After struggling through a non-conference win over a pesky Montana State squad on Tuesday night, the UCLA Bruins prepare to play host to the UC Irvine Anteaters on Thursday night.
It's the last non-conference game for the Bruins before they open Pac-10 play at home next Wednesday against a good Washington State squad. As Tracy Pierson wrote in his Montana State game review, the Bruins have proven to be a frustrating team to follow thus far this season as they have played inconsistently in terms of intensity based on the quality of their competition. With Pac-10 play looming, the game against the Anteaters represents another trap game for UCLA, and with Tyler Honeycutt ruled out because of a sprained shoulder, this game has now become a dangerous one as UCLA seeks to gain momentum heading into January.
UCLA clearly has more talent than Irvine, but the question remains whether or not the Bruins will realize that talent advantage based on their inconsistent intensity and focus, especially on the defensive end. In essence, the question that has followed the Bruins since the beginning of the season, the one of intensity and focus. will again be the key issue for UCLA in this contest.
Coach Russell Turner's Irvine squad currently sits at a record of 6-5 with one of those wins coming against non-D-1 Vanguard University. Irvine doesn't have a "big" win on the year but they have lost some surprisingly competitive games against good teams in Illinois and USC. In fact, the Anteaters have played better in losses to those two BCS programs then they did in losses to San Jose State and Pepperdine, a team UCLA defeated rather easily early in the season.
In spite of the fact that Irvine has played the BCS teams on its schedule tough, the match-up for UCLA might provide some relief in terms of the individual personnel that Turner puts on the floor.
Irvine's starting line-up consists of three guards, an undersized forward at the four position and a post. That should help the Bruins especially since they'll be missing the aforementioned Honeycutt. Still, the players that Irvine can place on the floor can be dangerous because of their collective ability to penetrate, especially if their opposition decides to play lazy defense.
Irvine's best player is senior guard Darren Moore (6'3" 190 lbs.). More leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 16.9 PPG and 7 RPG respectively. Moore is deceptively quick and uses that ability to get to the rack, where he has drawn fouls to the tune of 77 free throw attempts already this season, and to get his defender to play off him enough to hit outside shots. He is shooting 33% from behind the arc this season. Moore's one problem area is turnovers, with 30 on the season to only 20 assists. More than likely Coach Ben Howland will defend Moore with Malcolm Lee, who is obviously Howland's best perimeter defender. Moore is clearly better when he can get into the lane so Lee's primary job will be to force Moore into becoming essentially a jump shooter.
Irvine's other primary player is senior point guard Patrick Rembert (6' 188 lbs.), who averages 12.4 PPG and is one of the team's two primary outside shooters. He is averaging 47% from the three-point line and has taken the most three-point attempts on the roster. He is also one of the only players in Turner's 10-man rotation that has more assists than turnovers on the year (he has 33 assists and 29 turnovers). He also likes to get by his man and has been to the free throw line 38 times this season, good for the second most attempts on the squad after Moore. It is worth noting that both Moore and Rembert are very good foul shooters, both averaging well over 70% on the season. Slowing down one of these two players will go a long way to ensuring a Bruin victory. Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson will be tasked with handling Rembert.
The third of Turner's starting guards is sophomore Daman Starring (6'3" 190 lbs.). Starring is more of an outside shooter, having taken 28 of his 66 attempts from the field this season from three-point land. While Starring can get inside he is, as I said, primarily an outside shooting option for the Anteaters. Either Tyler Lamb or Anderson, depending on who starts in place of Honeycutt, will get the assignment of defending Starring.
The undersized forward mentioned earlier is junior Eric Wise (6'6" 240 lbs.), who plays very hard and generally bigger than his 6'6" frame. He is averaging 9.4 PPG and 4.8 RPG. He is almost strictly an inside player, having only attempted 5 three-pointers this season. Wise's match-up with UCLA's Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane will be an interesting one to watch. When playing with full intensity and focus Nelson should be a match-up nightmare for Wise as he is bigger and stronger than the Anteater. How Nelson will play, however, is difficult to predict, and that's when Howland can go to Lane, who should provide the depth to neutralize Wise.
In the post the Anteaters should go with senior Pavel Lonsosky (6'9" 235 lbs.), who provides the only real size that Turner will employ in the game. Lonsosky is solid if not spectacular, averaging 7.5 PPG and 5.6 RPG, good for second on the squad. Like his teammates, Lonsosky will attempt to pull his defensive match-up out of the lane by shooting the occasional three-pointer, where he is 5-15 on the season. Lonsosky will be backed up by fellow senior Peter Simek (6'9" 240 lbs.), a similar player to Losonsky but takes fewer shots outside the paint. The Bruins should be able to exploit their advantage inside as all of the post players on Howland's roster would be starters right now if they played for Irvine. Josh Smith especially should be a handful for the Anteaters regardless of whether Turner plays zone or man defense.
There are four other players that Turner has in his rotation and they are all guards, and short ones at that. The tallest of the remaining players that gets minutes is 6'5" but the bulk of the bench minutes go to three players who are 6', 6'2" and 6'3", respectively. This will be the shortest team that UCLA will face this season. Because of that lack of height Turner employs a variety of zone defenses and this is where the danger lies for the Bruins. Because Irvine plays so much zone defense, the Anteaters have become pretty adept at it. Although they don't have the same athletes, Irvine has been able to embrace the idea that virtually all halfcourt zone defenses fall into 2-3 zone principles after the first pass is made. The difference between zones really is whether or not there is a trap out of the zone (an active zone) or whether the zone simply plays to space (a passive zone designed to take away passing lanes rather than force turnovers and quick shots). A good zone defensive team knows how to mask what they are running until after the first pass is made and Irvine is pretty good at being able to mask their defensive intensions possession to possession.
Outside of the past two games, the Bruins have struggles against zone defenses. Specifically, the Bruins have tended to hold the ball too long allowing defenses to recover. The Bruins have also made a habit of not passing the ball into the post whether at the high or low block. Now add to all of this the fact that the Bruins will be playing z team that should show a zone almost exclusively, and that they'll trap the wings out of the zone, and you can see where the Bruins may struggle.
The Bruins will also be hamstrung a bit by missing Honeycutt, who is arguably the best passer on the squad and has the size to see over the zone. Regardless of who gets the bulk of Honeycutt's minutes, Lamb or Anderson, the Bruins will lose height and three-point shooting (when Honeycutt is on, of course). However, while Honeycutt does see the floor very well, he is prone to poor judgment at times, which leads to turnovers. The argument can be made that both Lamb and Anderson move the ball more quickly against a zone and, more importantly, they feed the post consistently and with good passes. If Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson get a healthy dose of interior feeds then the Bruins should be able to bust the Irvine zone with regularity because the Anteaters simply have no answer to the Bruin inside game. The key, though, is getting those inside players the ball.
While Irvine's defense has made life hard on opposing offenses and kept the Anteaters in games, their offense is a different story. They are a collective turnover machine, having far more turnovers than assists on the year. In fact, they are averaging over 15 turnovers per game on the season, and outside of Illinois and USC, that's against middling competition. As expected the Anteaters have been out-rebounded on the year against that same competition mainly because of their collective small size. However, the Anteaters have forced their opponents to shoot less than 40% from the field on the season.
Like Montana State, Irvine's offense is predicated on getting many looks from behind the arc. They've taken roughly 1/3 of their shots on the year from the three-point line and the Anteaters are pretty good at it, using their offensive sets to shoot over 38% as a team from long distance. It will be important for the Bruins to chase their respective men, forcing them to curl rather than fade to the arc. If Irvine runs ball screens then the Bruin bigs must do a good job of hedging the screen or Irvine will get too many open looks from beyond the arc. While the Bruin guards must be sure to stay in front of their men, the reality is that UCLA has such an advantage inside that if the Anteater guards get to the paint they would then have to face multiple shot blockers. But that's if UCLA's bigs decide to play help defense.
As stated earlier, this is a dangerous game for the Bruins if they come out flat and uninspired on defense. If the Bruins play with some passion on the defensive end then they should be able to shut down the Irvine offense. The Bruins will almost certainly have a huge advantage on the boards, although rebounding is as much about effort as anything else, and if the Bruins are flat then their advantage on the glass will invariably suffer, like it did against Montana State.
The Bruins played with much more intensity and focus when Lamb was on the floor on Tuesday against MSU, and losing Honeycutt, while it will invariably hurt the Bruins because Honeycutt is an NBA talent, UCLA's offense may actually be crisper and they may have more fire on the defensive end. The Bruins may not have as many rebounds or blocked shots without Honeycutt but expect them to also have fewer turnovers. It'll be interesting to see UCLA's halfcourt zone offense again, as they should find it difficult to get transition points against the Anteaters, who should make a point of getting back defensively, especially knowing they are not going to win many battles on the boards.
Call it a hunch, but I expect the Bruins to play with plenty of fire and focus as they get Lamb and Anderson more minutes. I also expect to see that translate to having the Bruin posts get more touches and to take advantage of those touches on the offensive end. The Bruins should enter the Pac-10 portion of their schedule with a comfortable win.
UC Irvine 61