As Tracy Pierson has written over the past several weeks and games, this is another "cupcake" in a series of weaker opponents. The real question in this game will surround the use of minutes by Bruin Coach Ben Howland, specifically with regard to junior Mike Roll, but also generally with the whole team as the Bruins prepare to open conference play on January 2nd at Oregon State.
Louisiana Tech comes into the contest with a record of 6-6. The funny thing is that excluding the Bulldogs' games against non-Division 1 foes, their record is 6-4. That should tell you all you need to know about Tech's chances against the Bruins. They do have a decent win against TCU in their last game, but they've lost games against such "powerhouses" as Samford, McNeese State, Western Carolina and Arkansas-Little Rock. That's in addition to the two non-D-1 losses they've suffered.
It's not as if the Bulldogs are bereft of talent. They have four players averaging in double figures and they are all underclassmen. They have a highly recruited player in LSU transfer, junior Magnum Rolle (6'11" 225 lbs.), and a go-to player in junior Kyle Gibson 6'5" 205 lbs.), who would be a contributing player on most, if not all, Pac-10 squads. Yet with all this talent, and like I stated, there is talent, the Bulldogs are not a good team...yet.
The problem for Tech this season hasn't been a lack of talent but a lack of chemistry. Of the twelve men on the Tech roster only three players have played for Coach Kerry Rupp before this season. There are four true freshmen and five transfers, only two of whom have come from the junior college ranks, which means that three of the transfers, including Rolle, didn't play last season. As the season progresses, don't be surprised to see Tech become a pretty good team in the WAC, one capable of winning the conference tournament in March. But for now, and for the game against UCLA on Sunday, the Bulldogs are still a team getting to know each other and are thus capable of the kind of turnover fest that the Bruins feasted on in their last game against Wyoming. In fact, if the Bulldogs commit less than 20 turnovers against the Bruins, it should come as a surprise.
Individually, the Bulldogs will present some interesting match-ups. As I stated before, Gibson (and there is another Gibson on the roster so don't get the frosh Brandon confused with Kyle), is a talent. He is one of the best players in the WAC. He leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 16.5 PPG and rebounds at a 3.8 RPG clip. He is a very good three-point shooter, hitting on over 44% of his 58 attempts this season. That is only a complimentary part of his game. He is primarily a slasher and definitely has the athleticism to cause the Bruins some headaches. When he does get to the rack he isn't a particularly good shooter, averaging only 44% from the floor overall, but he does know how to get to the charity stripe. He has taken 77 free throw attempts this season and hit on 73% of them. He will present UCLA with some defensive problems, mainly because his height should dictate that Bruin frosh Jrue Holiday will be matched on him. If Holiday, whose on-ball defense has been average at best, can't handle Gibson, then look for fellow frosh Malcolm Lee to get time defending him. If that's the case then the question will become where do Lee's minutes come from. This may be a recurring theme not only throughout this game, but for the next few weeks as well.
Rolle will also be an intriguing match-up. He has been slowly rounding into the form that made him a sought-after recruit by some bigger programs and he is now becoming the best option that Tech has on the low block. Don't let his number fool you (he is averaging 10.9 PPG and 6.8 RPG), since he's getting more and more minutes per game and is putting up very good statistics in recent contests. He is athletic and has some real spring in his legs. What makes Rolle even more dangerous is that his low-post partner, junior Kenneth Cooper 6'10" 260 lbs.), is also a handful. Between them they've attempted exactly zero three-point shots, but they are both a load down low. Cooper is the more sedentary of the two and thus easier to defend. His shooting percentages from the field and from the free-throw line are poorer than his more celebrated counterpart. They both start and even though they have gotten in each other's way early this year, they are starting to come into their own. It will be interesting to see how Alfred Aboya and James Keefe, and to a lesser extent Nikola Dragovic and Drew Gordon, will handle these match-ups and how Howland will divvy out the floor time.
Gibson's backcourt mate is junior Jamel Guyton (6'3" 180 lbs.). Guyton is nominally the point guard but he really shares that duty with Gibson. He is a shorter and slightly less talented version of his running mate, but he can still be dangerous if a defense loses sight of him. He is the second leading scorer on the squad, averaging 13.8 PPG. He is a three-point threat, but only hits on 32% while only hitting on 38% from the floor. He is les a threat to penetrate than is Gibson, but he does get to the free-throw line and hits 71% of his attempts. Bruin senior Darren Collison is a much better player but that may not count for much if Howland feels forced to put Collison on Gibson. As good as Gibson and Guyton may sound, they have some real drawbacks. Combined they have 62 assists, but they have also teamed for 70 turnovers and both have more turnovers than assists.
The final starter will either be junior David Jackson (6'8" 195 lbs.) or senior guard James Loe(5'11" 190 lbs.), depending on how Rupp sees the match-ups. After that, the Tech bench is pretty thin. The aforementioned frosh Brandon Gibson (6'5" 230 lbs.) and redshirt frosh Olu Ashaolu (6'7" 230 lbs.) both get time off the bench, but when they are playing, particularly together, the team sees a definitive talent drop-off.
The real thing to look at isn't the match-ups, but rather the stats from Louisiana Tech's season up to this point; the Bulldogs have given up 41 more turnovers than their opponents and have 25 fewer steals. Their shooting percentage defense looks decent on paper, holding opponents to 41% from the floor, but when you look at their losses, that number jumps up. Considering the Bruins are getting exponentially better on offense, this could be another game that the Bruins get close to the century mark, despite the fact that La. Tech has yet to give up 80 points on the season. But the Bruins are an entirely different level of opponent.
Let's give the Bulldogs a bit of a pass on their first loss of the year as they had several starters sit out. But the Bulldogs can't win away from their home court, as you would expect from a young and inexperienced team. They are 6-0 in Ruston, La., but 0-6 away from home. There is nothing here to think that won't continue.
Will Howland give more minutes to frosh J'mison Morgan in order to battle Cooper? Will Mike Roll indeed get increased minutes? Will Jrue Holiday come out of his shooting slump? These are the real questions. As for the outcome, enjoy the last of the cupcakes (at least, non-conference) before the Bruins begin defense of their Pac-10 title next week.
Louisiana Tech 59