Butler, who is ranked in both polls, is coming off a hard-fought loss to another ranked foe, Minnesota. The Bruins are coming off the worst loss of the Ben Howland era, a 27-point drubbing at the hands of Portland. UCLA now has less than 24 hours to turn around and take on a team that it clearly doesn't match up well against based on its vulnerabilities against Portland Thursday night.
UCLA desperately needs a boost in confidence, but they aren't facing an opponent that is likely to give it to them. Portland may have hit some ridiculous shots, but UCLA's inability to attack a zone with any consistency, which was made worse by Mike Roll's terrible shooting night, doesn't bode well for the team's prospects against a Butler squad that plays very similarly to the Pilots…only better. That, however, is not where Friday's game could turn into another blowout loss. The defense that UCLA displayed on Thursday was terrible, mainly because on virtually every possession at least one of the five Bruins on the floor was simply lost. Too many poor close-outs; too many times losing sight of the ball; too many times not fighting through screens and looking poor fundamentally on the defensive boards. Now the Bruins play a team in Butler in which all of those defensive principles must make a dramatic, collective turnaround if the Bruins have any chance to shut down Butler.
Butler isn't about one player, but a trio of young men, all of who could single-handedly do more against UCLA than anyone on the Portland roster. Junior Matt Howard (6'8", 230 lbs.) and sophomore Gordon Hayward (6'9", 207 lbs.) both have the ability to dominate inside and out. Hayward had a poor game against Minnesota on Thursday (six big turnovers), but Howard picked up the slack by scoring 23 points. Still, even with Hayward's "poor" game, he had a double-double of 13 points and 10 boards. Hayward is considered a pretty good prospect for the next level while Howard is the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year.
The third person in the trio is sophomore guard Shelvin Mack (6'3", 215 lbs.), who has average quickness but is very strong. Mack is tied in scoring with Hayward at 14.8 PPG. He's dangerous due to his ability to hit from beyond the arc or pound the ball down against a smaller/lighter defender. Quite frankly, Malcolm Lee has to guard Mack most of the time because at least Lee has the length to possibly bother Mack. Jerime Anderson, who fouled out of the Portland game, is smaller and not as strong as Mack and the young Bulldog knows how to take advantage of defenders who he has a mismatch against.
The rest of Butler's lineup is, in many ways, interchangeable. The key to defeating Butler, and why UCLA may be in for another rough game, is slowing down the Bulldog offense. 33 year-old coach Brad Stevens runs the same 4-out-1-in offense that Thad Matta started at Butler roughly a decade ago. Stevens, however, has better players than Matta or Stevens' predecessor, Todd Lickliter, ever had. The offense has elements of a motion, a Princeton-style offense and a triangle offense. The goal of the offense is to isolate any one of the Bulldogs, all of whom can hit the ‘3' with regularity, and have them shoot off a screen, drive for a pull-up jumper or for a lay-up, or to dump the ball inside to either Howard or Hayward (usually Howard), who are often isolated on their man because of their roll-down after either setting or getting a screen. Howard and Hayward both have such an understanding of the offense that rarely do they hold onto the ball long enough for any double-teaming help to arrive. To even slow this down the Bruins must first stay in front of their man, something they have had trouble with this season. Next, the Bruins have to fight through screens quickly and with purpose, something they collectively did poorly against Portland. Finally, the Bruins must never turn their back to the ball or a Butler player will make them pay for it every time, and there are several Bruins who have shown a nasty tendency to lose sight of the ball.
Butler will mix zone and man defenses in the hope that they will confuse UCLA when the Bruins are on offense. That may change after a short time as Butler sees that UCLA struggles against zone defenses. Butler's defense is solid, but not great. What Butler has going for them on the defensive end is that typically their opponent feels as if they have to be perfect on the offensive end just to keep up with Butler's own offensive efficiency. This leads to teams playing "tight" on offense against the Bulldogs. UCLA is playing poorly on the offensive end and although it will be unlikely that Mike Roll shoots as poorly against Butler as he did against Portland, the Bruins will still struggle to hit the 70-point mark.
UCLA must do a better job on the boards than they did on Thursday, when Portland outrebounded the Bruins by 8. UCLA has players that are capable of rebounding well, but doing so against Butler takes discipline. Drew Gordon, especially, must play under control on the boards and on defense or he's going to get into early foul trouble and be a non-factor. If Ben Howland has to use Reeves Nelson for extended minutes then UCLA's interior defense is going to get shredded no matter how much the Bruin freshman tries. The Butler offense is built to take advantage of inexperience.
The Bruins do have a puncher's chance in this game. They are generally more athletic than most of the Bulldogs and the Bruins are longer. UCLA is also coming off an incredibly humiliating defeat and the hope is that the Bruins will play with a real sense of urgency. Beyond that, though, UCLA could be in real trouble. Butler is even as good from the free throw line as Portland.
If this game could be boiled down to a one- or two-sentence preview it would be this: UCLA will be facing a Butler squad that is almost a carbon copy of Portland. The only real difference will be that Butler will always have five players on the floor who can shoot the ‘3', while Portland only had four.
This could be two days in a row of "ugly."