third leading rebounder at 4.9 RPG. The Oakland offense starts by trying to get the ball into the post, even if the post kicks it right back out, and Severovas is the first post option. He handles the ball well and can pass more than adequately. He is tough inside, but he lacks length and athleticism. Luc Mbah a Moute should have his way with Severovas, and Alfred Aboya and even James Keefe should do relatively well against the Lithuanian. In fact, this may be the best opportunity for Keefe to get significant minutes before the start of the conference season.
At the other post position is senior Shawn Hopes (6'7" 275 lbs). Hopes is a wide load who occupies a lot of space, but again, he isn't the most athletic player. He is second on the team in scoring at 11.7 PPG, one of only two other Grizzlies who averages double figures, but he only pulls down 4.5 RPG. Much of that is due to the fact that he isn't quick enough to get to balls that don't come down within his immediate reach. Lorenzo Mata, Ryan Wright and Aboya have to do a good job of establishing position offensively and keeping Hopes off the low block in order to neutralize him. The thing about Hopes and Severovas is that they both are good free throw shooters, averaging over 73% each from the line.
Off the bench, Kampe brings junior Patrick McCloskey (6'8" 225 lbs.), who, although only averaging 18+ MPG, actually leads the team in rebounding at 5.7 RPG. He isn't much of an offensive threat in that he has made only 2 of 14 shots this season. His role is to be a defensive and rebounding presence.
Sophomore Derick Nelson (6'5" 215 lbs.) has been getting increased minutes as of late, culminating in last night's start against Arkansas. In last night's contest, he led the Grizzlies with 16 points and 8 rebounds and if he starts, he might provide a stiffer challenge to Josh Shipp. Nelson is currently second on the team at 5.5 RPG, and he raised his scoring average last night to over 7 PPG. He is one of two Grizzlies who you can describe as athletic, but he is raw. His defense is very good and, if Kampe decides to go to a man defense throughout, Nelson may give Shipp some trouble.
In the backcourt, sophomore Erik Kangas (6'3" 195 lbs.) may be the most dangerous Grizzly for this game. He is the one player that Oakland has that can light it up from beyond the arc. Kangas is averaging over 49% on his 3s, and he has made 30 on the season. He averages only 10.5 PPG, but when he gets hot, he can carry the Grizzlies for long stretches. He is strictly a shooter, though, and has 7 more turnovers (20) than he does assists (13) this year. Arron Afflalo, after seeing what Texas A&M has to offer, should find defending Kangas a bit of an easier task as Kangas, like many of his teammates, isn't athletically gifted. In fact, Kangas only played 14 minutes last night against Arkansas, scoring no points. It remains to be seen if this diminished playing time was due to injury or not, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Razorbacks were just too fast for Kangas.
The point guard is freshman Johnathon Jones (6'0" 160 lbs.), who is the other "athletic" player on the Oakland roster, and quite frankly, I think he will develop into a good player, regardless of level. Jones leads the team with 25 assist, and averages 9.2 PPG. Outside of Kangas, Jones is the only other real 3-point threat, averaging over 47% from behind the arc. The problem with Jones is that he's a freshman and he makes a lot of freshman mistakes. He has 12 more turnovers than assists this year. He tends to over-dribble and gets caught in the "no man's land" of the lane. His shot selection is actually not all that great, either, shooting less than 40% from the floor. He tends to throw up a lot of junk hoping for a foul call, and than just doesn't work against elite competition, and now he has to face Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook. But keep this in mind: Jones was in the running for Mr. Basketball in Michigan the past two years, so he can play.
The guards off the bench are junior Brandon Cassie (6'3" 195 lbs.) and senior Rick Billings (6'4" 220 lbs.). Cassie is a shooter and has actually taken the second most three-point attempts on the team with 26. His issue is making them as he sits at 31% for the season. Billings is a nice player who actually has started until last night. He will score the occasional basket and pull down some boards, but he is certainly more of a "glue" guy for the team than any real offensive threat or defensive presence.
This game isn't that hard to figure out. Arkansas beat Oakland last night by 34 points. Arkansas is probably a 12-15 point loser to UCLA if they played right now. Oakland only shot 42% from the floor, had only 11 assists and had a whopping 27 turnovers, which has been their modus operandi against good competition. Now they play a team that has the potential to play suffocating defense that is more athletic and bigger than they are.
UCLA will have its own issues, however. They will be rusty, and I expect them to not take Oakland all that seriously, at least not in the beginning. Couple that with the fact that the Bruins have started slowly against poor competition this season and you have a recipe for only a 12-point or so game at the half. Finally, I fully expect Howland to get the bench fully involved with serious minutes on Saturday. It's key that he does this, and as I said before, this team will only go far if its bench is both deep and experienced.
Using that formula, I predict that the Bruins will win. I know, big stretch. But the margin will be smaller than some might think, especially considering the beating Oakland took last night.