Kansas has held up their end of the deal with regard to being highly-rated coming into the game, but the Bruins are coming off arguably the darkest 10 days in Coach Ben Howland's tenure. Not only did the Bruins lose all three games in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, and they were essentially run off the floor in two of those losses, they also lost starting center Drew Gordon, who is transferring at the end of the academic quarter. Although much has been made of the fact that Gordon's removal from the team could be a positive, the reality was, and is, that Gordon was clearly the best post player for the Bruins.
The Jayhawks boast one of the best coaches in the country in Bill Self, who guided the Jayhawks to the national title two years ago. Self likes to employ a very up-tempo offense with solid (although not great) man-to-man defense predicated on ball-hawking and forcing opponents into quick shots and drives towards the middle where Kansas' considerable athleticism and size bothers and blocks field goal attempts.
Self has become known as one of the better recruiters in the nation and he has stockpiled the 2009-2010 version of the Jayhawks with athleticism, length and size. Now, it's not like the Jayhawks are on the level of last year's version of North Carolina; they certainly have some deficiencies, but at this point in the season Kansas' combination of talent and experience is the best in the country.
It all starts at the point for the Jayhawks where they have four-year letterman and starter Sherron Collins (5'11" 205 lbs.). Collins is, in many ways, a better version of Portland's T.J. Campbell, who torched the Bruins on Thanksgiving by the way he ran the Pilots' offense. Collins is taller and stronger than Campbell, and he's a better shooter, too. Collins averages better than 50% from the field, 47% from the three-point line and 75% from the charity stripe. He has 22 assists on the year against only 6 turnovers and he averages 14.3 PPG. All this while generally only playing little more than half of every contest. If the Bruins play man defense the majority of the game they are going to have real problems shutting down Collins with any regularity. He's quicker than every Bruin guard and stronger than Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee. Lee has a significant length advantage on Collins, but it's not as if the Kansas point man hasn't had to deal with that before. Based on Collins alone the Bruins are probably going to have to play a lot of zone if they are going to be successful.
The other backcourt starter is sophomore Tyshawn Taylor (6'3" 180 lbs.), who is also ultra-quick. Taylor, however, represents the one significant chink in Kansas' armor, the lack of accurate outside shooting. Taylor is only averaging 39% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc. He's also not a great free-throw shooter, averaging only 63% from the foul line. If the Bruins do play man expect to see a lot of Anderson on Taylor simply because that's the best match-up for the Bruins. In a perfect world the Bruins would be able to play man and try and force Taylor to be the Jayhawk who beats them.
In the low post Self has preseason All-American Cole Aldrich (6'11" 245 lbs.), a junior from Minnesota. Aldrich is a nice player who definitely has become better while at Kansas, but is probably a bit overrated. His statistical success has stemmed in large part because of his supporting cast. However, he is very strong and has three years worth of experience playing on some outstanding teams. With the loss of Gordon, this may be as big of a mismatch as Collins against the UCLA guards. Reeves Nelson has played probably the most consistent basketball of any of the Bruins, but he is simply going to be overmatched in this game. He's giving up four inches and 20 plus pounds to the Kansas big man, and while James Keefe has the experience to play with Aldrich, his confidence leaves something to be desired. Aldrich is another match-up that is screaming for UCLA to utilize a zone.
The two forwards are super-frosh Xavier Henry (6'6" 220 lbs.) and sophomore Marcus Morris (6'8" 225 lbs.). Henry is probably the most naturally talented Jayhawk and leads them in scoring this year at 17 PPG. He has been a streaky shooter from beyond the arc even though he is averaging 44% from outside. When he goes cold it tends to be for long stretches, but when he's on, look out. Theoretically the Bruins have two players who can guard Henry in freshmen Mike Moser and the now-healthy Tyler Honeycutt, but Honeycutt isn't expected to play significant minutes since it's his first game back from injury and Moser still doesn't have Howland's complete confidence to go out and play at least 20 minutes.
Morris is more of an inside player than Henry, but he will shoot the ‘3' ball. He is long and athletic and will cause major problems for any Bruin playing the ‘4' spot (see a pattern here?). If Morris is off his game then Self can call on Marcus' twin brother Markieff (6'9" 232 lbs.), who would provide a little more bulk and a little less from the outside, but would still bring that athleticism and size.
Self, in fact, essentially plays a nine-man rotation, with freshmen Thomas Robinson (6'9" 230 lbs.) and Elijah Johnson (6'2" 183 lbs.) spelling Aldrich and Collins respectively, and junior Tyrel Reed (6'3" 185 lbs.) subbing in for Taylor. All three are athletic and all three can get up and down the floor. It should be noted that former Bruin recruit Johnson is only playing 14 MPG and if he was on the current Bruin roster he would more than likely be starting and playing upwards of 30 MPG. That is just the most glaring example of the talent disparity between the two teams.
If this game were played 50 times the Bruins might win once. That means that they have a chance, but Bruin fans shouldn't get their hopes up. There are too many variables that would have to go in UCLA's favor for them to have anything more than a reasonable expectation of playing hard and keeping the game relatively close. There are some things that could possibly help the Bruins. Kansas has played a very soft schedule with only Memphis providing them with a tough game. Memphis, in fact, probably provides a blueprint of how to slow down the Jayhawks. The Tigers slowed down the game and forced Kansas to settle for mid-range jumpers, which the Jayhawks had trouble hitting, especially in the first half. The Bruins have to hope for another poor shooting night from Kansas and hope that Kansas's lack of competition thus far will cause them to play a sloppy game. The Bruins further have to hope that Kansas will simply not respect them based on the Bruins' season to date. Overlooking the Bruins can only help, but that's unlikely to happen as Self will have the Jayhawks focused squarely on the name on the front of the Bruin jerseys.
UCLA actually has enough length on its roster to bother Kansas, especially if the Bruins play a lot of zone and pack the defense into the paint. If UCLA does that then that's where they have to hope for a bad shooting day from the Jayhawks. If UCLA plays man defense most of the game then this could be the most lopsided loss in the last 50 years of UCLA basketball. Mixing defenses will probably be what fans see from Howland.
The other area of concern is Kansas' ability to get out and run. UCLA has, for the past four seasons, been good to great at getting back in transition. This year's Bruins have showed a glaring deficiency in that area. It would be great if the Bruins played with pride and hustled and rotated to get back and at least force the Jayhawks to earn points in the halfcourt and from the free throw line (where they only shoot a collective 64% as a team).
UCLA's offense has been pretty poor this season and it lost its best inside threat in Gordon. Hopefully Honeycutt can provide some spark on the offensive end (and if he does then expect to see him play more than 10 minutes). It will be difficult for UCLA to score more than 65 points against the Jayhawks, which is why they must slow down this game to have any chance of winning.
There isn't one aspect of this game, though, where the Bruins have an advantage, except possibly when it comes to the coaches, and even then Howland isn't so much better as to give the Bruins a realistic chance at the victory. The Bruins need to play hard for 40 minutes, stay competitive, get Honeycutt involved in the rotation and flow and look to build on the experience. If they can do that, then it bodes well for both the long-term and the near-term. The Bruins will play both Mississippi State and Notre Dame in the next two weeks and both teams are beatable, but the Bruins have to start playing with purpose, confidence and heart in order to win those kinds of games. That needs to start on Sunday, and should be what UCLA fans look for against Kansas.