The UCLA men's basketball team takes to the court on Monday night for the second time in the Steve Alford era against NAIA Cal State San Marcos in an exhibition. The opening tip is scheduled for 7:30 PM PST and the game will be broadcast through the Pac 12 Network's Los Angeles affiliate.
The Bruins are coming off a closer than expected 30-point victory over Cal State San Bernardino last week. It was closer than expected because the Bruins were up by only three at the half.
San Marcos is coming in off a very competitive 15-point loss at San Diego State last week, and the Cougars present a greater potential challenge to the Bruins than did NCAA Division II San Berdoo. Head coach Jim Saia's Cougars have three players, in particular, who could cause the Bruins issues when the Cougars have the ball: seniors Jason Johnson (6'3 203 lbs.), former Loyola Marymount player Quincy Lawson (6'6" 190 lbs.) and former Bruin De'End Parker (6'6" 215 lbs.). All three proved against the Aztecs that they could carry the Cougars even against good NCAA Division I competition.
One of the biggest question marks surrounding the Bruins coming into the season was (and is) how the Bruins would fare defensively. A concern coming out of the San Bernardino exhibition was UCLA's inability to consistently close out shooters. Against the Cougars that could prove troublesome. Parker and Johnson combined to go 8-14 from behind the arc against the Aztecs.
There will probably be added motivation for the Cougars because of the UCLA connection between the two programs. Saia is a former UCLA assistant coach from the Steve Lavin era, while Parker was on the Bruin roster two seasons ago. Parker, in particular, may be highly motivated in this one as his time in Westwood was reportedly an unhappy one. And we'd have to think Saia would be just as motivated.
The one area that UCLA should have a decided advantage is on the glass. Greg Hicks wrote after the San Bernardino game and after viewing a UCLA practice that the Bruins would have some questions regarding the team's ability to successfully rebound the ball. Because San Marcos is quite small, with only one player on the roster listed at 6'8" and one at 6'7", the expectation is that UCLA will dominate the glass. One of the questions we wrote about in the San Bernardino preview was whether or not Tony Parker had improved enough to be an inside force. The reality is that he struggled against CSUSB and the Bruins will more than likely struggle if that's the case for the season. Parker needs to be a defensive presence and impact the boards. This is especially true right now since the Bruins will be without both Travis Wear and Wannah Bail for the foreseeable future.
Another question had to do with Kyle Anderson and whether Alford could properly take advantage of the match-up issues that Anderson presents opposing teams. Anderson is clearly the point guard when the Bruins have the ball but, even in Alford's motion offense, playing the point takes Anderson, arguably UCLA's best rebounder, away from the rim. It will be interesting to see if Alford tries to get Anderson closer to the basket in order to take advantage of his natural ability on the boards.
While the questions of team defense and rebounding will more than likely continue for the next few weeks, there were some questions that appeared to be answered coming out of the San Bernardino game. A glaring question was the health of Jordan Adams after last spring's foot injury. Adams looked good in scoring 25 points, and while he may not yet be in full game shape, he is clearly UCLA's first option on offense. He showed in the first exhibition that he is ready to for that role.
Norman Powell appeared to flourish in Alford less restrictive motion offense. Powell showed an ability to not only get to the rim, but also be aggressive in looking for his opportunities to do so. That added confidence showed in his outside shooting, as well, as Powell looked far more comfortable in his decision-making.
True freshman Zach LaVine looks poised to be an impact player for the Bruins. He is clearly one of UCLA's best athletes, if not the best, and he displayed a great deal of confidence in using that athleticism against San Bernardino. LaVine isn't a savior-type of player, but he probably does have the most upside of anyone on the roster, and that ability and confidence is something UCLA will surely need to develop in the coming months.
Noah Allen, the other freshman, contributed 5 points and a rebound in 14 minutes against San Bernardino. Allen might not see that much playing time throughout the season, but Alford and the Bruins could really use some production from Allen in the short-term, as the Bruins wait for the return of Travis Wear and Bail.
While no exhibition game is truly important except for allowing a team to gel, the reality is that this game may be a good indicator of things to come early in the season. The Bruins will be facing a motivated team in San Marcos that is used to playing together. Further, as results from around the nation have shown, these exhibition games can be taxing on the proverbial "name" program. Besides the aforementioned close loss to the Aztecs by San Marcos, Arizona State and UNLV have both lost exhibition games and Steve Lavin's St. John's – in pure Steve Lavin style -- came very close to doing the same.
The expectation for the Bruins should be that they continue to grow as a team, both in getting used to playing together and getting used to Alford's offensive and defensive tactics. It bears watching if Alford continues to employ a zone defense even against a smaller team that relies on outside shooting. The Bruins appear better suited to play more zone than man-to-man as they have good team length but below average athleticism.
The Cougars will provide good practice for the Bruins before they face a similar Drexel team in their opener on Friday. Drexel isn't very big, likes to push the ball and over 1/3 of the Dragons' shots come from behind the arc. The game against the Cougars should give Bruin fans some idea of what to expect when UCLA takes the floor on Friday in the opening game of the 2013-2014 season.