Ben Howland’s UCLA men’s basketball team returns to action on Tuesday night when the Bruins host the Anteaters of UC Irvine at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
The Bruins are coming off a decisive 82-39 victory over UC Davis, a win that saw UCLA even its record at 5-5 on the season. It was the third victory in a row for UCLA. The Anteaters, meanwhile, are 2-8 on the season with their two wins coming against San Diego and NAIA Vanguard University, and recent having lost two in a row.
UCLA is starting its final week of non-conference games before the Bruins begin their Pac 12 schedule with a trip to the Bay Area next week. It is critical for the Bruins to maintain some momentum going into that road trip and that means beating the Anteaters and then Richmond later this week. With all due respect, while the Anteaters aren’t as bad as UC Davis, they definitely aren’t good and the Bruins should be able to cruise to a victory. That being the case, the Bruins need to continue the positives that Greg Hicks wrote about in his UC Davis game review, namely solid defensive rotation and ball movement on offense, with a focus on getting the ball inside to Josh Smith.
The Bruins hosted Irvine last season and came away with a one-point victory, 74-73. While the Bruins are certainly yet to show the kind of talent they had last season, the Anteaters were decimated by graduation and transfers. Turner’s top three players are gone with one, Eric Wise, having transferred to USC. While the Bruins are relatively inexperienced, Coach Russell Turner’s Anteaters could quite possible be the youngest team in NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball, with no seniors and eight freshmen.
Three of Turner’s players have started all 10 games this season. They are juniors Michael Wilder (6’2” 215 lbs.) and Damon Starring (6’3” 190 lbs.), and sophomore Chris McNealy (6’4” 180 lbs.).
Wilder is an interesting player in that he is actually the power forward for the Anteaters, at 6’2”. He is a strong player who has found a niche playing on the low block. He is certainly mismatched against typical fours when he’s playing defense, but he is a match-up issue for opposing players when he has the ball. He is quicker than any power forward guarding him and he has the ability to hit the outside shot. He is near the top of most individual statistical categories for Irvine, being second in scoring (11.5 PPG), three-point shooting (42%), and steals (10 total), and he is third on the squad in rebounding (5.5 RPG), assists (26 total), and free throw shooting percentage (78%). While Wilder has taken 65 of his 85 shot attempts outside the arc, that is more a product of trying to pull a slower, bigger defender away from the paint. Wilder will certainly be recognizable by his unique hairstyle.
Starring is the Anteaters’ leading scorer at 12.2 PPG. While Wilder may be the leader in three-point attempts, Starring is clearly the team’s best three-point shooter at 46%. In fact, Starring is only shooting 36% from the field overall and he’s attempted over 100 shots. The Bruins would be better off forcing Starring to put the ball on the floor and look to create his shots. He is an 81% free throw shooter and pulls down 4.6 RPG.
McNealy is ostensibly the team’s point guard but UCI really runs a point-by-committee offense. He has a team-leading 28 assists, but he really doesn’t get the Anteaters in their offensive sets in an optimum manner. He’s a poor shooter, averaging less than 38% from the floor and from behind the three-point line. He does rebound well from the point, averaging 6.5 RPG, good for second on the team.
Turner has shown more of a propensity recently to go with true freshman Aaron Wright (6’3” 185 lbs.) at the point, and while the freshman does a much better job of operating the offense, he hurt his knee against Wyoming two games ago and sat out UCI’s most recent game against LSU. His status for this game is uncertain.
Junior Derick Flowers (6’ 180 lbs.) provides depth at the guard spot. He is probably the best pure point guard on the squad and Turner would love to play him at that spot for significant minutes, but Flowers is a terrible shooter, so much so that teams can simply sag off him and take away any quickness advantage he might have.
UCI is a small team and Turner generally only plays two posts, junior Adam Folker (6’9” 230 lbs.) and freshman Will Davis II (6’8” 210 lbs.). Davis leads the team with 6.6 RPG while Folker averages 4.9 RPG. Neither scores much although they both shoot about 50% from the floor. If UCLA is patient on offense regardless of whether UCI is in man or zone defense, they should be able to dominate in the paint, both scoring and on the glass.
Turner has UCI playing hard and well on the defensive end. The Anteaters are holding opponents to 39% from the field and 37% from behind the arc. The problem for the Anteaters is on the other end of the floor. They only shoot 39% from the floor themselves, only 35% from the three-point line and, the real telling statistic: they only hit 64% of their free throws. That’s a real headache for Turner as the Anteaters have sent their opponents to the charity stripe 230 times, roughly 60 more attempts than the Anteaters have as a team. The good news for the Anteaters is that UCLA is only hitting 66% of their free throws, far below the 72% that UCI opponents have been averaging.
Turner is going to have the Anteaters playing a variety of defenses in order to confuse the Bruins and to try and keep UCLA from getting into a comfort zone on the offensive end. UCLA must stay patient on offense regardless of what they see from the Anteaters in order to take advantage of what the Bruins have in terms of post personnel.
On the defensive side, Howland has certainly seen film of the Anteaters and knows that they are a very poor shooting group, in spite of the high three-point percentages of Wilder and Starring. That means the Bruins will be better served playing more lane-denial defense than ball-denial. Turner will most certainly run offensive sets that include high-ball screens that will try to get Josh Smith and the rest of the Bruin posts away from the basket. Obviously it would help UCI’s cause considerably if they can get Smith in early foul trouble.
UCLA’s guards switched more off screens against UC Davis, and it makes sense. When you don’t have a lock-down defensive stopper and the opposing team’s perimeter players really aren’t that good, it makes sense to not worry about getting the right defensive match-ups and just switching on screens. We’ll see if Howland has the Bruins doing it again against the Anteaters.
Speaking of Smith, he definitely had his best game of the regular season in the win over Davis. He finished with 18 points and 10 boards, but more importantly he looked more engaged and more intense. Of course, it was against Davis. The key, though, to get Smith to approach this way is to get him involved in the offense with early touches. As Smith is more engaged he tends to start gathering rebounds, powering to the hoop and looks like he cares. That’s the kind of Smith that UCLA needs in order to come back from the poor start to the season.
UCLA should really win this game handily. While UC Davis is clearly the worst team on the Bruins’ schedule, UCI isn’t much better. In the Anteaters’ defense, their quality, or lack thereof, is a result of being so young. They have some athletes and as they gain more experience they will certainly get better than they are right now. Still, UCLA should never lose to a team like UCI and this one should be a comfortable win for UCLA and push them over the .500 mark for the first time this season.
UC Irvine 55