Unlike the past few years, however, this year's version of the Bruins will be hard-pressed to meet the expectations of the last few seasons. The team lacks depth at key spots, experience across the board and athleticism in general. UCLA does have Coach Ben Howland and a proven system that usually gets the best out of the team by the time March rolls around.
Tracy Pierson has already written about how the expectation for this season should be that the young Bruins grow between the first game and the last. Well, the first game is upon us as the Bruins open their 2009-2010 regular season on Monday night against the Fullerton State Titans.
The Titans are a team in transition, not because they are young, but rather because they lost their primary scorer when Josh Akognon graduated last spring. With Akognon, the Titans were a team that was dominated offensively by shooting the ‘3'. Without Akognon, and with the eligibility of JC transfer, junior Bryce Webster (6'10", 240 lbs.), the Titans will now try to slow things down and pound the ball inside.
The keys to this game are going to be rebounding and defense, especially for the Bruins. In their two earlier games the Titans have outrebounded their opponents 50-34 and 40-27 respectively. This is an area where UCLA has struggled in both of their exhibition contests. And with Fullerton only shooting 8-26 from behind the arc in their two games it's obvious that they are going to crash the boards and try to both get to the line and get easy buckets off put-backs. The Titans' win on Saturday night over NAIA Hope International (Concordia is MUCH better) was not a good precursor for the game against the Bruins as Hope was so poor throughout the game that it allowed Fullerton to play as they did last season, i.e., run and gun, and that's the complete opposite of what they'll see against the Bruins.
Seventh-year Coach Bob Burton leads the Titans and he has 5 players returning that all started more than 10 games last year. That doesn't factor in Webster, who began his career at his hometown University of Minnesota before going on the transfer carousel, finally landing at Irvine Valley JC and then Fullerton.
Webster has size, but he is slow and not very athletic. He left the Golden Gophers because he wasn't going to get many minutes and that was when the Gophers were in the bottom third of the conference. He was always a bit of a head case when he was at Minnesota; he seemed he would be more at home studying chemistry or physics at an Ivy school than playing basketball. He is easily frustrated and plays smaller than his size. Burton may very well play zone to make the most of his new big man as Webster may foul out if he has to guard the energetic Drew Gordon for extended minutes.
The two forwards for the Titans are a pair of 6'6 players who couldn't be more different. Senior Gerard Anderson (205 lbs.) is built like a small forward but plays on the offensive end like a ‘4'. He attempted only three three-pointers last season and is more comfortable on the low block. Granted, Burton had to play Anderson at the power forward spot last season and Anderson will now be the ‘3' in the Titan offense, but he still isn't an outside threat. Anderson is the team's leading returning rebounder, though, at 5.8 RPG from last season. Anderson was a pretty poor free-throw shooter last season, only averaging 55% from the charity stripe. He will, however, probably look to get to the rim and the line a lot. Anderson is very athletic, to the point where Howland may decide to match up Malcolm Lee on him. As good as Mike Roll has become on the defensive side of the ball, Anderson will be a handful. The good news for the Bruins is that Anderson is, at best, an inconsistent finisher.
The other 6'6" player is another JC transfer, JerVaughn Johnson (240 lbs.), came from San Diego Stae and is a banger. Johnson will certainly be the leading rebounder for the Titans this season and probably for the game against the Bruins. This is where Howland may want to insert James Keefe into the line-up to make up for Nikola Dragovic's rebounding deficiencies at the ‘4' spot. Like Anderson, Johnson isn't a great free throw shooter, but unlike Anderson he will throw some shots up from outside. As the year progresses Burton expects big things from Johnson so perhaps it's a blessing that UCLA sees him at the beginning of the season rather than in late December when he's gotten more comfortable with his role and his teammates.
Burton's best returning player is sophomore point guard Jacques Streeter (6' 175 lbs.) from Los Angeles. Streeter is a quick, pass-first point who actually averaged 10.4 PPG last season, shot 42% from behind the arc, 76% from the foul line and almost 4 RPG. However, what set Streeter apart last season was his better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Streeter isn't particularly quick so Jerime Anderson as well as Lee and Roll should be able to keep Streeter in front of them. However, Streeter is very good at protecting the ball and knows how to initiate the offense. The key for Streeter is whether or not he will hit the ground running with a new offense. Last year he basically threw the ball to Akognon and watched a shot go up. Streeter doesn't foul a lot, either, but he's not going to be taking the ball from the Bruins. Finally, Streeter will be the primary outside threat for the Titans so the Bruins can't sag off him.
The ‘2' guard is going to be senior Aaron Thompson (6'4" 190 lbs.), who played out of position last year as the small forward for the Titans. He is strictly a slasher, as evidenced by his miserable 24% shooting from behind the arc and the fact that he got to the charity stripe 54 times, which would have translated to the 2nd most on the squad behind Akognon had Thompson played more than 20 MPG last season. Burton has said that he expects Thompson to score more this season but, like many of the Titans, he is a very good athlete who happens to play basketball. A key for the Bruins will be forcing Thompson to be one of the Titans' two primary scorers because Thompson has, as of yet, to prove that he can carry a team for any length of time at the Division 1 level.
Backing up Streeter will be one of two JC transfers, juniors Devon Peltier (5'11", 185 lbs.) or Jamal McGuire (6'5", 165 lbs.). According to Burton he was hoping McGuire would step into that back-up role immediately because Burton likes his size but as of now it seems that Burton feels more comfortable with Peltier. Peltier is quick enough to give the Bruins some trouble as they've had trouble keeping guards like Peltier in front of them in the past, but if the preseason games are any indication, Peltier is more of a scoring point guard who will let fly from anywhere, and that plays into the Bruins' favor.
Burton has two dangerous options up front, but for different reasons. Sophomore Orane Chin (6'7", 195 lbs.) might ultimately be the Titans' best player. He scored 18 points in Fullerton's opener on Saturday. The transfer from South Florida has a nice inside/outside game and he can rebound well for his size. Senior Papa Guisse (6'8", 210 lbs.) is going to be used strictly as a substitute for Webster and Johnson. He is a very good rebounder but a bit of a liability on offense. His hands are suspect and he really can't shoot well outside of 5 or 6 feet. The Bruins would rather let him shoot however, as his free throw percentage last season was a respectable 68%.
Although Webster and Thompson start, it wouldn't be surprising to see Burton go to a smaller, quicker line-up, using both Peltier and a combination of Chin and Guisse to try and out-hustle the Bruins. If that's the case then UCLA must make the Titans pay with some inside scoring. That's why Drew Gordon and James Keefe will be keys in this contest. If the Bruins can't establish any real offense in the paint then what the Titans do in this game, if they go small, will be what the Bruins see for the bulk of the season until they learn to punish smaller foes on the low block.
Expect Fullerton to come out and mix up their defenses to try and throw off any offensive rhythm that UCLA, and more specifically Jerime Anderson, might try to establish. It certainly will be a good test for the Bruins' backcourt players. Remember: Last season's 15-17 mark was Burton's first losing campaign since he's been at Fullerton.
This is a good time for the young Bruins to be facing the Titans as Fullerton's players, in many ways, will still be feeling out each other. With so many transfers it would be unreasonable to think that the Titans could take advantage of UCLA's youth and the inevitable mistakes that will come with it being the first game. If UCLA were to face Fullerton in, say, late December, I could see a very close contest. The Titans, like I stated earlier, are focusing more on their halfcourt offense and rebounding this season, so that will help shorten the game. As it is, even though Tracy stated in his season preview that this game would be fairly close, expect Nikola Dragovic to do enough and, with Mike Roll leading the way, the Bruins should open up a game that will be close at the half. If UCLA can rebound reasonably well, then UCLA should win this game by at least 20, but we'll believe that when we see it.