At least that's would I would say to the superlative five freshmen that have joined Coach Ben Howland's Bruins this season. If the banners in Pauley Pavilion haven't told Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson, Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan that they're in the Big Time, then certainly their time in Madison Square Garden Thursday and Friday will begin that indoctrination at light speed.
On Thursday, the Bruins will face the Michigan Wolverines, with a possible match-up against perennial power Duke set to tip the next night. The Wolverines present a formidable challenge, though; certainly one greater than UCLA faced last week when facing Prairie View and Miami (Ohio).
The Wolverines are coached by John Beilein, who is in his second year. Beilein is one of the more underrated coaches in the country. He always gets the most out of his players. Last season, while Beilein was trying to institute his 1-3-1 match-up zone defense and crazy, three-point-dominated offense with Tommy Amaker's recruits, anyone with a basketball mind could see that the Wolverines were much better, and younger, at season's end than when the Bruins faced them last December. The Bruins won that game in Ann Arbor by 15, but there were moments when UCLA had trouble with the match-up zone that Beilein employs. The Bruins also had Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Russell Westbrook. Those young men will not be with UCLA when they face Michigan. How the freshmen respond to the pressure of the bright lights of the Big Apple will go a long way to determining whether the Bruins are playing in the final Friday night or not.
The Wolverines will start a very small but quick team that truly attempts to get open looks from beyond the arc. The frontcourt starters are senior Zack Gibson (6'10" 220 lbs.), who is more of a face-the-basket type player, and junior Anthony Wright (6'6" 235 lbs.), the banger of the two. Gibson really plays smaller than his size and will shoot the three as much as not. He only averages 1.5 RPG. Wright gets 5 RPG, but isn't much of an offensive threat. He plants himself in the paint and lets the offense flow through the backcourt. Because of this, Howland could very well use Alfred Aboya on Wright while assigning James Keefe the role of taking Gibson. The key here, however, is junior DeShawn Sims (6'8" 235 lbs.), who actually comes off the bench but is the second leading scorer on the team at 14.5 PPG and the leading rebounder at 9.5 RPG. He is also second on the team in minutes played and is essentially a third starter up front. He will be more of a load to handle than either Wright or Gibson. The thing with Sims is that the Bruins can play off him on the perimeter. He has attempted four three-pointers this season in Beilein's offense and missed them all.
The Wolverine backcourt is the team's strength. It all starts with the team's leading scorer, sophomore Manny Harris (6'5" 185 lbs.), who is averaging 28 PPG and 8.5 RPG. He leads the team in minutes as well as assists, and has gotten to the free-throw line 23 times, which is more than half of the team's collective 43 attempts on the season. Stop Harris and stop the Wolverines. He is a match-up nightmare. He's quick, which means Josh Shipp can't get right up on him (although Shipp is stronger), and he is long, which will give Darren Collison some problems. That means we very well could see Holiday on Harris much of the game. Howland will probably switch off on Harris, having Holiday, Shipp and even Lee guard him over the course of the game. It will be a tough match-up. The one thing the Bruins absolutely have going for them is that Harris has the ability and inclination to shoot the Wolverines out of games and he can play out of control.
The rest of the Michigan backcourt is essentially interchangeable. Beilein starts freshman Stu Douglass (6'3" 175) and senior jitterbug David Merritt (5'10" 170 lbs.). Both are mediocre shooters, being on the floor to run the offense so Harris doesn't have to. Neither will be a difficult defensive assignment for Collison or Shipp, etc. Freshman Zack Novak (6'5" 210 lbs.), a dead-eye shooter, and sophomore Kelvin Grady (5'11" 170 lbs.) provide depth off the bench. Of these four, Novak is the most dangerous on the offensive end. He has legitimate range out to 25 feet. He is also a solid rebounder when given the chance. However his lack of quickness makes him a bit of a liability on the defensive end.
On paper, the Bruins have much more talent than the Wolverines (Miami is at least as good as the Wolverines), but Michigan has Beilein, which means they have a scheme at both ends of the floor that can win games.
In terms of the frontcourt, both teams have offenses that flow from and through their perimeter players. As a result the frontcourts are responsible for defense and rebounding. The Bruins should enjoy an advantage in both, even with Gordon and/or Morgan on the floor. The ‘X' factor for the Bruins will be the play of James Keefe and Nikola Dragovic. Keefe has got to start playing with consistency and confidence. If not, then Howland may choose to go with Dragovic at times when the Bruins need some scoring punch from their big men. Still, the frontcourt battle should be won by UCLA.
The backcourt is a very different story. Michigan is deep and they play Beilein's systems on offense and defense. While the Bruins are just as deep, they haven't seen a defense like this before. The freshmen will have to lean on Collison and Shipp to provide leadership early in the game. Don't be surprised if the Bruin pups struggle, especially in the first half against Michigan's offense.
When the Bruins have the ball, they should be able to work the ball around the perimeter against the Michigan zone and find seams where they can use their collective quickness advantage to drive or let fly from beyond the arc. This is where Lee, Holiday and especially Mike Roll could and should be huge in this game.
If this game were in two months, I'd be a bit more worried as Michigan will be much more familiar with their offensive and defensive schemes. However, they are young, don't have the athletes that UCLA does and, especially at the point, the Wolverines don't have the experience that UCLA does in Collison. I know that many Bruin fans are nervous about this game, but really, this is a good time to face Michigan. While I am predicting the Bruins to win by 8, don't be surprised if the UCLA freshmen deal with playing in NYC in fine style and the Bruins blow Michigan off the floor in the second half.