WKU, the Sun Belt Conference Tournament champions, come into the game with a record of 29-6 and having defeated Drake and San Diego in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. UCLA enters the contest with a record of 33-3 and having defeated Mississippi Valley State and Texas A&M in the first two rounds of the Big Dance. The Bruins are, of course, the Pac-10 regular season and Tournament champions.
It may sound cliché, but this game really comes down to three factors: Personnel, style and, of course, whether the Bruins will play with intensity and focus for something approaching 40 minutes. Although UCLA is coming off of a hard-fought two-point win over Texas A&M, much of the trouble that UCLA had in that game, especially on the offensive end, can be attributed to the fact that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was clearly limited by his injured ankle and Josh Shipp wasn't healthy (strep throat). After an MRI earlier this week, Luc would appear to be more ready to play on the gimpy ankle while Shipp has had time to recover from what can be a fatigue-inducing illness.
Many on BRO and nationally are pointing to WKU as a team that can really give the Bruins trouble and has a realistic chance of defeating UCLA. First things first: A team doesn't get to the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs because they are mediocre. WKU is a very good basketball team. But before people start extolling the idea that they can or even will beat the Bruins, they need to start looking more closely at the personnel match-ups.
Clearly, the strength of the Hilltoppers rests with their guard play. Coach Darrin Horn starts a three-headed senior hydra in the backcourt. The best of the three is 6'5" Courtney Lee, who leads the Hilltoppers in scoring at 20.4 PPG. Lee is going to play in the NBA, short of something egregious happening. He has the ability to shoot outside (39%) and use dribble penetration to get to the hoop. He has attempted 150 more shots, 23 more three-pointers and 34 more free throws than anyone else on the team. In fact, the only teams that have been able to slow him down have had someone of comparable size and athleticism to guard him throughout the game. Many teams just don't have that kind of player. UCLA, however, has Russell Westbrook. Westbrook will be by far the single best man-to-man defender that Lee has seen this season. Westbrook has the quickness to keep Lee out of the lane, the length to challenge him outside and the strength to wear him down. Plus, on the defensive end, Lee will more than likely have to guard Westbrook when WKU plays a man defense and that, too, will force Lee to have to put serious time in at an area where he hasn't had to work that hard over the course of the season.
The point guard is 6'0" Tyrone Brazelton, who is second on the team in scoring at 13.3 PPG. Brazelton was WKU's go-to-guy in the first round win against Drake as he poured in 33 points. In terms of his threat on offense, Brazelton is a poor man's version of Lee, being able to do the same things that Lee can, only not quite as well. More importantly, Brazelton can be loose with the ball at times. Enter Darren Collison who will be the toughest defender and defensive assignment that Brazelton has faced this year. It probably won't show early on, but Collison's experience, quickness and strength should have a fatiguing effect on Brazelton, much like Westbrook on Lee, and with ball hawking guards like UCLA has, Brazelton's mistakes could be magnified.
The third guard is 6'3" senior Ty Rogers, he of the buzzer-beating shot against Drake. Rogers is strictly a spot-up shooter and this plays right into the hands of Josh Shipp. Shipp is bigger, stronger and quicker than Rogers. The WKU senior is experienced and uses guile to get open, but it's not as if Shipp hasn't guarded players of at least Rogers' caliber throughout the season. The fact that he isn't a threat to put the ball on the floor means that he can't attack Shipp's weakness -- lack of quickness. Defensively, Rogers will have to guard a man who is both bigger and stronger than him and because of these factors, this may be the game that Shipp starts hitting his shots. In fact, this match-up may be one-sided enough that Coach Horn may have to go to his bench, where he can call on 6'1" back-up point guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez or 6'3" AJ Slaughter. Mendez-Valdez is almost a carbon-copy of Rogers in terms of strengths and weaknesses, whereas Slaughter can at least force Shipp to play honest defense because of his ability to drive to the basket.
Up front the Hilltoppers have a springy shot blocker in 6'9" Jeremy Evans. Evans is the team's leading rebounder and has 43 blocks on the season. However, he is very slight, at 195 lbs., and this will be the first game in a long while where he has faced someone with serious athleticism in Luc or someone with girth and skill in Kevin Love. Evans' frontcourt mate will be 6'9", 260 lb. D.J. Magley. Magley will more than likely be matched up on Love as he at least has the size to throw at the Bruin frosh. But Magley is also a freshman and has nowhere near the experience that Love has. Horn can also call on 6'7" Boris Siakam or 6'5" Steffphon Pettigrew, but Coach Ben Howland can call on James Keefe, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya and even Nikola Dragovic. To be blunt, the Bruins have a huge advantage in the frontcourt.
The Hilltoppers have talented personnel, but the strengths that each player has is really matched by the strength of the corresponding Bruin. It will be the first time that WKU will play a team this season that truly can take away the strengths of each of its best players.
In terms of style, the Hilltoppers want to get up and down the court. To that end they like to trap, both in the full court and in the half court, especially off ball screens. The Bruins, especially Darren Collison, need to be prepared for this, especially the half-court traps. Many pundits claim that one can look at the fact that WKU barely lost to Gonzaga and Tennessee as reasons why WKU could give the Bruins fits. What they fail to point out is that college basketball is as much about match-ups as anything else, and the Hilltoppers, because of their similar styles, happened to match-up well with Gonzaga and Tennessee. UCLA will be the first team they faced that can control tempo and slow down the game, yet they can run you into the ground when the situation warrants. In UCLA's three losses this season, one of the biggest problems the Bruins had was working too quickly on offense (be quick but don't hurry, right?), but that came more of a result of the Bruins playing flat, uninspired basketball. The danger for UCLA will be WKU's traps in the half court. With five solid ballhandlers, including Love, and the fact that four of the Bruin starters are good to great passers, UCLA should have no trouble with any full court pressure that WKU shows. In many ways this type of defense may play right into UCLA's hands as there will be many times when Love is isolated in the low block on a defender who will already be at a significant disadvantage.
The final piece of this is whether UCLA will "come to play." UCLA has shown that when they are focused and intense they are one of the two best teams in the country. Howland has had five days to get his gameplan on the board for his players. That means five days to work on press breaks, half-court adjustments and motivation. Plus, the Bruins are sure to have been watching ESPN and reading the papers and noticed all the "love" that WKU is getting. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the week leading up to the Cal game in the Pac-10 Tournament and that turned into a blowout for the Bruins.
However, if UCLA does find itself staring at a deficit, they will be playing a team that has given up huge comebacks in its first two Tournament games against teams that are not the level of UCLA. That's because WKU doesn't do a good job of taking the air out of the ball when they have a lead. They really only know of one method of operation -- fast. That bodes well for the Bruins should they face an early deficit.
College hoops is all about match-ups. The Bruins have the advantage in the personnel match-ups in a way they haven't seen in at least two weeks. WKU is talented, no doubt, but they would be better served having to play Texas, or Memphis or Tennessee in terms of personnel. They would certainly be better off facing one of those squads in terms of style. Let's also remember that WKU played arguably the best #5 match-up for them in the first round in Drake. They also faced a team in San Diego that had "shot their bullet" in the first round when they upset UConn. WKU only played one other team this season that was able to play a style like UCLA's -- South Alabama. USA swept the Hilltoppers. USA was blown out of the first round of the Big Dance by Butler. Do the math.
Of all the Sweet 16 games, this, along with Kansas/Villanova game, has the most potential for a blowout. Just because the national media doesn't see it doesn't mean it won't happen or won't even be likely to happen. WKU, whose personnel is eerily reminiscent of Oregon's, just doesn't match-up well with the Bruins. The only thing making this game a question is not knowing which UCLA team will "show up."
Western Kentucky 58