Sam Houston State Preview

UCLA ends its run of mid-major non-conference competition with possibly its most formidable of the bunch, Sam Houston State, Tuesday at Pauley Pavilion. SHSU uses a style that could give UCLA problems, and, with the way UCLA hasn't blown out its previous mid-major opponents, this one could stay close...

UCLA is coming off a so-so performance against Oakland this past weekend. On the plus side, the Bruins were able to hold the Grizzlies to 32% shooting from the floor, while the Bruins themselves shot at over a 50% clip. But there were, however, lingering areas of concern, the most significant of which is that the Bruins were out-rebounded for the second game in a row, and this by a team that had no one bigger than 6'8" on the floor, and even then, he was the tallest Grizzly, by far. Now the Bruins prepare to meet Sam Houston State, the preseason pick to win the Southland Conference title.

The Bearkats are not a bad team. In fact, SHSU will be one of the better mid-majors that UCLA plays this season. Although the Bearkats are 6-4, three of those losses have come against Texas Tech, Southern Mississippi and Oklahoma State. And the Bearkats were in all three games until deep into the second half. They even led Bobby Knight's Red Raiders at the half. Granted, the Bearkats haven't beaten anyone of note, but they can certainly play. This is a team that, if the Bruins come out disinterested again, and, because of the Bruins' recent offensive style making games clos, who knows what could happen.

Head coach Bob Marlin has been at SHSU for 8 years and has built a winner. This may be his best team, although next year's version may be even better because the Bearkats only lose three players who see significant time. So while this is a relatively talented team, they are young and are prone to young mistakes.

The Bearkats' best player is junior Ryan Bright (6'6" 210 lbs.), who is averaging 16 PPG and 7.8 RPG. This kid is a heck of an athlete and can play against opposition that is two to three inches bigger than he is. Bright shoots over 52% form the field and a respectable 36% from behind the arc. If there is an area of the game where Bright needs to improve, it's at the free throw line where he shoots only 57%. Based on their personnel, Bright may play some at the ‘4' and some at the ‘5'. That means that Lorenzo Mata (and Alfred Aboya, Ryan Wright and James Keefe), and Luc Mbah a Moute will need to be on their defensive games in order to slow down Bright. In general, as Bright goes, so do SHSU's fortunes. This past Saturday, SHSU was defeated by UC-Irvine in overtime, in a game where Bright only scored 6 points.

The other starting post will be senior Aaron Wade, (6'7" 221 lbs.), who is third on the team in scoring at 11 PPG and second on the team in rebounding at 5.1 RPG. Wade is actually a better three-point shooter than Bright, and if he gets hot, he can carry the Bearkats for stretches. Wade is more of a slasher and perimeter player than Bright is, and he gives the Berakat forward tandem a nice inside-out look. He is a much better free\-throw shooter than Bright, averaging 73% for the season. If there's an area of Wade's game that needs improvement, it's his physicality. He can get "lost" against imposing front lines.

Sophomore Reggie Rawlins (6'6" 204 lbs.) completes the usual starting frontcourt for the Bearkats. Rawlins is almost a strictly inside player, as all but 8 of his shots have come inside the arc this season. But he's only been to the free throw line 9 times (and only made 2), so that shows that he is first, a jump shooter, and second, not one of the first options on offense. Josh Shipp will almost certainly be matched up against him, but Rawlins may not play much depending on what Coach Marlin thinks the Bearkats need at a given moment.

In that case, junior Jeremy Thomas (6'0" 183 lbs.) comes off the bench to give the Bearkats a three-guard look. Thomas actually plays starter's minutes and is a leader on the team. He is fourth on the team in scoring at 7.5 PPG and is the team's best three-point threat, averaging 57% from behind the arc. Don't be surprised to see the three-guard set as it presents UCLA with match-up issues. Thomas, like the other Bearkat guards, is shifty and quick and he will give Shipp, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Mike Roll and Russell Westbrook pause, if they don't "show up" to play.

If Bright isn't the best Bearkat, then senior Jajuan Plair (6'1" 182 lbs.) is. The starting point guard for SHSU is very good with the ball, having a 2.4/1 assist to turnover ratio. Plair is also second on the team in scoring at 13.7 PPG, and averages a shade under 6 APG. He even rebounds well, given his size, at 4.4 RPG. If there is a knock on Plair, and it is significant, it's that he's a poor jump shooter. He averages less than 28% from behind the arc and is only shooting about 40% from the floor overall. Plair can play out of control at times, forcing shots, which are virtually like turnovers anyway. Collison and Afflalo, who I am sure will be matched-up on Plair, just need to play solid defense, not going for too much, too often, and Plair may shoot SHSU out of the game.

The usual starting ‘2' guard is junior Shamir McDaniel (6'1" 191 lbs.), who is an odd duck. His free-throw percentage is almost at 84%, but his shooting percentage is woeful -- 29% from the floor overall! He will take numerous three-point shots, but he's hitting only 17% of those. He, too, is more of a jump shooter, but he, like the other two guards, is quick enough to get to the hoop if the Bruins aren't paying attention.

The three main bench players after these "big six" are freshman point guard Ashton Mitchell (5'10 174 lbs.), who is very quick, but also prone to dribbling too far into the paint and getting lost (and not in a good way); junior forward James Barrett (6'5" 247 lbs.), a wide-body to spell Bright and Wade; and senior C.J. Hadley (6'4" 176 lbs.), who will play any of the 2-4 spots on the floor. None of these three get big minutes or are terribly worrisome offensive threats, although Mitchell is a better than 50% shooter. All three have started this year for Marlin, so if one of them is inserted into the starting line-up, don't be surprised.

If a UCLA fan might have a concern about this game, none is bigger than the Bearkats' style of play. They tend to run several offensive sets, but their bread and butter is the spread offense that is more similar to Herb Sendek's North Carolina State teams than, say a Princeton (By the way, with Sendek now being the coach at Arizona State, do you think Coach Howland scheduled this game for a reason?) The spread style tends to look for several things. First, it seeks to put the defensive players in a position on the floor where defensive help has to come a long way in order for it to be effective. Second, because of this, it makes it easier for quicker players to get into the lane with the ball so that when the help does come, they can simply kick the ball out to the open shooter who has a nice look at either a three or a mid-range jumper. UCLA's defense is predicated on help generally rotating over from the post or from the opposite side wing (or, more than one pass away). In the spread, the help often has to come from the same side, leaving an easier pass to a shooter. In other words, not a skip pass. Cal-Riverside tried something like this against the Bruins a few weeks ago, and it worked for a while. It frustrated the Bruins and slowed down the pace. And Riverside wasn't used to it; it was more of a desperation move by a team wracked by injury. The Bearkats use this as their main offense, and they have the players to do it.

On defense, the Bearkats, when they show man defense, play a lot like Dick Bennett's teams from Wazzu and Wisconsin. They defend the paint like it's their home and force guards to move laterally. If you're not hitting your open jumpers, it could be a tough night. SHSU probably doesn't have near the personnel to play man all night against the Bruins, and their lack of height also will tend to doom any success of a zone, although the Bruins will see it as Marlin will change his looks.

The Bruins should win this game handily, but with the spread offense, the UCLA offense, which is bogging down at times, and the fact that the Bruins have been, in effect, playing down to some of their mid-major competition, this could be closer than some might think. The Bruins had a scare last year with a mid-major (I forget if it was Albany or Wagner), and in this day of more parity in college basketball, it isn't rare to see a big conference team like UCLA struggle a bit against a mid-major, so I am thinking that this is the truly scary game. It would be nice if the Bruins could simply win the rebounding battle (and they should, by quite a few), but I still have this gut feeling that this one is going to be close. And if Pauley Pavilion has a lot of empty seats, then it's much less likely that SHSU, who've already played at Hank-Iba Arena in Stillwater, OK., will be intimidated.

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