After two teams that like to play a half-court, eat-up-the-shot-clock, we're-happy-if-we-never-get-a-fast-break-point type of game, UCLA now goes up against a team that would rather run than play halfcourt, and would rather take you off the dribble than execute a play.
The match-up of UCLA versus Kansas (33-4) is similar to last year's regional final, when UCLA faced #1 seed Memphis, with Memphis and Kansas being similar teams – athletic, run-and-gun types.
Kansas, perhaps, is better than Memphis was a year ago. They're probably equally as athletic, possibly more talented, and they play far better defense.
On one hand, it's a good match-up for UCLA, since UCLA tends to do well against teams that play loose on offense and don't execute much. On the other hand, UCLA hasn't done well against offenses that spread them out, rotate the ball quickly to find the lapse in rotation and shoot well, and that's what Kansas is. They do it with a wide degree of effectiveness and efficiency – sometimes being very good at it and other times being very sloppy. They aren't as consistent as it as some teams UCLA is familiar with, like Oregon, but they make up for it with transition scoring.
Because of their size and athleticism, Kansas also presents UCLA with one of its toughest match-ups in terms of personnel this season.
The guy that really makes the match-up tough is small forward Brandon Rush (6-6, 210). Rush might be 6-7 and he's well-built, and has some of the best hops in college basketball. He's also pretty quick laterally, especially for his size. With how the match-ups happen, Rush is the guy for Kansas that presents problems for UCLA. Lorenzo Mata will match up against KU's center, Sasha Kaun (6-11, 245), when Kaun's in the game. Kansas Head Coach Bill Self likes to go small, and quicker and more athletic, and uses very good freshman Darrell Arthur (6-9, 230) at the five. At the four is one of the best four men in the country in sophomore Julian Wright (6-8, 225), another hyper athlete with skills. So, Mata gets Kaun or Arthur, and if Mbah a Moute gets assigned Wright, then it would fall to probably Josh Shipp to guard Rush. Rush has Shipp by a good two inches and quite a bit of athleticism. Rush is KU's leading scorer, averaging 13.7 points per game, and he can do it by shooting the ball (shoots 42% from three), driving the lane or finishing around the basket. He sometimes just takes a couple of dribbles into the lane and jumps in the air, and has such tremendous hops, he decides in the air what he's going to do. He can get up around the rim so quickly that you often misjudge his ability to finish.
So, what if you put Arron Afflalo on Rush instead of Shipp?
Aflalo tends to always get the opposing team's leading scorer. But if Afflalo was assigned Rush, UCLA doesn't match up well against KU's backcourt. The starters are guards Russell Robinson (6-1, 200) and Mario Chalmers (6-1, 195), and both are quick athletes. Both are poing guards, but since Chalmers is the better shooter and scorer (12.5 points per game), he plays off the ball most of the time, while Robinson is more physical. The bottom line, you definitely need Afflalo's on-ball defense to limit either one of these two guys. Shipp wouldn't be able to stay with either one's quickness.
So, Shipp is probably going to be forced to defend Rush. Now, if Shipp plays the good defense he has in the NCAA tournament, it's a huge boost. That enables UCLA to keep him on Rush, and allows them to use Afflalo on Chalmers.
UCLA will also have the other option of playing Alfred Aboya extensively. He could match up against Wright fine, and that would give you the opportunity to use Mbah a Moute against Rush. Probably the biggest weakness in Rush's game is his ability to put the ball on the floor. It's not horrible, by any means, but his handle is a bit suspect. You'd love to be able to use Luc's physicality in disrupting Rush when he tries to bounce it, and Luc's size and athleticism to try to neutralize Rush around the basket.
What Self does in terms of using his players is interesting. He desperately wants to go small, and be athletic and quick. So, he tends to use Kaun sparingly. He played only 11 minutes against Southern Illinois, a team that goes small and quick itself. In that game Thursday, KU was able to dominate more, however, when it went big with Kaun in the game. As stated above, when Kaun is on the floor, the way the match-ups happen, Rush then becomes a very tough match-up for opposing teams. But you can probably still expect Self to play mostly small, which probably helps UCLA's match-ups.
KU is deep, as is obvious, by the amount of guys already mentioned here. Getting a starter's amount of playing time is freshman guard Sherron Collins (5-11, 200), who was one of the best guards to come out of high school a year ago. Collins is built solidly, and combines that with great quickness and ability to penetrate. He is still, though, playing AAU basketball, playing out of control at times and being sloppy with the ball. Make no mistake, though, he's a great talent and is tough to guard, and he can also shoot the ball pretty well, too. Self will go very small at times, and play Collins, Robinson and Chalmers together, trying to out-quick their opponent. UCLA, however, with Collison and Afflalo's on-ball D being among the best of any backcourt in the country, and Shipp probably able to hold down Robinson for a short period of time since he isn't a great scorer, UCLA matches up fine against KU's three-guard lineup. It would interesting, however, if Ben Howland opted to use Russell Westbrook along with Collison and Afflalo against KU when they go three-guard, since Westbrook is a superior defender.
KU loves to shoot the three, and will all day if given open looks. If an opponent actually defends them well on the perimeter, their offense becomes a drive-and-kick thing. They don't execute many actual plays, but set screens to free up the ball-handler, or to get someone a catch on the perimeter to give him a step on his defender. They'll even go to a weave to get everyone moving toward the basket. So, the KU guards drive and kick, or dish to Wright or Arthur for a low-block finish.
Where they tend to get off track is, with all of this ballhandling going on, and with so much youth on the team, they tend to over-handle and make mistakes. They average 14 turnovers a game, and commonly pass ball behind cutters or jump to pass because they find themselves so wound up, driving to the basket, with nothing to do.
It's critical that UCLA's interior defense is quick to help and rotates well. UCLA has done it well at times against similar offenses, like against Oregon in Pauley Pavilion, but has also been poor at it, like against Cal in the Pac-10 Tournament. For UCLA, it's all a matter of effort, and you can't believe there'd be an effort issue playing for a Final Four berth. The issue could be a matter of fatigue. With KU trying to get as many transition points as it can, and running around in their half-court spread offense, UCLA needs to stay fresh. It again could come down to how much quality time UCLA can get out of its bench in the first half to keep the starters fresh for the second half.
What makes KU probably better than Memphis a year ago is its defense. It's one thing to have athletes, it's another thing to get them to buy into playing defense, and probably Self's biggest accomplishment is that he's gotten them to buy in on D. Many consider KU one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding opponents to 37% field goal percentage. Much of that is because of their perimeter pressure supplied by Chalmers, Robinson and Collins. Inside, actually, Wright and Arthur are just okay defenders, being susceptible to inside scorers who know how to pump fake and use their body.
Because of its youth, Kansas has, sometimes, played down to its competition, losing to DePaul and Oral Roberts this year. It also lost to Texas A&M, a team UCLA beat on a neutral court. But this late in the season, the younger Jayhawks should all be considered veterans.
In fact, Kansas is probably the hottest team in the country right now. They haven't lost since February third (to Texas A&M), they're shooting 54% from three in the NCAA tournament, and because of their depth, they look fresh.
The one kink in the armor was how well Southern Illinois did against KU on Thursday. SIU did it by playing very strong man defense, taking away KU's transition points and forcing them to get impatient and make mistakes in their halfcourt offense. This, right now, is UCLA's calling card.
So, it definitely is a great match-up, of players, teams and styles. UCLA's defense has been stellar, but they haven't probably faced a team as talented as KU yet this year. It could come down to whether UCLA gets fatigued, and if UCLA can sustain the intensity on defense it has so far in its tournament games.
There is also the factor of Arron Afflalo's shooting slump. Opposing teams in the NCAA tournament have had some 6-4, well-built guy to shadow Afflalo around the court. KU doesn't have that; more than likely, Russell Robinson will get the assignment of guarding Afflalo, and Afflalo has Robinson by about 3 inches and 20 pounds. UCLA will look to exploit this mis-match, posting up Afflalo, and hopefully, with his size and strength advantage, he'll get better looks from the outside, so he can get back on track shooting the ball. But, if Afflalo doesn't have a good shooting night, it's going to be tough for UCLA to win.
Also, Lorenzo Mata and Luc Mbah a Moute could be key inside. KU's interior defense isn't its best asset, and Mata could possibly exploit the freshman Arthur if he gets the ball in the block. While most pundits are not giving UCLA's interior scoring much credit, and understandably, Mata getting the ball down low could give UCLA some offensive boost. Mbah a Moute simply has to be the good Luc to keep the big, athletic Jayhawks off the boards.
UCLA's defense will show up. It's really a question of whether KU's youth will be able to stay poised and not get impatient and stupid against it. Most of the time, it's smart to go with the veteran defensive team against a loose, young team, no matter how talented. There will be the inevitable, defensive letdown by UCLA in the second half and a run by KU that the Bruins will have to weather. Having played so close to home throughout the NCAA tournament is also worth a couple of points.
The Bruins go to Final Four for the second year in a row.