The Bruins are coming off a come-from-behind victory over Davidson last Saturday in a game in which the Bruins found themselves down by 18 points in the first half. Although the Bruins outscored Davidson by over thirty for the remainder of the game, the contest did highlight a growing concern about UCLA this season. The Bruins have been starting games sluggishly and have found themselves having to come back from deficits against several opponents. UCLA was able to come all the way back (and then some) against both Davidson and Michigan State, but the Bruins could not overcome a very good Texas team. Now the Bruins will face several mediocre teams over the next few weeks before the conference opener at Stanford. The questions for the Bruins are, 1) What can they take from these games? 2) Can they develop a killer instinct against relatively weak competition? And 3), can they get fully healthy before the game against the Cardinal?
Idaho State comes into the game with a record of 2-6. They are a member of the Big Sky Conference, the same as an earlier Bruin opponent, Portland State. Portland State was picked to finish third in the Big Sky while Idaho State was picked 5th or 6th depending on the preseason poll. The Bengals have defeated Idaho and Montana State-Northern (a D-II school), and lost to BCS teams Iowa and Oregon State. They've also lost to BYU. All three losses were blowouts and on the road. Coach Joe O'Brien has tried to significantly upgrade the ISU schedule since he came on board last season, but the talent hasn't kept up with the upgrade. The Bengals still have to face Washington State and Washington, both of whom are better than Iowa and Oregon State, as well as Saturday's game against the Bruins.
ISU's best player is junior guard Matt Stucki (6'6" 210 lbs.). He has scored over 23 points in the last several games, but he is by no means a scoring machine. He is averaging only 12.6 PPG and that leads the team. He is primarily a jump shooter, hitting 45% of his field goal attempts and 36% of his three-point attempts. Stucki is a solid player, but not someone that you could truly build a team around. The key to Stucki is forcing him to put the ball on the floor, especially to his left. He is much less effective when he can't spot up. Russell Westbrook will probably be assigned to guard Stucki at the outset and it will be interesting to see how hard Westbrook fights through the inevitable screens that the Bengals will throw at him.
Stucki's running mate in the backcourt is sophomore Amorrow Morgan (6'5" 210 lbs.). While both Stucki and Morgan can play either guard spot, Morgan is more of the penetrator and the one who looks to pass first. He is only 1-15 on the year from behind the arc, but he is shooting 46% overall. He averages 9 PPG. Until Morgan can prove he is an outside threat, Darren Collison should be able to play off him and prevent him from getting into the lane.
ISU may lack talent, but they certainly don't lack size. Junior post Lucas Steijn (6'11" 250 lbs.), sophomore Chron Tatum (6'8" 220 lbs.), and senior Logan Kinghorn (6'5" 215 lbs.) provide a sizeable hurdle when the Bruins are in the halfcourt. Steijn is the only other Bengal other than Stucki who has started every game. He averages 7'6 PPG and leads the team with 4.5 RPG. His shooting leaves a lot to be desired as he is only 19-49 from the floor, and he hasn't even attempted a three pointer.
Tatum is the team's second-leading scorer at 9.4 PPG. He's only shooting 47% from the floor, but he set the Riverside CC record for field goal percentage before he came to ISU. He will attempt the occasional three pointer so he will keep Luc Richard Mbah a Moute honest. He is the Bengals' most athletic player. He is tied with Stucki for the most free throw attempts (29) on the team.
Kinghorn is the lone senior who gets major minutes. He is more of a "glue guy" than a real threat and is on the floor as much for his leadership as anything else. He is the second-leading rebounder at 4 RPG and he is the team's best free-throw shooter at 88%. He lacks any real athleticism, though, and Josh Shipp should find him a much easier player to guard than what he's seen recently. The thing about Shipp is that he is capable of being a good defender; He needs to focus on it every game and not take games off.
Off the bench the Bengals have senior guard Cory O'Brien (6'4" 230 lbs.), junior guard Scooter Maye (5'11" 165 lbs.), and sophomores Austin Kilpatrick (6'6" 205 lbs.) and Demetrius Monroe (6'8" 200 lbs.). Only Kilpatrick gets serious minutes at a little more than 18 MPG. He is almost strictly an outside shooter as 44 of his 60 attempts have come from behind the arc. He leads the team in three-point attempts.
This game really is about the Bruins and how seriously they will take their opponent. UCLA could play a team of Alfred Aboya, Nikola Dragovic, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Mike Roll and Mustafa Abdul-Hamid and still win by about 20. These kinds of games have both a positive and negative impact on a championship caliber team. Memphis, which is among the best teams in the land according to pundits, plays in an easy conference, Conference USA, and many have felt that many games in a row against inferior competition have hurt the Tigers and been a possible reason why they weren't ready for teams like UCLA when the NCAA Tourney rolled around. UCLA now will face at least three teams that they could beat without truly trying. That doesn't get them ready for a Pac-10 Conference that is among the best in the country. However, this set of easier games allows the Bruins to get healthier, especially Mike Roll, who should see a lot of action in this game.
ISU will try and slow down the pace of the game, so the Bruins will have to show some patience, but really, ISU is shooting only 40% from the floor as a team. That's just plain bad. It will be up to Coach Ben Howland to motivate his players to get up for a game like this and, if nothing else, use it as solid practice for the bigger games that are coming down the pike. ISU is a big zone defense team so, at the very least, it will give UCLA some work against a zone.
Several weeks ago I stated that Youngstown State might possibly be the worst team on the UCLA schedule. After looking at the next several opponents, including Idaho State, I have to say that I think I was wrong. The Bruins will win this game and win it big as they go into an easy stretch of two weeks. Idaho State just doesn't have the athletes to stay with the Bruins for any length of time. Yes, I am going to predict a large score, but remember, the Stanford game looms large, doesn't it?
Probably most noteable about Idaho State, for old Bruin fans who might remember, is its infamous place in UCLA basketball history. ISU beat #2-ranked UCLA in the second round of the 1977 NCAA tournament, 76-75. It broke a streak of ten straight Final Fours for the Bruins.
Idaho State 52