The Bruins are coming off a 12-point loss to top-ranked Kansas last Sunday, while the Bulldogs are coming off a 76-45 win against DePaul this past Thursday. This is an intriguing match-up because both the Bruins and the Bulldogs have, as of yet, been two of the more disappointing teams in the nation so far this season. Although MSU is currently 6-2 they have suffered losses to Richmond and Rider, which is akin to the Bruins losing to Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton. They began the season ranked #18 nationally, but with the two upset losses have fallen out of the rankings. It's not as if the Bulldogs are void of talent as they have four returning starters and one of the best "unknown" players in the country in senior Jarvis Varnado (6'9" 230 lbs.). This is a critical game for the Bruins, both in the short term and the long term. It is vitally important that the Bruins build on the effort they put forth against Kansas or Coach Ben Howland risks losing the team to "pack-it-in" mentality. In the long term, i.e. NCAA terms, the Bruins still have an opportunity, albeit slight, to get the wins necessary to play in the Big Dance, but because of the weakness of the Pac-10 big non-conference wins are necessary and the Bruins are running out of so-called power non-conference opponents. MSU is one of the last two big-name non-conference opponents that UCLA has on its schedule.
As experienced and talented as MSU is on paper, something clearly isn't right with the Bulldogs. Sophomore Dee Bost (6'2" 170 lbs.), the starting point guard and second-leading scorer, has been playing nicked up all season and is a danger to go down for the game at any time. Junior forward Kodi Augustus (6'8" 220 lbs.) was suspended for two games for making negative comments about Coach Rick Stansbury after MSU's opening game loss to Rider and freshman post John Riek (7'1" 242 lbs.) was suspended the first nine games of the season with the Bruin contest being the last game he is scheduled to sit out. Finally, as most Bruin fans know, freshman Renardo Sidney, the elite level recruit who UCLA flirted with for a while, is on the MSU roster but hasn't seen the floor because he has yet to be cleared by the NCAA. All of these things certainly have had a role in the uninspired start to the season by the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs' attack starts with Varnado, who leads the team in scoring at 14.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG and already has 37 blocks on the year. In fact, he is on pace to break Shaquille O'Neal's SEC blocks record and has an outside chance to be the NCAA record holder in that category by the time he graduates. Varnado is strictly a low block scorer, the only one in MSU's rotation, so he'll likely be guarded by a combination of Reeves Nelson, James Keefe and J'mison Morgan. Although Nelson did quite well against Kansas' Cole Aldrich last Sunday, Varnado presents a whole different match-up. He is much quicker than the Kansas big man and his type of athleticism has caused Nelson problems. Look for the Bruins to double-team Varnado every time he touches the ball. He's not a great passer and does turn the ball over under pressure. Still, he moves very quickly once he gets the ball so UCLA's rotations will have to be very quick in order to force him into bad decisions.
Augustus has returned to the starting line-up since his suspension. He averages 11.6 PPG and 6.2 RPG and is a nice complement to Varnado. He is also athletic and will give Nikola Dragovic, Brendan Lane and Keefe all they can handle at the ‘4'. It wouldn't be surprising to see Mike Moser placed on Augustus for several minutes as Moser's quickness and length could bother Augustus. Augustus will step outside to take the occasional ‘3', where he's hit 6 of 9 shots this season.
Bost is the floor leader and calming influence on the team. He averages 13.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG and has an almost 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He's quick for his size and can get to the free-throw line where he's making 73% of his free throws. The thing that makes Bost a tough match-up, though, is his ability to dial up from long distance. He's shooting 53% from behind the arc, but only 43% from the floor overall. The key to stopping Bost is to force him to drive and then have good rotational help and don't foul him. He will throw up some crazy shots. Look for Malcolm Lee to guard Bost most of the game as he's longer than the Bulldog point guard and length does bother Bost.
The other two starters look to be senior Barry Stewart (6'3" 170 lbs.) and junior Ravern Johnson (6'7" 170 lbs.). They are both three-point shooters who line up outside and wait for Bost to kick the ball out to them or for Varnado or Augustus to pass the ball out of a double team. Up to this point in the season Johnson has been the more dangerous of the two as he's hitting on 43% of his outside shots while Stewart is only hitting 33%. Stewart is also shooting a poor 39% from the floor. That difference in shooting percentage explains the difference in Johnson's 12.4 PPG average and Stewart's 11.1 PPG.
Stansbury primarily plays three guys off the bench. Junior Phil Turner (6'3" 170 lbs.) started the three games that Augustus didn't and provides about 24 MPG. He's not a good shooter so it will be imperative that Howland recognizes when he's on the court and adjusts the defense accordingly. Sophomore Romero Osby (6'8" 230 lbs.), a highly regarded recruit out of high school, has yet to live up to his billing. Still, he is the primary substitute for Varnado and Augustus. He is definitely a step down from the two Bulldog starters. Finally, junior Riley Bennock (6'4" 180 lbs.) is strictly a three-point specialist. However, he has been shooting a miserable 29% from beyond the arc this season.
It's obvious that Stansbury wants to ride his starters as long as he can in any given game as the team suffers tremendously in virtually every category when he has to go to his bench. In fact the Bulldogs will be in real trouble should any two of Stansbury's starters get into foul trouble.
One of the keys to this game will be UCLA's offense. MSU likes to get out and pressure the ball, but they don't play great on-ball defense. That's because they know that they have Varnado in the paint to clean up anything that gets by them. It will be critical for UCLA to look for backdoor cuts as they did against Kansas and utilize jump stops on mid-range jumpers so as to avoid running into Varnado. UCLA can do this, as they did against Kansas, and Kansas' team defense is better than MSU's.
Defensively the Bruins will have to double Varnado and that double team will almost certainly come from whomever is on the other post. That's because if the double comes from one of the other Bruins then the man they're guarding will knock down outside jumpers. However, when Stansbury goes to his bench then Howland can double more liberally from other spots on the floor. A glaring area that needs improvement in UCLA's team defense is the weakside rotation on double-teams. Most of the Bruins tend to drop into the weakside post late when that man is left open because of the double-team. Many of UCLA's opponents this year have scored numerous baskets off the weakside, whether off a pass or a weakside rebound.
Finally, the Bruins must hit the glass. Granted, MSU hasn't really played anyone of note yet, but they still have a plus-nine RPG average over their opponents. If UCLA can break even on the boards then they can win this game.
MSU is a difficult opponent for the Bruins. They are a good mixture of athleticism and shooting, and teams that UCLA has played this year that have that combination have beaten the Bruins. The best hope for UCLA is that they can step up their defense and rebounding, get one or two Bulldog starters in foul trouble and frustrate MSU so that they start questioning themselves and their coach. They have had a penchant for getting on each other when things have gone badly in games this season.
UCLA does have a good chance to win this game but too many things need to go right for them to do that. While this should be a better game than, say, Long Beach State, the fact is that the Bruins are still finding themselves. If the Bruins are to win then they have to hold the Bulldogs under 70 points.
Mississippi State 70