Preview of Youngstown State

UCLA opens up in the first round of the CBE Classic tonight at Pauley Pavilion against Youngstown State. The Penguins weren't good last year, and they lost their top two scorers. The big question for #2 UCLA is not winning or losing, but how will Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute do?

UCLA hosts the Youngstown State Penguins on Monday in the opening game of the CBE Classic. This one is simple; this game should be much less competitive than the game the Bruins played on Friday against Portland State. However, there are some things that the Bruins must work on as the season starts kicking into gear. In particular, both Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute must look to be better than they were on Friday.

The YSU Penguins are opening their season on Monday. How's this for stats: They are coming off a 14-win campaign in which they were blown out by Wisconsin-Green Bay in the Horizon Conference tournament…and that was their best season in more than a decade! The people in Youngstown know that they are a football school and anything positive that happens on the hardwood is simply icing on the cake. The "Guins." as they like to call themselves, are going to California for the first time in school history. Finally, their top two scorers who accounted for almost 50% of their scoring from last season are gone. Look, this isn't a very good team.

The Guins are coached by Jerry Slocum in his 3rd year at YSU. He stresses defense and patience on offense (sound familiar)? In fact, the 2006-2007 Guins only broke 70 points 12 times. They run a disciplined offense that requires tight screening and good reads by all five players on the floor. It's not a motion offense, but it has many of a motion's elements. It is the kind of offense, though, that is hard to execute when you are playing as many newcomers as Slocum is this season. YSU will play hard and smart on defense and they rebound well as a team, but they simply don't have the horses to hold the Bruins down nor do they have any known quantity on the roster that is what one would call a "good" outside shooter.

There are three solid returning players for Slocum starting with senior point guard Byron Davis (6'2" 180 lbs.). Davis is YSU's leading returning scorer, averaging just over 8PPG last season. He is more of a pure point, though, so he really won't look to score. Davis started his career at New Mexico State but transferred when it became apparent after Reggie Theus' arrival that he wasn't going to see many minutes. He's a solid player but I question whether he would even see the floor if he was on the current Bruin roster.

6th man John Barber (6'7" 220 lbs.), a senior forward, is also a solid player. But he is far from a go-to-guy, which is really a core problem with the Guins. Barber will work hard and he will rebound. The other name to mention is junior Jack Liles (6'8" 240 lbs.), who will have to do the work against Kevin Love and the rest of the Bruin post players. Liles is a rebounding machine, especially on the offensive end, and the Guins will probably run their offense through Liles, but he too is more of a complimentary player. Besides, Liles is going to have his hands full defending players the caliber of which he's never seen before.

The rest of the YSU roster is filled with players who are either new to the program or those who saw as few minutes as the Bruin walk-ons did. As a result they are a tough team to scout but, since they played for years in a conference I was intimately familiar with (the Mid-Continent Conference), I know what kind of players they bring in. If they have a true impact freshman I'd be shocked. In fact, it is that consistent lack of a go-to threat that has hamstrung Slocum and the succession of coaches that came before him. He knows the game and has a good system, but when you don't have a player who can carry a team, even for short periods of a game, you're only going to go so far. And this is an odd thing as the Guins have had a 30-point scorer in a game seven times in Slocum's first two seasons. The problem is that the player who goes off for 30 in one game scores 3 in the next game. There is no consistency in the scoring for YSU.

I am not trying to "bag" on the Penguins, but this is a "cupcake" game. If it weren't for Western Illinois, this would be the worst team on the Bruin schedule. It says a lot about a team when the coach states, "This isn't the kind of team that's going to be anywhere near the finished product in November…as we mature I expect that by January we'll be ready to play a competitive conference season." That's coach-speak for, "We're young and we won't be good at all this season." That begs the question as to whether the Bruins should just mail this game in.

While Darren Collison's injured ankle is regrettable, you couldn't have timed it better for him to miss a specific game. After all, the Bruins are playing a team that would stand a good chance of losing to Azusa Pacific. It's absolutely inconceivable that the Bruins won't be playing on Tuesday in the 2nd round of the CBE Classic. It would be smart to give players like Chase Stanback and Nikola Dragovic serious minutes so that they might be better prepared if they are truly needed down the stretch of the season.

But, Kevin Love stills needs to work on his stamina and, more importantly, if the Bruins are going to get through any real injuries this season they must get more out of Mbah a Moute and Westbrook. Westbrook has to be more comfortable and more fluid in running the offense. If he isn't, then Howland is going to be less likely to sit Collison later in the season when even 2 or 3 extra minutes of rest in a game can mean the difference between winning and losing. Mbah a Moute is a different matter. It has been written that Mbah a Moute has to get back to what made him so successful; rebounding and interior play. Most people use the example of his freshman season but I look at last year's season opener against BYU. Mbah a Moute played exactly to his strengths and went off. Now he needs to get back to that. Howland has proven himself to be a very good coach at putting his players in the best position to maximize their strengths and I have to assume that this will ultimately be no different. But Mbah a Moute has to be willing to do it. That means not being flashy but smart.

The most interesting part of this game is whether these two Bruins can play a better game than in the opener. The most entertaining part of the game may very well be how the crowd responds to the return of former Coach Steve Lavin, who is doing the color commentary for ESPN's broadcast. But this one should be over early.

UCLA 80
Youngstown State 52


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