For the Bruins, it would mark their third straight trip to the Final Four while the Musketeers are looking for their first ever trip to a Final Four. Both teams bring real strengths and some definite concerns into the game, an affair that promises to be tight and exciting.
The Bruins have certainly excited their fans over the past several weeks. On Thursday's Sweet 16 victory over Western Kentucky, the Bruins found a new way to make hearts flutter and fans feel faint. At least the Bruins came out strong and established a huge lead. But then came the second half and the almost-meltdown and fear of UCLA not quite having it this year were renewed. That lack of consistency as a team is now almost a certainty from game to game until the Bruins show otherwise. However, now the Bruins play a team that just may bring out the best in them.
Xavier has become a team known for its defensive prowess and it is clearly their strength, allowing opponents to shoot just 40.6% from the field. They play exactly the same style defense that Washington State plays. Points will be at a premium for the Bruins.
However, Xavier is as inconsistent on offense as UCLA is with their intensity. It's now pretty much a certainty that Xavier is going to suffer on the offensive end if they can't get any real dribble penetration from their diminutive 5'7" point guard, Drew Lavender. Even though there are six Musketeers averaging between 10 and 11.6 PPG, the team is heavily reliant on Lavender's ability to create shots for his teammates. Lavender is good, but he isn't as good as what the Bruins and Darren Collison saw Thursday night in Tyrone Brazelton.
As much as Western Kentucky had personnel that reminded some of Oregon, Xavier's defensive style is that of Washington State. The Bruins, though, have seemed to have more problems with pressure defenses that get up in the ball handlers "space." The Bruins do much better against teams that allow the guards, in particular Collison, to operate on the perimeter and look to choose their spots in which to penetrate. While Xavier seeks to take away any driving lanes, the reality is that Collison has become expert at being able to get inside defenses like the "pack-line" defense that the Musketeers run.
Offensively, Coach Sean Miller's Musketeers present the Bruins with a dangerous challenge. Since Xavier relies on Lavender's ability to penetrate, the Bruins need to stop him from doing so. Unfortunately, the Achilles Heel of the Bruin defense this year has been allowing dribble penetration. Western Kentucky was able to penetrate at will in the second half on Thursday and they almost made a miraculous comeback. The key wasn't the driving, so to speak, but rather what was happening with WKU's bigs. The Hilltoppers started all of their players much higher on the floor in the second half, thus drawing Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and James Keefe, et al, into the high post, thus opening up driving lanes that WKU was able to exploit. True, the Bruins were in foul trouble in the second half, but there is no getting around the fact that Brazelton and company were able to slice up the Bruins.
In determining how difficult the match-up will be for the Bruins' defense, one need look back at Xavier's schedule and see who the Musketeers faced that were good defensive teams. When Xavier played Arizona State and at Temple earlier this season, both teams were able to shut off penetration lanes. Xavier's shooters had no room and as a result they shot in the low 30% range for both games and lost. In the ASU game, they were blown out, 77-55.
In 6'9", 238-pound Josh Duncan and 6'8", 230-pound Derrick Brown the Musketeers have talented bodies that will make Love work harder on the offensive end than he did on Thursday against WKU. That doesn't offset the fact the Love and company should enjoy a rebounding advantage against the Musketeers. Duncan especially will give Love and Lorenzo Mata-Real more to think about than did D.J. Magley and Jeremy Evans, but none of Xavier's frontline are particularly great rebounders.
Something to consider is Duncan's penchant for getting into foul trouble throughout the season – and Love's uncanny ability to get opponent's in foul trouble. If Duncan has to sit for any prolonged period of time, Xavier loses a great deal of its scoring punch. The former starter at center who Duncan displaced, sophomore Jason Love, is 6'9' and 250, and he'll be able to come in and body up on UCLA's Love, but there will be a considerable drop-off on the offensive end, with Xavier's Love a pure low-post guy. UCLA will take its Love against Xavier's Love all day.
On the wings the Musketeers have C.J. Anderson, Stanley Burrell and BJ Raymond. All three can use dribble penetration to get to the basket. Along with Lavender, this gives the Musketeers at least four players who can get into the lane and dish off to shooters. Burrell, Raymond, Lavender and Duncan all shoot at least 40% from behind the arc. Raymond has been up and down this season shooting from three, but he was especially devastating against West Virginia, so you can't leave any of the four open for any length of time. Duncan is a problem match-up because he can pull Love away from the basket thus negating the probable rebounding advantage that the Bruins would have. Duncan has had an interesting season – not starting for a good portion of the schedule, to the point he won "Best Sixth Man" in the Atlantic 10. He averaged about 12 points per game for the season, but is averaging 20 points per game in the NCAA tournament.
Defending Duncan, for Love, should be like defending Oregon's Maarty Leunen or Cal's Ryan Anderson – with a little more bulk inside. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, James Keefe and Alfred Aboya will probably tag-team on Brown, who's averaging 10 points per game, mostly scoring from the inside. Anderson, who is 6'6", averages almost 11 points per game, almost entirely slashing to the basket (having not taken a three-pointer this year), so you could see Russell Westbrook, despite giving up a few inches, taking Anderson, since he's much better at staying in front of his man than Josh Shipp. Shipp might get the smaller Burrell (6'3") only because he's more of a perimeter player.
Then, you have the match-up that very well could tip the game in either team's favor – Collison against Lavender. Collison has struggled this season at times to guard smaller point guards, but you can probably expect, after the game Collison turned in against Western Kentucky, for him to be on his best defensive game. Where the edge could really be gained is on UCLA's offense end, with Lavender probably having problems keeping Collison from getting open looks on the perimeter.
For the Bruins, it helps that Josh Shipp started scoring again. Hitting three point shots are a sure-fire way for the Bruins to pull the Xavier defense into a stretched position. With Xavier sitting inside the three-point line, it should allow Coach Ben Howland to utilize Russell Westbrook as more of a point guard and have Collison come off of screens to open up the Bruin junior for three-point looks. If UCLA is able to get Collison open consistently, his dagger-esque threes could be the difference.
The game really should come down to several things. First, will the Bruins be able to score against a defense that is at least as good as Washington State's? Xavier will clog the lane and make entry passes into Love difficult, at best. Second: the match-up between Collison and Lavender. And will the Bruins be able to move Lavender and the other Musketeers laterally, thus cutting off much of Xavier's offense? This has been problematic this season for the Bruins. They did it in the first half of the Western Kentucky game, and the adjustments that WKU made at the half aren't something that the Bruins should see. The point is that Brazelton and Lee, the WKU guards, are a better offensive backcourt than the Bruins will face Saturday. Finally, the rebounding battle will be huge. Will the Bruins be able to win the battle of the glass? If they do, they should win.
Rebounding is a microcosm of the game. Generally, rebounding is about who wants the ball. If the Bruins rebound well, then that means they are intense and focused. If that's the Bruin team that shows up then expect a Bruins victory. If not, then this year could come up short of another Final Four appearance. Either way, this one will be close.