After besting Mississippi Valley State in its first round NCAA Tournament game, the #1 seeded UCLA Bruins face the #9 seeded Texas A&M Aggies Saturday night with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line. The MVSU game was no better than an exhibition game. Now the Bruins take a large step-up in competition. The Aggies are big and very physical, but there are some individual match-ups in the game that could favor the Bruins.
The Aggies are coming off a first-round win over BYU. The game was one of runs by both teams, with A&M opening the game with an 11-0 run and then using their physical style to essentially weather every storm that the Cougars sent their way. It was a good victory for the Aggies after they suffered through some agonizing losses, none more so than the five-overtime thriller in which they lost to Baylor in January.
The Bruins should be somewhat familiar with A&M as they played each other last season, with the Bruins coming out on top in a very close game in the Wooden Classic. There are some significant similarities in both squads from last season, but there are some striking differences. The Bruins lost Arron Afflalo, but they brought in Kevin Love. Still, the Bruins run the same defensive system and in reality a very close offensive system to last season. Love has simply made the offense so much more complete.
The bigger differences from last season rest with the Aggies, and they aren't positive changes. A&M lost their best player and go-to-guy in Acie Law. Law was the Aggie that everyone knew would take the last shot. He was a defensive stalwart and he was clearly the team leader. In a game like this one, the Aggies could clearly use his ability to penetrate as it is something the Bruins have struggled with at times this season. However, a bigger loss for the Aggies appears to be on the bench. Coach Billy Gillespie left College Station to take over at Kentucky and the Aggies went out and hired Mark Turgeon of Wichita State. Make no mistake; Turgeon is a very good basketball coach. But the players he inherited were recruited by Gillespie to play a certain, hard-nosed style of ball. In fact, if you compared Gillespie to UCLA coach Ben Howland, you'd find a striking similarity. Both coaches like to run hard practices. Both coaches like to have multiple offensive sets. Both coaches demand maximum effort all the time. Both coaches want their teams to play terrific, physical man-to-man defense. Turgeon is more relaxed in his approach, preferring instead to let the players know their roles and then see how those roles develope. As a result, this team has been very up and down. They lost to Baylor in the aforementioned classic and then ran off 5 straight wins. They beat Texas easily at home but got killed in Austin. Knowing which Aggie team will show up game to game really is a crapshoot.
The Aggies have a very strong frontcourt in senior Joseph Jones, sophomore Bryan Davis and freshman DeAndre Jordan. The first two are both 6'9" while Jordan is 7'. All three run between 250 and 260 lbs. In short, they are a load, both individually and collectively. Of the three, Jones is the biggest offensive threat. On a team that has 6 players averaging between 8.2 and 11.9 PPG, Jones is the only one that has shown a propensity to "go off" offensively. That has to do with both his experience and the fact that he alone of the three provides a bit of a three-point threat. While Jones and Jordan are clearly the most talented of the trio, Davis is the most consistent, so don't be surprised to see Davis with one of the other two on the court for most of the game. In fact, Jordan only played 5 minutes against BYU.
In the backcourt, the Aggies will start three: Senior Dominique Kirk, junior Josh Carter and sophomore Donald Sloan. Of the three, Carter is the most dangerous offensively, but he also may be the easiest of the three to guard. Carter is a shooter, not a slasher. While he's been in a season-long shooting slump from the outside (hitting only 38% of his threes compared to 50% last season), which has included missing a great number of open looks, he had a huge game against BYU. He led the Aggies with 26 points on 10-16 shooting. He was 6-10 from behind the arc. Interestingly, though, he didn't go to the foul line. Because Carter isn't a huge threat to drive, because he is a much better spot-up shooter than off the dribble, and because of his size (he's 6'7"), it wouldn't be surprising to see Josh Shipp take Carter. Shipp has showed in last year's Tourney that he is capable of stepping up his defense and this would be a big test for him. He wouldn't have to help much and he could close out hard on Carter.
The reason that Shipp appears to have to take Carter is that both Kirk and Sloan are quick. They are almost interchangeable with each other when it comes to style. Neither was able to put his stamp on the point guard position, so they essentially take turns running it. Sloan is the more athletic of the two, but Kirk is a bit taller (6'4" compared to 6'3"). Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison will be taking either, and they will probably switch throughout the game. Sloan is more of the slasher of the two.
There will be several keys to the game. The first will be Kevin Love. Will A&M be able to at least slow down the Bruin freshman? The A&M big men aren't exactly guys that are going to explode off the floor and block shots, although Jordan has the ability. Still, he's a freshman, as is Love, but the basketball IQ and ability between the two is as different as night and day.
The second will be whether A&M has anyone that can stay with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute if and when he plays and decides to take his man off the dribble. While physical, the bigs for the Aggies aren't very quick laterally and they will find it hard to keep up with Luc, or Alfred Aboya and James Keefe for that matter. The Bruins also have the ability to go very big with Lorenzo Mata-Real in case they need to match A&M's size. In many ways UCLA's frontcourt will be most closely associated with that of Kansas in terms of what A&M has seen and the Aggie bigs were beaten pretty easily by Kansas' big men.
The real key match-up should be in the backcourt. This is where UCLA has got to take advantage of their guards. In short, Collison and Westbrook are better than Sloan and Kirk at both ends of the floor. Now they have to prove it. On defense, they have to stop the dibble penetration of the two Aggies, who will likely look to kick the ball out to Carter and let him fire away from behind the arc. If the Bruins prevent dribble penetration or blanket Carter then the Aggies will be in trouble. If they do both, then the Aggies will suffer an offensive meltdown.
A&M does have another option if the dribble penetration doesn't work; they like to play an inside-out game. The key is to get the ball on the low block and then look for the kick-out to Carter or one of the other guards. Kirk is actually shooting over 42% from behind the arc. The key here is the inevitable Bruin double-team in the low post and the defensive rotation. It will help that the Bruins will be facing big guys that are average passers at best. Defensive rotation is still a bugaboo at times for the Bruins (it was somewhat against MVSU who couldn't hit open looks), but the Bruins have shown a propensity to kick up the intensity when it matters.
There have been games that both teams have played that provide a glimpse into what should happen. As stated previously, UCLA should remind A&M of Kansas and that wasn't a good match-up for the Aggies. The Bruins have actually seen an opponent (three times), that is very close in style to the Aggies -- Stanford. A&M has a better backcourt while the Lopez brothers as a combo are better than anything the Aggies will throw at UCLA. Still, the Stanford games were close and there is no reason to expect that this game will be any sort of blowout. UCLA should have a relatively healthy Luc back and a bit of rest off Thursday's yawner. A&M had to work hard to beat BYU.
Finally, it is unlikely that A&M plays two good games in a row. It is possible, but they haven't shown that kind of consistency this season. Add to that fact that UCLA plays the same type of physical defense that A&M does, only better and the fact that UCLA has better personnel and a better coach (which is no disrespect to Turgeon), and things look difficult for the Aggies.
Texas A&M 58