New Mexico State Preview

The 3-5 New Mexico State Aggies come to Pauley Tuesday, and despite their record they have the perimeter athleticism that has plagued UCLA so far this season. Will UCLA end its five-game losing streak?

When I was writing the preview to the Mississippi State game last week I did post in one thread on BRO's premium board that Notre Dame was a better match-up for UCLA than was MSU. I was certainly proved right on Saturday, at least as it pertained to Mississippi State, but that's not my point. The point of the post I wrote, and a point on which I think that most of us can agree, is that UCLA has much more trouble defending quick, penetrating teams than they do against plodding halfcourt teams. That's probably going to be the case for the remainder of the season and although the Bruins probably will improve, I simply can't see them wining the Pac-10 or its tournament because of the presence of teams like Washington and California, and right now a third place finish in the conference is a sure ticket for an early vacation in March.

The Bruins return home Tuesday night after the train wreck that was the MSU game (which I feel was much more the result of the inept Bruin shooting than anything else…the poor defense was many times the direct result of a shot taken too quickly, a block by Jarvis Varnado or a turnover at a key moment…but I digress) to host the New Mexico State Aggies. Although the Aggies are 3-5, they could present the Bruins with the same issues that have bothered them throughout the beginning of this season. NMSU has quick wing players who like to penetrate and at least one player, senior Jonathan Gibson (6'1" 180 lbs.), who can light it up from outside. They may not be Mississippi State, but the Aggies certainly have a blueprint on how to beat the Bruins.

Gibson and junior Jahmar Young (6'5" 180 lbs.) average 18.4 and 19.3 PPG respectively. They both can get into the lane and to the free-throw line and both can shoot outside, although Young has been miserable from beyond the arc this year. Still, they represent the kind of quick and athletic players that gave UCLA fits in their losses to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. Howland will probably have Malcolm Lee guard one of these players, probably Gibson, with Bruin fans seeing a lot of Tyler Honeycutt because he matches up well with Young. It will be important for the Bruins not to foul either of these two Aggies regularly as they both shoot nearly 90% from the charity stripe. On the flip side, both Gibson and Young can be sloppy with the ball, with far more turnovers on the season than they do assists.

Sophomore center Hamidu Rahman (6'11" 255 lbs.) is a shot-blocking presence in the middle. He averages 13.4 PPG and a team-leading 9 RPG but it is his ability to block or alter shots that makes him so valuable. While this may sound like MSU's Jarvis Varnado version 2.0, it's not. Rahman isn't nearly as athletic as Varnado and he doesn't have nearly the wingspan. Still, he will make it difficult for the Bruins in the paint. Offensively it will be important for Reeves Nelson to pass out of the double teams that the Aggies like to employ when in man defense. I have noticed that Nelson really looks to take the ball to the basket when he gets the ball down low. It almost never comes back out to an open teammate on the perimeter. That probably has a lot to do with Nelson getting used to college ball, but he does need to pass out of double teams more regularly in order to make himself and the team more successful.

There is no real back-up for Rahman. Freshman B.J. West (6'11" 220 lbs.) just became eligible and will play on Tuesday but he's not practiced with the team much and he's rail-thin. Nelson and J'mison Morgan would both have a significant strength advantage over West when he's in the game. After West the Aggies become very small. When that happens they look to spread the floor and try to drive to the rack or kick out on the penetration.

After Rahman, Gibson and Young, the Aggies have no one averaging more than 5.3 PPG. Junior Robert Lumpkin (6'7" 210 lbs.) does rebound for the Aggies but is a woeful 32% shooting from the field and a horrific 1-17 from behind the three-point line. In other words, while the Aggies play a similar style to Mississippi State, they have nowhere near the firepower. They will play a four-out-one-in offense and will vary their defense between an active man-to-man and a Syracuse-style zone, albeit without the success of Syracuse. Expect the Bruins to see more zone than man as NMSU will recognize UCLA's poor shooting from outside so far this year.

I started writing previews for BRO roughly five years ago. During the first three years I did these previews I often wrote that the key to a particular game was really which UCLA team "showed up" for the contest. I stopped asking that question at the beginning of last season as it became apparent to me that Howland's teams were pretty consistent with their effort. After watching the Bruins through the first eight games of the season it appears that question needs to be reintroduced.

This Bruin team isn't going to suddenly turn into a good- or clutch-shooting team, Jerime Anderson's three-pointer against Butler notwithstanding. They will struggle on offense so it is imperative that UCLA collectively and as individual players give everything they have on the defensive end of the floor. It is on that end where UCLA under Howland made its mark and where it found most of its success. In order for the Bruins to be successful at any level this season then it will have to begin on defense.

The good news is that the Bruins will play a New Mexico State team that won't be nearly as good at attacking UCLA's deficiencies as some of the Bruins' other opponents have this season.

I don't know if Nikola Dragovic will sit or if Howland will use a zone. Those kinds of conjectures can be done by Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks. I can only go by what I've seen and I have yet to see any signs of anything other than Howland's man defense and his usual substitution patterns. That should be more than enough to get by this game…….then it's on to South Bend for the last "big" non-conference game.

UCLA 67
New Mexico State 58


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