Across the board UCLA has a more talented roster than Texas does, but much of UCLA's talent is young (read: freshmen), and the big question for the game is whether or not the freshmen will play up to or close to their considerable abilities.
This is the second straight year that the Bruins will be facing the Longhorns in what is arguably the marquee game of the Big 12/Pac 10 Hardwood Series. Last year, the Longhorns came to Pauley Pavilion and handed the Bruins their first loss of the season, 63-61 as Texas point guard D.J. Augustin ran the Bruins ragged in the first half and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute missed a ‘3' at the buzzer to win the game for the Bruins. Both players, however, have moved on to the professional ranks, and while UCLA has yet to adequately replace Luc, the Longhorns definitely don't have a player like Augustin to run their team.
The Longhorns do have, however, senior A.J. Abrams (5'11" 161 lbs.), a sharpshooter who the Bruins were able to contain in last season's meeting. Abrams has moved over to the point for this season and it hasn't cooled him off. He is still a prolific 3-point shooter (42%), and leads the team in scoring (15.8 PPG), but his assist totals aren't what you would expect a point guard's numbers to be. In fact, Abrams has only 11 assists on the year while committing 8 turnovers. The thing that Abrams has been able to do well is make the pass that sets up the pass that leads to a bucket. And, of course, there is that three-point shooting; Abrams has taken about half of all of the three-pointers Texas has attempted so far this season. The key here, though, is that Abrams isn't the kind of player that has bothered UCLA or, more specifically, Darren Collison, in the past. While Abrams is quick, he is not a penetrating guard, having only gone to the free-throw line 9 times all season. If Collison plays the way he is capable of playing then Abrams may have a very long night.
The penetrator on Texas is junior guard Justin Mason (6'2" 194 lbs.). The problem with Mason is that he can't make his free throws (10-23 on the season). If you're going to be a dribble-drive guard then you have to make your shots from the charity stripe. When you plug in Mason to the starting lineup, and take out Augustin, you are giving up some considerable outside shooting. Mason, as your shooting guard, has only attempted 10 in six games, making three. He is a good passer, but his calling card is as a defender, being named to the Big 12 all-defensive team last season. The key in this match-up is to see if Jrue Holiday, who is bigger, quicker and longer than Mason, can actually step up and completely take Mason out of the game.
Off the bench Texas Coach Rick Barnes has sophomore Dogus Balbay (6'0" 176 lbs.), a Turkish import who would rather play the point than shoot the ball. Barnes also has the team's lone freshman, Varez Ward (6'2" 190 lbs.), a quick, strong player who also gets to the free throw-line a lot but can't quite seem to make his free throws (4-12 on the year). Barnes uses Ward when he needs another good perimeter defender.
The thing with the Texas guards is that they are all pretty quick and all can play the kind of frenetic defense that Barnes asks of his players. They already have 27 steals between them on the season, which is pretty good, and they are very good at getting arms in the passing lanes and tipping the ball. The Bruins need to take care of the ball and make a conscious effort to not be lazy on the perimeter while on offense.
However, make no mistake; the Bruins have the advantage in the backcourt.
Up front is where the Longhorns can really take advantage of the Bruins. Barnes starts senior Connor Atchley (6'10" 228 lbs.), and juniors Damian James (6'7" 222 lbs.) and Dexter Pittman, (6'10" 298 lbs.). Barnes brings sophomore stud Gary Johnson (6'6" 233 lbs.), off the bench, but he gets starter's minutes, usually at the expense of Pittman.
Atchley is a face-the-basket player who is actually the second most dangerous outside threat on the team behind Abrams. He doesn't put the ball on the floor well, but he doesn't have to, his shot is that quick. Atchley also leads the team in blocks with 12, usually getting them coming from the help side.
James is the second leading scorer on the team at 14.5 PPG, and the leading rebounder at 8 RPG. He is a threat to pull up from the outside and to get to the foul line (he has 23 FT attempts). He is very athletic and generally plays bigger than he is on defense.
Pittman, at close to 300 pounds, is a bruiser who only gets about 9.5 MPG. But he has the kind of body that could wear down the Bruins inside. Other than J'mison Morgan, the Bruins don't have a match for Pittman, size-wise. Johnson may be the best pro prospect on the team. He averages 10.7 PPG and 7.8 RPG in only 23.7 MPG. He is the best back-to-the-basket scoring option that Barnes has and he's good at it. Remember, Johnson missed much of last season with a heart condition, so he's essentially a freshman.
The question here is who are the Bruins going to guard? Josh Shipp could really be a liability here matched up against the athletic, strong James. This is where being a senior has to count for something in terms of guile and focus. Probably the best approach is for Shipp to sag off him, allow him to shoot from the outside (27% from three), and keep him out of the paint, particularly off the offensive boards, where he's most effective. You might see Holiday or Malcolm Lee get a whack at James if Shipp is ineffective. But then Shipp would have to move over to guard Mason, and he's not nearly quick enough for that assignment. It will be interesting to see if Howland plays Lee and Holiday at the same time more in this game, if Lee, who has the potential to be a very good defender with his quickness, offers the coach a better defensive option. Keefe will get Atchley, and Aboya matches up fine against Johnson, since they're probably about the same size, but defending the huge Pittman could be a problem. One thing to watch for is if Barnes plays Pittman more in this one, recognizing that UCLA doesn't have a big enough body that's also experienced enough to contain Pittman. Sophomore Clint Chapman (6'10" 235 lbs.), also gets minutes, but he has been horrible on offense so far this season and is strictly a back-to-the-basket player anyway.
The Texas offense is still predicated on the dribble penetration and kick-out, a la Memphis last season, without the obvious effectiveness. Still, it's the kind of offense that has given the Bruins fits over the Howland years when run correctly. (Gee, a specific offense that gives the Bruin defense fits…you'd think we were talking about the football team against the spread). The Bruins showed against both Michigan and, to a lesser extent, Southern Illinois, that their help rotation isn't where it needs to be to combat this kind of offense. This is truly where the game could be won or lost.
Texas also hits the offensive glass very hard and they should have a rebounding advantage on the Bruins to begin with. Couple that with the fact that the Bruins don't defend this kind of offense particularly well, at least not yet this season, and this has the makings of a difficult game.
Texas has really gone in a new direction defensively, going soley to a man D this season that has been stifling. They extend out on the opposing guards, even to the point where they gamble a bit too much, because they're willing to risk someone getting around them, feeling confident with their post guys helping on dribble penetration. UCLA's advantage offensively is the offensive ability of both Collison and Holiday. Mason's effort to guard Holiday will be a big key in this one; if Holiday can make space in order to create, UCLA's offense should be able to score enough to win. Collison has to shoot the ball, especially over the smaller Abrams.
There are some things working in the Bruins' favor. They are more athletic than the Longhorns, which is something that couldn't be said last season. The Bruins have a distinct advantage in the backcourt, where games are usually won, and the Bruins have more firepower coming off the bench.
A more decisive element in this game, however, might not be talent but experience. While UCLA has many players getting their first significant minutes on the college level, Texas is mostly made up of veterans.
This is a match-up that is difficult enough, but takes on another element for UCLA since it's on the road. If this were in Pauley, I'd predict a clear Bruin victory. However, with it being in Austin...
Oh, heck, the Bruins are the better team. Let's go out on the BRO homer limb and say that the frosh won't have jitters after being in New York and that they'll play well.