UCLA Starts with Prairie View A&M

The UCLA Bruins start the 2008-2009 season Wednesday against fairly obscure Prairie View A&M, a team that lost its top two players from an 8-22 season a year ago. In other words, this game should be about as competitive as the two exhibition games...

The UCLA Bruins begin their 2008-2009 season Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion against Prairie View A&M. It's the first round of the 2008 2K Sports Classic.

I'm sure there are very few readers out there that don't know much about Prairie View, so here are some quick facts.

-- Prairie View is a historically black university in Prairie View, Texas, about 40 miles from Houston.

-- It has 8,382 students.

-- Its nickname is the Panthers.

-- It plays in the Souhtwestern Athletic Conference.

-- It's coached by Byron Rimm III, who is in his third season. Last year he went 8-22 and 6-12 in the SWAC (8th).

-- The only time PVAMU made the NCAA Tournament in its history was when it went on an improbable run in 1998 and won its conference tournament, garning a #16 seed and losing to #1 seed Kansas in the first round.

The Panthers lost their top two scorers from last year's 8-22 team, and are picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference this season.

Senior guard Derek Johnson (6-1, 190) averaged 11 points and 3.8 assists last season, and he'll inherit more scoring responsibility with the loss of last year's top scorer, Brian Ezeh. Johnson is good-sized and is a pretty good defender. He's capable of breaking down a defense and creating for himself and his teammates.

The Panther faithful are expecting better things from senior center Blake Thompson (7-0, 240), who they're hoping will provide more than the 5.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game he did a season ago.

The other returning starter is junior forward Dorian McDaniel (6-6, 210), who is a glue-type guy who didn't provide much scoring or rebounding.

Probably another starter will be senior Jacoie Shivers (6-8, 230), who be there to supply some inside muscle.

The other projected starter in the backcourt is junior guard Freddie Edo (6-1, 180), who was one of the best three-point shooters on last year's team. That's kind of stretch, though, since he made just 11 three-pointers on the season.

The Panthers have seven new players, both from the JC and high school ranks, but there really isn't a big impact kind of guy – even for the SWAC conference – among them. Freshman Alex Richman (6-1, 175) is the guy they're hoping will provide some immediate help with outside shooting.

It's thought that the Panthers' style of play is a slow, half-court type of game, trying to get the ball to Thompson inside to exploit his height. They generally shouldn't be a very good three-point shooting team, averaging just 31% from the arc as a team last season, and they're now missing the one guy (Aaron Smith, who signed with the CBA) who made just about half of the team's three (69) for the season.

UCLA should be able to smother PVAMU's backcourt, using various players to keep Johnson under wraps, and make the rest of the Panther's unproven players have to score.

Inside, you'll see Howland double Thompson and try to get him to make a mistake. You might see Howland go to J'mison Morgan fairly early, trying to match his biggest body against Thompson. But that's after Alfred Aboya has probably softened up Thompson for a while. Drew Gordon will certainly get a crack at Thompson, to see how he can do against a guy probably 4 inches taller than he is.

Even though Thompson is 7-0, he hasn't proven himself as a good rebounder, so UCLA's superior athletes should dominate the glass. If UCLA doesn't out-rebound PVAMU by at least 12 it would be a disappointment.

To put this in perspective, the exhibition games against Biola and Cal Baptist were probably just as competitive as this game will be.

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