Texas Preview

Sheldon McClellan

It could be called the "Hot Seat" Showcase, as Texas and UCLA, and their two embattled head coaches, square off Saturday in Houston...

On Saturday afternoon the UCLA men's basketball team will be participating in the "What A Mess" Classic, as the Bruins travel to Houston to take on the Texas Longhorns.

Or maybe it should be the "Hot Seat" Showcase.

It's actually called the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Showcase, and it features a double-header with the Lady Bruins and Lady Longhorns tipping off before the men, all for a good cause.

Rick Barnes' Texas squad, though, needs about as much therapy as UCLA does at this point, being every bit the soap opera the Bruins have been this season, and possibly more so. Barnes and Howland are sitting on equally hot seats. Like Howland, Barnes has a very young team, and (see if this sounds familiar) the team's best player, sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo (6'1" 180 lbs.), hasn't played a second of meaningful action this season as he awaits word from the NCAA on his amateur status.

The similarities between how the seasons have gone for the two programs up to this point are startling. Both Howland and Barnes are arguably the most talked about coaches in the country when it comes to apparent impending unemployment. Both schools have at least one "bad" loss on their resume (although Texas' losing to D II Chaminade is much worse than UCLA's loss to Cal Poly), and they both have major roster issues. UCLA's are a result of player turmoil and transfers, while Texas' have to do with injuries and ineligibility.

Kabongo isn't the only player missing, although he is the most important. Texas is struggling with its shot selection and Kabongo, a point guard, would go a long way to rectifying that. In his absence Barnes is relying on true freshman and former UCLA recruit Javan Felix (5'10" 190 lbs.), who has been prone to turnovers in bunches as the competition has gotten better. Even though he has 47 assists on the year to 29 turnovers, his 3-assist, 5-turnover game against Georgetown on Tuesday night is pretty indicative of his struggles this year.

This is but a microcosm of Texas' biggest issue, which is passing the ball to the same-colored jersey. They average over 19 TPG, and that's counting the games against weak competition. Offensively, the Longhorns are a train wreck in terms of decision-making and execution. While much of this falls on Felix, he does get a bit of a pass (no pun intended) because he wasn't expected to come in and do much more than be Kabongo's back-up. Being thrust into the starting position and averaging 35 MPG is far beyond what Barnes envisioned. It would probably help Felix if he were shooting better than 1-for-13 from beyond the arc since teams tend to sag way off of him and invite him to shoot.

Much of Texas' turnover problem also stems from its lack of a functioning zone offense. It is how Chaminade blew out Texas in Maui, and how Georgetown blew out the Longhorns Tuesday. Chaminade was able to be more structurally sound against Texas and Barnes' boys played a very loose game. Georgetown's length (something UCLA has) really bothered Texas and, by the time the Hoyas went to a man defense, Texas had mentally packed it in.

Texas does have athleticism, starting with their best healthy and eligible player, sophomore Sheldon McClellan (6'4" 200 lbs.). McClellan doesn't start, but he is the best scorer Barnes has (leading the team at 16.4 PPG) and is a nice 38% from the three-point line. If there's one complaint with McClellan's game it's that he is very much a shoot-first player. He has 4 assists on the season against almost 20 TOs. If his shot is off at all then Texas has no shot to win this game.

Freshman post Cameron Ridley (6'9" 270 lbs.) is a nice prospect, playing 20 MPG and starting, but he wouldn't be getting more than 10 MPG on a team with real depth. He shoots better than 50% from the floor and pulls down 5.3 RPG, and had arguably his best game of the season on Tuesday against the Hoyas. He is, however, a horrific free throw shooter, making 13-30 on the season. He is the one true inside, back-to-the-basket presence Barnes has (more on that later), but he simply doesn't see the ball enough. He moves well without the ball but his teammates seem reluctant to get the ball inside to him.

Ridley is the only inside option of any consequence right now because of the injury to sophomore Jaylen Bond (6'7" 224 lbs.). Bond has only played 5 minutes on the season because of a leg injury and it appears he will miss Saturday's game.

Sophomore Jonathan Holmes (6'7" 239 lbs.) and freshman Connor Lammert (6'9" 232 lbs.) will help fill the forward spots but they have some real holes to their games. Holmes is the best rebounder on the squad (8.4 RPG) but he plays like he thinks he is more of a scorer. He isn't a good shooter but puts up a lot of shots. He has no feel for outside shots, yet attempts multiple three-pointers per game. If the Bruins can get him contented to play on the perimeter then it will play into UCLA's hands.

Lammert is simply not ready to play at this level. He may be in two years, but he's spotting Ridley because Barnes has no one else to fill that back-up role. If Lammert has to play a great deal, as he did against Georgetown, that means that Texas is probably out of the game.

The backcourt rotation is filled out by sophomore Julien Lewis (6'3" 190 lbs.) and freshmen DeMarcus Holland (6'2" 170 lbs.) and Ioannis Papapetrou (6'8" 225 lbs.). In terms of percentages and volume, Lewis is the most dangerous deep threat on the team, but he's only 13-34 from behind the arc on the season. However, that's more than half of his shots. He is the one Longhorn Howland wants to account for if he decides to zone Texas. Holland is a pretty good athlete and defender who hasn't done much yet offensively. Barnes recently inserted him into the starting line-up presumably to try something different. Papapetrou does use his size but will often float around the arc and play more facing the basket. He's a hard worker with some talent but seemingly doesn't have enough in the arsenal to single-handedly cause a lot of damage.

This game is a very difficult pick because Texas is in many ways a mirror image of the Bruins. They seemingly aren't having any fun, know their coach is on a very hot seat and they appear fundamentally poor. In fact, the Horns may be far worse fundamentally than UCLA.

This is the perfect game for Howland to utilize a zone for the majority of the game. Texas doesn't shoot well from outside (31%) and, unlike San Diego State, who also was a poor shooting team before facing the Bruins, Texas does a poor job of getting the ball in a position to take a good shot. The Horns force a lot of shots against a zone mostly because they don't move the ball well. It tends to stop for long enough periods, which lets the defense fully recover. Texas has the athletic ability to occasionally penetrate the gaps, but they simply struggle against a zone.

UCLA may see some zone because Texas' man defense is as much of a mess as is UCLA's. The thing Texas has going for it is that its players are generally more athletic than the Bruins. That means that some heavy ball pressure may really bother UCLA when it tries to run its man offense. That may explain why Howland chose to have San Marcos play one half of exclusively man defense when the Bruins played them this past Tuesday night.

The notion of Texas's offense struggling against UCLA is predicated on the idea that UCLA will play exclusively zone defense. While it may seem like a no-brainer, with Howland's penchant for man, and the fact he said he wanted to use the San Marcos exhibition to work on man, Howland might defy logic here and play predominantly man. If this is the case, then Texas has the ability to individually beat UCLA's defenders off the dribble. Felix, who has a stocky, strong body, could finally get to the hoop if he is matched up against Larry Drew.

The game will be played at Houston's Reliant Stadium, which will be a new experience for the Bruins. Both UCLA and Texas are inexperienced at playing in such a cavernous setting, but they have both played some high-profile games at name venues. Texas played the Hoyas at Madison Square Garden while the Bruins have been to the new Barclay's Center in Brooklyn (against Georgetown and Georgia) and this past weekend played SDSU with a raucous crowd that was heavily pro-Aztec at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Of the two programs, UCLA is the one that is a bit more battle-tested in a difficult or new environment. However, its not as if the Bruins have a bunch of seniors. The biggest effect of playing in might be on both team's outside shooting, since the conventional wisdom is that playing in a stadium diminishes the depth perception of shooters. It would be all the more reason for UCLA to utilize a zone against Texas.

Both of these teams are young, especially the Horns. That lack of experience has been part of the problem as both teams have struggled to gain some traction this season. True, the Bruins have the Wear brothers and Larry Drew, who have been through a major conference season before, but real leadership seems to be lacking right now for both teams.

If this game were in Austin then the pick would safely be a Longhorn victory. But with Texas' lousy start to the season, coupled with the football team having a "disappointing" campaign, the crowd in Houston shouldn't be nearly as big or as hostile to the Bruins as it may have been.

If you just go by stats, and compare each team to how they performed against the common opponent, Georgetown, UCLA should win by 15.

However, it's all about match-ups, and Texas is athletic, while UCLA, which isn't, doesn't match up well against athletic teams.

This is also still a road game for the Bruins. They, too, still look like a team that is more than struggling through the season as each game goes by.

Because this is such a difficult game to pick, I am going to assume Texas raises their game just enough to beat a more talented but less athletic Bruin team. It will be more because the Bruins just don't look like they are playing on the same page – let alone the same book -- as each other. However, if the Bruins play with any sort of passion then don't be surprised if they win by that 15. Texas is that much of a mess.

Texas 68
UCLA 66

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