UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad was declared eligible to play immediately by the NCAA on Friday afternoon. As Greg Hicks and Tracy Pierson have pointed out numerous times in the past few months, the Bruins go from a borderline NCAA Tournament team to a possible Final Four contender, at least in terms of talent, because of Muhammad's presence. Make no mistake: this was and is a huge story. Still, very few on BRO are posting about it, at least not yet. Apparently there was some football game at the Rose Bowl Saturday afternoon…
While the Bruin football team may be garnering the lion's share of attention right now from Bruin fans, the men's basketball team is now a national story in its own right.
With Muhammad being cleared to play, the Bruins, though, now have as many questions as not, the most significant of which may be the allocation of minutes by Coach Ben Howland. The question may be mitigated a bit because of injuries to two players. Wing Tyler Lamb is still recovering from his knee injury, and Larry Drew suffered an ankle injury in practice. Both will be game-time decision in terms of their ability to play on Monday night. The question of minutes, along with style of defense, the proper position for a few of the players and whether the Bruins will be able to force a faster tempo on their opponents will be among the subplots to the season and to the game Monday night, when the Bruins will face an out-of-conference pedigreed opponent in the Hoyas.
Coach John Thompson III's Georgetown squad enters the game with a record of 2-0, although they did have their game against nationally ranked Florida cancelled at halftime because of condensation on the deck of the naval ship they were playing on. The Bruins enter the game 3-0, with all three victories coming against mid- to low-major competition. If anything, Liberty and Duquesne, the two teams that lost to Georgetown, are as bad, if not worse, than the three Bruin opponents. Thompson is still tinkering with his own line-up and allocation of minutes for his Hoyas. It was made more difficult when his best returning player, sophomore forward Otto Porter (6'8" 205 lbs.) left the Hoyas' opener against Duquesne six minutes into the game with a concussion. While he is expected to play on Monday, there is still some doubt and he has yet to be cleared by Georgetown's medical staff.
Assuming Porter does play and starts, he will be one of a few Hoyas with similar builds and games. Porter is an inside/out player who is comfortable with his back to the basket and shooting from behind the arc. He is athletic, although not at an elite level, but enough to be a difficult match-up for any of the Bruins who will guard him. In terms of size and quickness, the best defender against him may be Kyle Anderson.
Against Duquesne, Thompson started four players at least 6'8", including sophomore Greg Whittington (6'8" 212 lbs.), who is very similar in style to Porter. Whittington is far and away the best rebounder on Georgetown's roster. He is averaging 13 PPG and 12 RPG in his first two games of the year. He has taken the most three-point shots (8) of anyone on the Hoyas. He may be the most difficult match-up for the Bruins, being quicker and more athletic than the Wear brothers and having a size and strength advantage over anyone else outside of Josh Smith and Tony Parker.
Sophomore Mikael Hopkins (6'9" 223 lbs.) is more of an inside player, but like Whittington and Porter, can take the ball outside. He is going to inevitably pull one of the Bruin posts out of the paint, making it more difficult for UCLA's bigs to switch defensively as Howland wants them to do in UCLA's new-fangled "man like a zone" defense.
Junior Nate Lubick (6'8" 235 lbs.) will provide the real post presence for Thompson. He is shooting 50% from the floor and is averaging 7.5 RPG. He is the one Hoya forward who is more comfortable with his back to the basket than not. Lubick is going to be at a size disadvantage against any of the Bruin posts and doesn't have the athleticism to offset that. However, Lubick will be one of the hardest workers that UCLA will see this year and that will offset much of the size problems he will face against Smith and Parker.
While those four Hoyas will get the bulk of the minutes in the frontcourt, the Hoyas only have two guards that Thompson trusts, and one of those players should be relatively familiar to Bruin fans.
Junior Markel Starks (6'2" 175 lbs.) will start at the point and this is an area that the Bruins should be able to exploit. Starks is more of a caretaker rather than a playmaker and will be at an athletic disadvantage against Norman Powell or even Drew if the Bruin guard is able to play and even close to 100%. Even Tyler Lamb, if he can play, will be able to cause Starks issues.
The other guard is former UCLA recruit D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (6'3" 227 lbs.). He has arguably been Georgetown's best player through the first two games, leading the Hoyas in scoring at 15 PPG. It has been Smith-Rivera's outstanding shooting in those games that has really stood out, shooting 64% from the field and 71% from behind the arc. Smith-Rivera isn't the quickest player in the world, but he is very strong. He looks like he is already a 21 year-old senior and that strength will be something the Bruins will have to overcome. A n interesting retro fact: When UCLA was recruiting Smith-Rivera, he was being dubbed by many as a potential point guard, or a combo guard at the very least, but our scouts at BRO had him scouted as a shooting guard, which he has proven to be at Georgetown in his freshman season.
Georgetown's line-up is going to provide the Bruins with match-up issues, especially at the forward position, but it's Georgetown's playing style, especially on offense, which could send the Bruins to their first loss.
Thompson was the head coach at Princeton before coming to Georgetown and he was a Pete Carril disciple in terms of slow-down, patterned offense. While the Hoyas are not in the uber-slow, offensive high-post, back-door club that Carril had at Princeton, it is a much more methodical offense than what UCLA has faced this season. Georgetown is very reliant on screening and they are one of the most physical offensive programs in the country. The Bruins should expect a physically taxing game when they are on defense. This is actually a positive development in terms of Muhammad's first game back. The kind of physicality that Georgetown will show will only ratchet up the intensity required on defense. Based on what has been written about Muhammad's game from Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks, Muhammad is a very physically strong player who should be capable of matching up with that kind of physical intensity at both ends of the floor.
Speaking of Muhammad, the Bruins are going to present a host of problems for the Hoyas. First off, Georgetown has no one on the roster that can guard Muhammad or Smith. Georgetown is actually going to be hard-pressed to guard Powell or Jordan Adams. This is one of the few times this season against a traditionally powerful opponent that the Bruins are going to be at a relative advantage in certain aspects of their athleticism. Georgetown likes to crash the offensive boards, and if the Bruins successfully hold down the fort on the defensive glass, then Georgetown will find it difficult to get numbers back and control the game's tempo.
UCLA also has a significant advantage in terms of depth. While the Bruins will go legitimately 10 deep (if everyone is healthy), Georgetown will play seven, perhaps eight players. Further, this isn't a championship type roster for the Hoyas. Thompson's roster is filled almost entirely with guys who are role players. The only exception may be Smith-Rivera. Certainly players like Whittington have stepped up their games, but when looking at the Hoya roster there is a serious question as to who would take a big shot when the clock is an issue.
In spite of all of these factors, however, the most important one may be the fact that, outside of Smith-Rivera, Georgetown is simply a horrible outside shooting team. They are shooting 26% from behind the arc and only 3-24 from three when Smith-Rivera is removed from the equation. If there is a team on UCLA's schedule that is crying out for Howland to play a zone it's Georgetown. However, the chances of that happening are slim to none, and slim just left the building. Considering the Bruins will play man defense, the best way for the Bruins to frustrate the Hoyas is to pack their help defense inside and go underneath all ball screens. The Bruins should almost be inviting the Hoyas to shoot from outside.
There will be some question as to how the immediate impact of Muhammad's presence on the floor will be felt. You would have to think Muhammad will be pressing a bit in his first game, after having had to sit out the first three games for the Bruins. However, most pundits who have covered Muhammad have written that he has preternatural maturity and, if there's a freshman who could handle this situation it would be him.
Smith is also another factor that Howland could turn loose on the Hoyas. Conceivably, if Smith is engaged in the game, he would command double and even triple teaming, thus freeing up UCLA's perimeter shooters. However, it remains to be seen if Howland will unleash Smith or even if Smith will embrace the chance if Howland gives it to him.
There was a real sense permeating through this UCLA team that the uncertainty surrounding Muhammad had an adverse effect on it. It was almost as if the Bruins were looking over their collective shoulders wondering when the cavalry was going to arrive. Now that Muhammad will be dressed and probably start, it will be interesting to see how the Bruins respond to his being on the court. By all accounts he is the leader of the team and provides the kind of intensity that is infectious.
Even though it says "Georgetown" across the front of the opponents' jerseys, it isn't the kind of top-end, Big East squad the Hoyas have been over the years. While Georgetown's style of play (the Hoyas have held both of their opponents to less than 60 points) will bother the Bruins and it may take some time for UCLA to get accustomed to the court, UCLA should be able to impose its will on the Hoyas enough times to be the difference in the game…and if Muhammad does "go off" then UCLA will win handily.