Preview of Pittsburgh Game

The #2-seeded UCLA Bruins move into the Sweet 16 with a much-publicized game against #3-seed Pittsburgh Thursday in San Jose's HP Pavilion. The two teams are very similar, right down to the same terminology they use, but the personnel is what makes them different, and UCLA has an edge in the match-ups...

UCLA and Pittsburgh have to be similar. Pittsburgh was coached by Ben Howland before he came to UCLA, and now by Howland's former first assistant, Jamie Dixon. Dixon was with Howland since his Northern Arizona days, so Dixon's style of basketball has been forged by Howland's influence.

The styles of the two teams definitely are similar. There is a big emphasis on defense and rebounding, as well as being very physical. On offense, both teams execute a pretty strict offense, running a play deep into the shot clock and not taking many quick shots. In fact, the two teams run many of the same plays with the same terminology. Pittsburgh might use a bit of a zone on defense, but they should utilize primarily a man D.

Where the teams differ is in the level of talent, and where it happens to be mostly situated, and that also changes the teams' styles. UCLA is a perimeter-oriented team, since most of its offensive scoring comes from its perimeter players, while Pittsburgh is a look-inside-first team since it has one of the best low-post scorers in the nation.

The Panthers' offense runs through senior center Aaron Gray (7-0, 270), who is the team's leading scorer, averaging 14.9 points per game, and leading rebounder, getting 9.6 per game. He is a huge human being, as Howland said in his press conference Monday, and combines his big body with a very nice skill set. He's good on the low block, particularly, being able to go to either hand with some very strong post footwork. Many times he scores merely because of the position he carved out with his 270 pounds, which results in easy lay-ins. He'll face up and shoot from within 12 feet, and do it well. He gets a good portion of his scoring from offensive rebounds also. UCLA definitely has its hands full with Gray, since he could be the best low-block scorer UCLA has faced all season.

But UCLA's frontcourt personnel looks to match up well against Gray. UCLA's Lorenzo Mata fares much better against true low-post centers, rather than those that step out and shoot. Gray isn't very athletic, lacking lateral quickness and hops, getting it done with size and position mostly, and those are the other types of centers that Mata does well against. Gray does have probably a good three inches on Mata, but Indiana's D.J. White, with his long wingspan, probably plays at least as big as Gray does, and possibly bigger since White is far more athletic. Mata was definitely challenged by White, mostly because of his combination of size, length and athleticism, but Gray isn't White, lacking that kind of ability to get up. Mata's athleticism should at least even out things when they're battling in the low block. UCLA will probably also attempt to double Gray in spots, trying to selectively trap him along the baseline as they effectively did White. Despite what Howland said about Gray, he's not a great passer; in fact, it's been one of his issues since being at Pitt, that he doesn't see the floor well passing out of the post. He's gotten better but he's still not great at it, so that could compel UCLA to double him more often, since he could struggle to find anyone out of the double.

Alfred Aboya, also, while he gives up at least 4 inches and probably 30 pound to Gray, is strong, like Mata, and will have a good chance of keeping Gray in check because of his athleticism. Aboya's issue is limiting his bad decisions, which tends to get him in foul trouble. UCLA will need both Mata and Aboya's 10 combined fouls to contend with Gray. Watch for Ryan Wright, too, to get at least a few minutes, just to give Mata and Aboya some time on the bench, where they can't foul anyone. Gray isn't a great free-throw shooter, shooting only 55%, so UCLA shouldn't be shy about playing him physically and sending him to the line. In fact, Mata's emerging effectiveness as a low-block scorer would be a good thing for UCLA to utilize, to possibly draw more fouls on Gray.

One big reason Pitt has lived up to expectations this year was a somewhat unexpected contribution from East Carolina transfer, junior Mike Cook (6-4, 220). Cook is the team's second leading scorer, averaging 10.3 points per game. He's not only a scorer, who can slash to the basket and get out on a break, he's the team's best three-point shooter, averaging 49% from behind the arc. This guy has Arron Afflalo written all over him. The Afflalo/Cook match-up will be one of the best of the game.

Sophomore Levance Fields (5-10, 190) runs the point, and he does so competently. He's a stocky, fireplug-type of guy, who is strong on the ball, tough to pick and doesn't make many bad decisions. He's averaging 4.6 assists per game, and has a 2.4/1 assist-to-turnover ratio. While he's probably the third or even fourth scoring option on the team, he's a solid shooter, averaging 41% from three. He isn't a constant threat to penetrate, but likes to stay on the perimeter and set up his teammates, and then wait for the kick-out for the three. He hasn't been shooting well lately, and it's a cause for concern by many Pitt fans. Darren Collison definitely has an advantage over Fields, in terms of size, speed and athleticism. A big factor in this game should be whether Fields can stay with Collison, and whether Collison will be aggressive in trying to take Fields off the dribble. When Collison is guarding Fields, he should give him problems; Fields struggled a bit against Virginia Commonweath's ball pressure in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It would be a good opportunity for Russell Westbrook to see some time since his size and athleticism would be a real problem for Fields.

Starting at the two-guard spot is senior Antonio Graves (6-3, 190), who is a combo guard averaging 9.4 points and 2.4 assist per game. He brings some strong senior leadership in his first season starting, and is perhaps the Panthers' best on-ball defender. He's definitely not afraid to shoot the ball, however, shooting 40% from three, and has had some big games this year, when Gray and Cook were shut down and Graves stepped up.

The final starter is senior power forward Levon Kendall (6-10, 225), who averages 5.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Howland brought in Kendall, who redshirted his first year, and he's Howland's type of four man, a guy who likes to face the basket to shoot. He's much more comfortable shooting the 12-footer than with his back to the basket, but if he has a size advantage on his defender, he's not afraid to use his body to score inside either. He'll occasionally put up a three, but only when left very open and he isn't great at it, shooting just 29% from three-point land on the season. This is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's match-up, and, like with UCLA's bigs against Graves, while Mbah a Moute gives up probably 2 to 3 inches to Kendall, he makes up for it in length and athleticism. Kendall plays smaller than 6-10, and Mbah a Moute plays bigger than 6-7. Mbah a Moute will be able to get right up in Kendall since he's quicker and Kendall isn't that big of a threat to take Mbah a Moute off the dribble. Inside, Mbah a Moute is a better natural rebounder. Kendall, also, should struggle a bit staying with Mbah a Moute on defense, and it's a match-up UCLA should look to exploit in their offense, giving Mbah a Moute the ball 15 feet from the basket and letting him create with Kendall guarding him. Kendall, though, is a tough-nosed kid, a glue guy for Pitt, and he plays hard all the time – in other words, a Howland-type of guy.

Pitt has a good bench, with four players other than the starters getting double-digit minutes per game. Getting close to starter's minutes (23 per game) is junior combo guard Ronald Ramon (6-1, 180), who started most of 2005-2006. He spells both Fields and Graves, and is definitely the equivalent of a starter, averaging 8.8 points per game and 1.8 assists. He's a solid player, a decent ball-handler who doesn't turn it over much, and a very streaky shooter. He's made 46% of his shots from three, and can get hot, especially when left open. He, like Fields, struggled in his ball-handling against VCU.

Sophomore Sam Young (6-6, 215) gets 17 minutes per game being the first frontcourt guy off the bench, averaging 7.1 points and 3.3 rebounds. He has some great hops, and is generally used to guard anyone that is too athletic for Kendall. It's pretty clear that if Kendall fails to stay with Mbah a Moute, Dixon will be going to Young extensively. Young is tough on the offensive side, too, using his athleticism to get put-backs on the offensive boards. Young is a far more difficult match-up for Mbah a Moute than Kendall.

The other two players that get any kind of real time off the bench are junior guard Keith Benjamin (6-2, 190), and sophomore big Tyrell Biggs (6-8, 245), both of whom get about 11 minutes per game. Benjamin is used to help with perimeter defense, being a good, strong athlete, but he isn't much of an offensive threat. Biggs provides breather minutes at both center and forward, and contributes to Pitt's big, physical style of play.

Depth is an advantage for Pittsburgh, especially at this time of the season, and especially the way these two teams play defense. UCLA was clearly fatigued late in the second half of the Indiana game.

UCLA, however, has a talent advantage. They have match-up advantages at point guard (which is key), shooting guard, probably small forward and at power forward. Pitt holds the advantage at the center position.

Both teams are going to play their same, physical brand of man defense. Pitt occasionally goes to a zone, to keep Gray out of foul trouble, and could a bit more against UCLA since the Bruins have tended to struggle against it. But after each team beats up each other with their D, the edge could go to the team that is better offensively. If Afflalo, Collison and Shipp play just average offensive games for each of them, UCLA has more firepower than Pitt. While Pitt's perimeter players can get hot, they aren't spectacular, and the Panthers rely heavily on Gray. When he's been defended well, or has gone cold or gotten in foul trouble, Pitt's offense has struggled. They go through scoring droughts that make UCLA's scoring droughts look minor. They get less points in transition than UCLA does. UCLA has more weapons and can survive far easier if one of those weapons goes cold than Pitt.

Even the team's significant stats are similar. Both UCLA and Pitt average 71 points per game. UCLA's opponents average 59 points and Pitt's 62 points per game. UCLA averages 48% shooting per game, and Pitt 47.5%. UCLA allows the opposition to shoot 42%, Pitt 41%. They've had a few common opponents, but you can't take much from the results; UCLA has lost to two of them, Washington and West Virginia, who Pittsburgh beat, a total of three times.

It's safe to say that it's going to be a tough, physical match-up. There could be some players bleeding and limping off before the 40 minutes expires. It will probably be a low-scoring game that gets labeled a defensive battle, but it will probably be UCLA's offensive edge that gives the Bruins the victory and sends them on to the Elite Eight.

UCLA 60
Pittsburgh 55


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