UCLA is coming off its first win of the season, a 75-64 victory over Cal State Bakersfield, while Pepperdine is coming off its first win of the year, a two-point victory over Cal State San Bernardino. The Waves sit at 1-2 on the young season, with two home losses to Pacific and Long Beach State. The Bruins are 1-1, having suffered a somewhat surprising loss to Cal State Fullerton in UCLA's season-opener. To put the competition in perspective, it appears that Fullerton is better than the preseason predictions would have people believe, so much so that the Titans are probably better than Pacific and roughly equal to preseason Big West Conference favorite LBSU.
The victory over CSUB was a tale of two halves for the Bruins, as they adjusted their play to compensate for the loss of suspended senior forward Nikola Dragovic. UCLA looked terrible on both ends of the floor against the Roadrunners for the first 17 minutes of the first half, having trouble with CSUB's defensive switches and having real problems containing the Roadrunners' quickness when CSUB was on offense. The final three minutes of the first half, where the Bruins closed out the half on a 10-0 run, and the second half showed that the young Bruins started to understand how to attack an active zone defense. The final 23 minutes also had several Bruins raise their game, particularly senior James Keefe, who became a real threat on offense when flashing to the high post, and sophomore point guard Jerime Anderson, who seemed to finally settle down a bit after picking up two silly fouls in the first half.
Pepperdine head coach Tom Asbury, who is in his second stint as coach of the Waves, has brought a sense of stability to a program that truly was a mess the last few seasons before Asbury returned. Although the Waves finished 9-23 last season, they were a much better squad at the end of the year than they were at the beginning. A lot of the growth of Asbury's squad was simply the maturation of many players that were either freshmen or sophomores, which even this season makes up the bulk of Pepperdine's roster.
The best player on the Pepperdine roster, and one that will give the Bruins problems is sophomore guard Keion Bell (6'3", 200 lbs.). Bell is the Waves' leading scorer at 21 PPG, and tied for the team lead in rebounds at 7.7 RPG. Bell isn't a great shooter but he finds ways to score. He is quick and is always a threat to take the ball into the paint. Statistically he is shooting less than 50% from the floor and only 27% from behind the arc, but he's been to the foul line 23 times, hitting on 70% of those attempts. The real weakness of Bell, and generally the weakness of the entire Pepperdine squad, is his propensity to turn over the ball. Bell has 12 turnovers on the year, while the squad has a whopping 47 in 3 games, even counting the win against San Bernardino. Contrast that with the only 31 assists the Waves have as a team (of which Bell has 12), and the picture of a team that gives up a lot of buckets in transition becomes clearer. In terms of defending Bell, Coach Ben Howland should instruct Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee to play off Bell and force him to shoot from outside. Bell is by far the leading assist man for the Waves and most of those assists come from Bell dishing off once he gets into the lane. If the Bruins cut off Bell's ability to penetrate then they'll cut off much of Pepperdine's offense.
Bell's backcourt mate is freshman Joshua Lowery (6'2", 190 lbs.). Lowery hasn't proven to be much of an offensive threat, averaging only 3.7 PPG and having only hit one shot from the floor. Lowery has been automatic from the free-throw line though, (8-8), so the Bruins would be much better off letting him shoot from outside rather than letting him get into the paint. Lowery averages less than 20 MPG, though, as Asbury has gone to sophomore Lorne Jackson (6'2", 205 lbs.), who is much more of an offensive weapon. Jackson averages 7 PPG and is clearly the Waves' best outside threat, having hit on 6-of-9 shots from behind the arc. Jackson is the complete opposite of Bell, as he likes to float around the three-point line and rarely ventures into the lane.
The frontcourt is anchored by the most senior player on Asbury's squad, junior forward Mychal Thompson (6'7", 200 lbs.), the son of former Laker and namesake Mychal Thompson. Thompson is better than his stats are showing to this point; He is averaging only 7.3 PPG and 5 RPG, but he is a better player than that. He has enough quickness to be a threat inside and he will pull his defender out to the arc. Thompson's offensive problems so far this season stem mostly from his cold outside shooting to begin the season, going 0-8 from long distance. Thompson is the defensive anchor in the paint for the Waves and getting him into any sort of foul trouble would be a real problem for Pepperdine.
The low post if manned by sophomore Taylor Darby (6'8", 220 lbs.), who averages 8 PPG and is tied with Bell for the team lead at 7.7 RPG. He is strictly an inside player, having not attempted a three-point shot and having been to the foul line 15 times. Darby is, however, only hitting on 53% of his foul shots (which would actually make him one of UCLA's better foul shooters). UCLA's frontcourt players shouldn't have as much trouble guarding Darby as they did in the first half of the CSUB game against the Roadrunners' Satwon Latunde. Lutunde is a wide-body while Darby is built more like a ‘3' than a power forward or center.
The final starting spot will be filled primarily by either junior Gus Clardy (6'8", 225 lbs.) or sophomore Corbin Moore (6'10", 240 lbs.). Although they both are bigger bodies than anyone else that Asbury plays, they collectively average only 32 MPG, 5.7 PPG and 5 RPG. Their modest combined minutes are more than likely the result of Pepperdine having played smaller, quicker teams in their first three games. Expect to see more minutes on Monday for one or both players in matching up against UCLA, especially if the Bruins get a lot of their offense in the paint.
Asbury plays a ten-man rotation because he's still trying to figure out his best rotation and because Asbury will try and pressure the ball at times. Having fresh bodies helps on the defensive end in trying to achieve Asbury's goals. In fact, only Bell, Thompson and Darby are averaging over 20 MPG, although all three are averaging at least 29 MPG. Barring foul trouble, expect to see those three on the court for at least 32 minutes.
Of Asbury's bench players, the biggest threat is sophomore Dane Suttle (6'6", 210 lbs.). Suttle is a true inside-out threat, averaging 9 PPG on 53% shooting from the floor and 44% from behind the arc. Suttle provides the Waves another offensive option, however, he is a defensive liability. When Suttle is in the game expect the Waves to be in some sort of zone defense.
Asbury is a good coach with a solid philosophy and he surely will have looked at game tape of the Bruins' first two games. He is much like Ben Howland in that he preaches defense and rebounding first. The Waves are outrebounding their opponents by more than 9 RPG, although that is partly a result of the shorter competition they've faced so far. Rebounding, however, has been a cause for concern for UCLA coming out of the preseason and although the Bruins rebounded better than expected in their first two games, Pepperdine will present a test on the boards. Because of UCLA's difficulties in attacking zone defenses, expect to see the Waves in a variety of zones. The good news for the Bruins is that they looked good in attacking CSUB's active zone in the second half last Friday night. UCLA can also expect to see some full- and ¾-court pressure from Pepperdine.
The Bruins looked much better with Mike Roll initiating the offense against CSUB, but those clamoring for Roll to play more of a point guard Roll need to understand that doing that is 1) only a short-term solution, and 2) would diminish Roll's ability to shoot from the outside. That is not an enticing prospect for a team that is going to struggle at times on the offensive end. Because of Pepperdine's style and their tendency to turn over the ball, this is a perfect opportunity for UCLA's Anderson to play a more relaxed game, as he did in the second half Friday night. Any mistakes at the point by Anderson will more than likely be offset by the fact that Pepperdine is just as likely to give the ball right back to the Bruins.
While there is a talent difference between the two squads, what could really turn this game into an easy victory for the Bruins is Pepperdine's turnover situation. Unless that suddenly changes, and to this point they've shown nothing to lead anyone to believe that will happen, the Bruins will be able to get easy points. UCLA has had very few transition points in its two games, but Pepperdine's penchant for turnovers should boost those numbers in this game. Add to that the fact that Thompson is the only Wave who has played in Asbury's system for more than one year and you have the makings of a team that will make a lot of mistakes. If the Bruins can play as they did in the second half of the CSUB game, then this game will be one of the few easy victories the Bruins have on their schedule, even though Pepperdine does have a team at least as talented as many of their West Coast Conference brethren.