Davidson is a mid-major power from the Southern Conference, but they are unlike many mid-major teams that the Bruins have and will face in that they have a legitimate chance to win virtually any game they play and they schedule top teams from the "power" conferences. The Wildcats come into the UCLA game having already played North Carolina and Duke, and although they lost to both, they were two very close games that show that Davidson can play with many of the nation's elite.
Davidson has been built into the power that they are by Coach Bob McKillop, who is in his 19th season at the helm of the tiny liberal arts college. McKillop has instituted a system than takes advantage of the natural abilities of his players (the school is a traditional bastion of academic excellence), and couples it with one or two very good players/athletes who flew under the radar of the bigger programs. McKillop has an excellent eye for talent and knows how to use the talent he has amassed. McKillop may be Davidson's best weapon as he will rarely, if ever, be outclassed by an opposing coach. Although UCLA has Ben Howland on the bench, this game appears to be no different, which isn't in any way a slight to Howland, but rather is indicative of how good of a game coach McKillop is.
This year's edition of the Wildcats benefits from the fact that they return not only all of last season's starters, but every scholarship player from last season's roster. The players on this team know exactly what their roles are and what McKillop wants them to do night in and night out. Davidson was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round against Maryland, but the game could have gone either way. This year's seasoned team is expected by its fans to be better than last year's squad.
The strength of the Wildcats is in their backcourt, where they start sophomore Stephen Curry (6'2" 185 lbs.) at the off guard spot and senior Jason Richards (6'2" 190 lbs.) at the point. Curry is the star of the team. He made headlines last year when he almost single-handedly led Davidson to the near-upset of the Terrapins. It's amazing that Curry slipped by some of the major programs in the area; he's that good. He is a very good shooter, averaging a team-high 25 PPG. He shoots nearly 50% from the field and a solid 44% from behind the arc, which is where he takes more than half of his shots. He has 17 assists and 17 turnovers on the season, but on a team with defined roles, his job is to shoot, not pass. His turnover totals are low considering how much he has the ball in his hands. On top of this, he's almost automatic from the charity stripe, connecting on 93% of his free throws. What really sets him apart, though, is his basketball acumen. Curry is the son of former NBA player Dell Curry and it's obvious that the younger Curry has learned some of the nuances of the game from his father. To see this one only need look at Curry's defensive game, where he is far ahead of his teammates. He has 13 steals in six games.
Richards is the leader of the team and it clearly shows on the court. He leads the team with 54 assists against only 18 turnovers. He knows where the ball needs to be on almost every possession and is clearly McKillop's coach on the floor. His leadership is such a strength that it probably saves Davidson at least two time outs per game. Richards is the second-leading scorer on the team at 11.7 PPG, but that may be a sign of weakness. Richards is a passer first and it shows in his shooting percentage, where he averages only 40% from the floor and only 33% from the three point line. McKillop would also like to see Richards shoot better than his current 56% from the free-throw line. Make no mistake, though, Richards is better than his stats would indicate.
Sophomore Bryant Barr (6'4" 185 lbs.) provides backcourt depth and is a nice compliment to the two starters. He plays about 12 MPG, but averages 7.2 PPG and is shooting over 46% from behind the arc on 28 attempts.
UCLA will have a distinct athletic advantage in the backcourt, especially considering the Bruins are coming off the Texas game where they faced one of the quickest backcourts in the country. Curry is too quick to be guarded by Michael Roll, especially with Roll still coming off his foot injury. That means Russell Westbrook and, to a lesser extent, Darren Collison will have to guard Curry. Curry is adept at coming off screens and the Bruin guards will have to do a better job of fighting through screens than they did in the first half of the Texas game or Curry could go off. It's not inconceivable, if Curry gets going early, for him to score close to 30. The key, though, may be Richards. While he's a savvy senior, he has trouble with more athletic guards that force his back to the basket in order to shield the ball and prevent a steal. North Carolina was able to force him into numerous turnovers while Duke was able to disrupt him on the offensive end enough to win the game. Collison and Westbrook have the potential to be a more potent defensive duo than exists on either ACC club. Even Roll, despite his injury, should be able to stay with Richards and not be the defensive liability he clearly was against Texas.
Up front, the Wildcats start seniors Thomas Sander (6'8" 220 lbs.), Boris Meno (6'8" 220 lbs.), and Max Paulhus Gosselin (6'6" 195 lbs.). Sander is the scorer of the trio, averaging 9.7 PPG on 54% shooting. Meno is the inside worker, leading the team in rebounding at 7.7 RPG. Sander is second at 5.3 RPG. Gosselin is the defensive stopper of the group, barely registering any noteworthy statistics but still playing over 20 MPG. Don't let the minutes fool you; only Richards and Curry average over 30 MPG on a team that goes legitimately nine deep. Sophomores Will Archambault (6'6" 220 lbs.), Stephen Rossiter (6'7" 230 lbs.), and junior Andrew Lovedale (6'8" 215 lbs.) provide more than solid frontcourt depth. Lovedale, in particular, plays serious minutes, averaging 18+ MPG. He's a banger, averaging 4.5 RPG in those 18 minutes, which translates to roughly 10 rebounds per 40 minutes. Archambault is a shooter, having attempted 23 threes on the year, while Rossiter is like Gosselin in that he'll play defense and do the little things necessary to be successful.
Again, the Bruins will have a clear athletic advantage against the Wildcats in the post. But this is a very smart and experienced group. They find ways to get open, usually off screens that they set for Curry, and with the help that is often needed on Curry, they find themselves open for easy looks or rebounds off Curry's missed shots. Outside of Lovedale, all the Wildcat big men will shoot the three, so the Bruins must be honest defensively, which makes it more difficult to help on Curry. On the offensive side, expect the Bruins to make a concerted effort to get the ball into the post to Kevin Love. McKillop will undoubtedly have a game plan that will attempt to take Love out of his rhythm, so the rest of the Bruins will have to step up on the offensive side of the court. Love can be very successful in this game, though, by pounding the ball inside when he gets it on the low block. UNC's Tyler Hansbrough had a double-double of 14 points and 14 boards against the Wildcats because they couldn't handle his muscle inside. Love needs to have a similar game. Josh Shipp will more than likely be guarded by Gosselin and Rossiter, and Shipp needs to take advantage of his strength in those match-ups. Hopefully Shipp will be posted up from time to time in order to do this. Finally, if Luc Richard Mbah a Moute plays like he did in the second half of the Texas game, Davidson simply will have no answer for him regardless of whether or not they go man or zone on defense.
This game will be quite different than the Texas game in that the screens that Texas was running were ball screens, while Davidson runs many off-the-ball screens for Curry and others, such as Barr and Richards. The Wildcat big men are very good at setting screens and the Davidson guards are very good at running off the shoulder of the screen. The guards are adept at knowing when to flair to the corner or curl off the screen. With their athletic advantage, look for the Bruins to chase on screens and force the Davidson guards to curl. Davidson was able to almost beat the two ACC schools because their big men were able to get good looks after they rolled off of their screens. This was because the Tar Heel and Blue Devil bigs went to give help on the Davidson guards. UCLA will have to stay home on their respective men and rely on their significant athletic advantage in order to keep this from happening.
UCLA should expect to see both man and zone defenses and McKillop is very good at mixing things up. One thing is certain, though; regardless of what Davidson does defensively, the Bruins have to make a concerted effort to get the ball inside. If they are successful at doing that, this game could be a lot less competitive than were the UNC and Duke games.
The Bruins have three things going for them as they enter this game. First, Howland is excellent at correcting mistakes from previous games. Expect the Bruins to get the ball inside, in particular to Love. Second, the Bruins should be seething after letting a game they should have won get away from them in Texas. And they've had to wait six days for this game. That doesn't bode well for Davidson. Plus, the break has allowed both Collison and Roll to get healthier. Finally, while its true that Davidson played UNC and Duke down to the wire, both games were home games for the Wildcats. The only time Davidson has gone on the road this season they were blown out by a mediocre Western Michigan squad. Since this game is being played in Anaheim, expect that to add to Davidson's difficulties. Assuming the Bruins are angry about the Texas loss, this game could be over early in the second half. It really should be.