UCLA is in this game because of losses to Portland and Butler while the 49ers find themselves facing the Bruins because of losses to West Virginia and Clemson.
The obvious key to this game is whether or not the Bruins will build on their solid performance against Butler or if they will fall back into the bad habits that got them blown out by Portland. It really seems simple, but quite frankly LBSU is going to play the way they have in their first six games so the real determining factor is going to be which Bruin team shows up to play. On top of that, as much as Tracy Pierson has written about the Bruins taking steps forward, there needs to come a point where UCLA simply needs to win. With UCLA's schedule in the next few weeks filled with the likes of top-ranked Kansas, Mississippi State and Notre Dame, this game really has the feel of a "must-win" situation if the Bruins plan on playing after the Pac-10 Tournament in March.
The 49ers are coached by Don Monson, whose claim to fame was when he led Gonzaga to the Elite Eight several years ago. He was the coach that brought Minnesota back from the academic fraud scandal of Clem Haskins, but was let go by the Gophers when he couldn't get the key wins to go along with the successful clean-up job he did in the Twin Cities. Monson, who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, is a much better fit for a mid-major program like LBSU. He has recruited the kind of players who have bought in to his philosophy of active defense and he allows his players enough freedom on offense so that they can grow quickly and be ready for the tougher games come February and March. The 49ers were chosen as the preseason favorite in the Big West Conference. It should be noted that UCLA's first loss of the season came at the hands of the Fullerton Titans, who were picked to finish 7th in the Big West.
Monson starts one senior and four sophomores and these five players play the bulk of the minutes for the 49ers. In fact, Monson essentially plays a seven-man rotation and the seventh man in that rotation, senior Arturas Lazdauskas (6'7" 235 lbs.), only plays about 12 MPG. Of the remaining six players in the rotation, five of them average double figures.
The best player on the 49ers, although he hasn't played that way yet this season, is sophomore Larry Anderson (6'5" 200 lbs.), who is averaging 13.5 PPG. Anderson, who has a game predicated on slashing to the hoop and hitting mid-range jumpers, is only shooting 46% from the floor and 36% from behind the arc. Much of that can be attributed to opposing teams focusing on limiting his touches. He is very athletic, though, and is the kind of player that has given UCLA trouble this season. It's a good bet that Malcolm Lee will be assigned the task of defending Anderson.
Although Anderson is probably the most talented player on LBSU, the player who has actually been playing the best is sophomore T.J. Robinson (6'8" 210 lbs.). Robinson is a tough match-up for any post defender because he, too, is very athletic. He was a handful for Clemson to handle on Friday night because of his quickness. He got Tiger big man Trevor Booker in foul trouble early because of his ability to find gaps for his own shots and get to the offensive boards. UCLA has the kind of post in Drew Gordon who could really bother Robinson because Gordon is athletic and long himself. Hopefully Gordon won't get in foul trouble like he did against Butler because Reeves Nelson, who is limited athletically, will have his hands full on defense with Robinson. The Niner post leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at more than 15 PPG and more than 9 RPG.
The other "forward" is sophomore Eugene Phelps (6'6" 213 lbs.). He averages 10.2 PPG and 8 RPG and is strictly and inside player who does the dirty work in the paint. He is the least athletic of the Niner inside players but that doesn't mean he's slow and plodding. However, it would make sense for Coach Ben Howland to match James Keefe, Nikola Dragovic or Brendan Lane against Phelps.
The backcourt is manned by three athletic guards, senior Stephen Gilling (6'2" 205 lbs.), who is almost strictly a three-point threat, junior Greg Plater (6'1" 165 lbs.), who is the other chief outside threat, and sophomore Casper Ware (5'10" 175 lbs.), the point guard. Ware is the most dangerous 49er as far as the Bruins are concerned because of his quickness and decision-making. He leads the team with 29 assists, but more importantly he is the kind of quick guard that Portland had in T.J. Campbell and, to a lesser extent, Butler had in Shelvin Mack. Both really gave Jerime Anderson fits. The point guard match-up may be the key to the game because if Anderson can't step up his defense and keep Ware out of the Lane then Howland will be forced to put Lee on him and that has the potential of allowing LBSU's Anderson to go off, which he is due for this season.
Although Monson will play a zone he prefers man defense with pressure all the way up the floor. The Bruins have shown that they can beat pressure this year even though they have also shown the occasional hiccup against full- or ¾-court pressure. The 49ers have to pressure because they typically get beat pretty handily on the boards. The Bruins have to establish an inside game against a team that is so much smaller than they are.
There are certain things in this match-up that clearly favor the 49ers. They are more athletic than the Bruins and UCLA has had trouble with team that can beat them off the bounce. The Niners play out of control at times but they get their opponents to do the same thing. Although the 49ers have more turnovers than assists on the season, they have forced their opposition into far more turnovers than they have committed. Against a Bruin squad that is still trying to find their own discipline, this could be a recipe for success for LBSU.
The Bruins clearly have some advantages themselves. They are bigger, stronger, deeper and longer than the Niners. If the Bruins can slow down the pace at all they should be able to win comfortably. Long Beach State is also a team that may actually have less experience than the Bruins do. Finally, UCLA is coming off a moral victory (I hate that term) in which they have something to build on, while the Niners are coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss to Clemson. The 49ers are young enough to question their collective response to losing a game in which they could have won. Add to that fact that many of the 49ers' best players logged big minutes in that game and there could be a fatigue factor.
There is one more factor working in the Bruins' favor and it's probably critical. LBSU is the first team UCLA has faced that may actually be worse at the free-throw line than the Bruins are.
As I stated in the opening, this really is a must-win for the Bruins with the Jayhawks looming. To truly see an improving team one need to look no further than how that team performs after a solid effort, which the Bruins showed against Butler. LBSU is a solid squad, but nowhere near as good as either Butler or Portland. In fact, Fullerton looks to be a more dangerous team than LBSU. Does that mean the 49ers can't beat the Bruins? Of course not, but the advantages UCLA has along with LBSU's very mediocre foul-shooting should be enough for a UCLA victory.
Long Beach State 66