NCAA: Weber State Preview

UCLA begins its quest for a second-straight Final Four by taking on #15-seed Weber State Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. UCLA is clearly more talented than the Wildcats and, if they come out with focus, shouldn't be challenged, even with Darren Collison's injury...

UCLA enters the NCAA Tournament on a two-game losing streak. Because of this late season dip in form the Bruins possibly squandered what was surely a #1 regional seed and perhaps the #1 overall seed in the tournament. As it is, things could have been worse than receiving the #2 seed in the West Region, which will keep the Bruins in California for the entirety of the first four rounds of the Big Dance, should the Bruins make it that far. The Tournament Selection Committee could have moved the Bruins to a different regional site, which then would have meant a much tougher road to Atlanta for UCLA.

The Bruins will play the champions of the Big Sky Conference, Weber State, the #15 seeded team in the West Region. The Wildcats finished as the regular season and tournament champions of the Big Sky with a record of 20-11. While the 20-win season is impressive in and of itself, a closer inspection of the teams that Weber State played indicates a fairly easy schedule. Besides the Big Sky schedule, the Wildcats played only two teams of any strength, two of which, BYU and Washington, UCLA also played. UCLA defeated BYU by double-digits in the first game of the year, while Weber State lost to the Cougars in overtime in Ogden when the Cougars were going through a rough stretch of the season. UCLA split with Washington, winning by a bunch in Los Angeles and losing by 10 in Seattle. The Wildcats lost to the Huskies in Seattle by 29 in a game that wasn't that close. It's obvious on paper that the Bruins should win this game handily, both based on talent and based on their respective schedules. But that's why they play the games, isn't it? Let's take a look at the Wildcats.

The key player for Weber State is Big Sky Player of the Year, senior David Patten (6'8" 220 lbs.). Patten has played the past few summers in the Los Angeles Say No League against many Bruins and was, in fact, on the same team as Arron Afflalo. There is a sense of familiarity between several of the Bruins and Patten. This most certainly favors the Bruins as the players will not be surprised by Patten's particular abilities. Patten leads the team in scoring at 14.4 PPG and is second on the team at 5.5 RPG. Patten is an inside/out player who is as comfortable behind the three point line as he is on the low block. But make no mistake; Patten is much more comfortable facing the basket than he is with his back to it. There is no questioning Patten's toughness. Earlier in the year Patten suffered a broken cheekbone because of a nasty elbow to the face against Northern Colorado. Patten played the next game, had surgery after and then played two nights after the surgery. Patten, who started his career at Pepperdine before going on to Santa Ana Junior College, likes to drive to the hoop, using a hard right-handed drive to at least get to the foul line when things are going poorly on offense for the Wildcats. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will almost certainly be assigned to guard Patten. While an inch shorter than Patten, Luc is stronger, quicker and more athletic than the Wildcat leader. Even if Luc doesn't score, if he shuts down Patten, then UCLA will easily win the game. One last point; Patten is the worst free throw shooter amongst the starters at 54%.

Patten is a good illustration of the disparity in talent between UCLA and Weber State. A few summers ago, after Patten left Pepperdine, he played quite a bit on UCLA's campus in pick-up games and intended to transfer to UCLA. But UCLA didn't think he was worthy of a scholarship. This might be bulletin-board material for Patten, but Weber State's best player wasn't good enough to get a scholarship as even a role player at UCLA.

Coach Randy Rahe, in his first year at Weber State, typically starts a three-guard offense. The only other post player in the starting line-up outside of Patten is Lithuanian junior Arturas Valeika (6'9" 215 lbs.). Valeika is very much like Texas A&M post man Antanas Kavaliauskas, in that neither man likes to play outside of the low post. Valeika is the one true banger on Weber State. He leads the team in rebounding at 6.6 RPG while adding 8.1 PPG. Valeikas will shoot the three (having taken 23), but only steps outside when all else fails. Mata will be asked to keep the Lithuanian off the boards and also to make him work hard on defense by giving the Bruins a viable low-post option.

Of the three guards in Rahe's starting line-up the most important is sophomore Juan Pablo Silveira. Rahe's offense doesn't really have a true point guard; the three starting backcourt men share the duty. Silveira is the best ball handler of the three, while he also leads the team in assists at 3.3 APG. He is also the best outside shooter on the team, averaging 46% from behind the arc, and the second-leading scorer, averaging 11.2 PPG. Silveira is also a clutch free-throw shooter, averaging 78%. Arron Afflalo will certainly be the toughest defender that Silveira has seen this season and it isn't a stretch to suggest that Afflalo will be able to shut down Silveira. Afflalo is coming off one of his worst defensive performances ever. It should be assumed that Afflalo is going to bring his ‘A' game at both ends of the floor on Thursday.

The second of the starting guards is senior Dan Henry (6'5" 190 lbs.), who gives the Wildcats some size at the wing position but really plays much more like a post player. His spot on the floor is more assured because of his leadership and his gritty playing style. He isn't much of a shooting threat, averaging only 19% from three, on 42 attempts. He is a solid rebounder, averaging 4.1 RPG. He is the type of player that can't beat you single-handedly, but he can cause problems if he is forgotten. Josh Shipp has to stay focused on the defensive end, but in his favor is the fact that Henry isn't going to make him run around too much. Henry is an average ball-handler so Shipp should be in close defense on Henry at all times, forcing him to put the ball on the floor, especially to his left.

The final starter is junior Dezmon Harris (6'1" 175 lbs.). Harris is the other primary ball handler other than Silveira. He is the slasher in the backcourt, getting to the free-throw line 188 times this season. He averages 10.9 PPG and 41 % from behind the arc. He is second on the team in assists with 76 but his assist-to-turnover ratio is horrible. Darren Collison will be charged with keeping Harris out of the lane, as will Russell Westbrook, who I think we'll see more of because of Collison's ankle injury. A player like Harris is quick enough to cause Collison to tweak his ankle if he isn't careful.

Weber State plays a lot of players, so expect to see significant minutes form the bench, especially from junior sharpshooter Brody Van Brocklin (6'2" 180 lbs). More that 2/3s of Van Brocklin's shots have come from behind the arc, where he is averaging 43%. Also off the bench is junior guard Eric Turner (6'3" 195 lbs.), who is primarily used to spell Silveira and Harris. Junior Tyler Billings (6'7" 220 lbs.) provides some size off the bench for the Wildcats and he averages 8.2 PPG, 53% from the floor and from behind the arc – and all of this in only 18 MPG. Finally, sophomore Daviin Davis (6'4" 185 lbs.) provides a dose of athleticism that no one else on the roster really has. Rahe doesn't have a player that averages more than 29 MPG and he has nine players that average double digits in minutes.

The Bruins need to establish the tone early. On defense they really need to be sharp, fighting through screens and owning the defensive glass, and on offense where getting both Collison to play smarter and with more confidence and Afflalo to get more touches is paramount.

The UCLA bench gives the Bruins a significant advantage, with Alfred Aboya, Mike Roll and Russell Westbrook all capable of starting for Weber State. Hopefully Howland will be able to use them for significant minutes by choice and not by necessity. I think the Bruins will bear down and wear down the Wildcats, but Collison should be limited in his minutes by Howland to save him for Saturday, unless the Bruins truly need him. So expect Westbrook to play significant minutes. Because of this I expect the Bruins to win, but not by the 30-40 some are predicting. Westbrook will make some mistakes, but that's okay if it gets the Bruins ready for Saturday. The fact that Weber State plays a zone for much of the time may actually help Westbrook to have a better, confidence-building game.

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