The Texas Longhorn hoops squad battles traditional powerhouse UCLA tonight at the Erwin Center at 8 central on ESPN 2 tonight in what should be the second early season test for the Horns. The last true test was a disappointing loss to Notre Dame, a game in which the Horns failed to find any offensive rhythm, leaving points on the floor by taking too many bad shots early in the shot clock in what amounted to a sort of tug-of-war between Damion James and AJ Abrams. Point blank, that shit needs to stop, and stop tonight because the 7th ranked Longhorns will be lacing them up against one of the two or three best defensive teams in the country. Ben Howland's squad will straight up guard your ass for 40 minutes, and unlike the Irish, they can close out misses with a long and athletic frontcourt. It should be a dandy between two teams with contrasting personnel strength and styles.
Any discussion about UCLA must begin with star lead guard Darren Collison who has started strong out of the gate shooting a stunning 64% from the field including 7 out of 10 from deep. He continues to distribute well, averaging nearly 5 assists on the year on a team that hasn't really lit up the scoreboard against quality defenses. Somewhat concerning for Collison is his 3 and a half turnovers per outing which shows he maybe trying to do too much in the absence of Kevin Love and Mbah a Moute.
Collison's backcourt mates include do everything 6-5 G/F Josh Shipp and electric freshman sensation 6-3 combo-guard Jrue Holiday. Shipp is an all everything defensive wizard in the mold of Texas' Justin Mason. He can defend, rebound, handle and shoot. Holiday essentially gives the Bruins another point guard on the floor, which gets Collison off the ball to come off screens and shoot the rock. Holiday can shoot and score the basketball with the best of them, however, evidenced by his 45% 3point percentage and 64% overall field goal percentage.
This group really gets after opposing guards defensively, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes and bog down offenses with wing denial, tipped balls, and steals. Combined, the group is averageing 5 steals per game. It's hard enough for teams to run offense against a Howland coached squad, but the quickness and length of this Bruin backcourt really limits opposing offenses' ability to move the basketball from sideline to sideline, which makes life much easier for frontcourt defenders. This ability to deny will really come into play tonight, because the Longhorns lack the ability to penetrate and punish wing pressure off the dribble.
The achilles heel of the group has been their inability to take care of the basketball on offense, as these 3 average nearly 8 turnovers a contest. Combine the strengths and weaknesses of this group and you can probably figure out what might be the best way for Barnes and company to attack the Bruins. But we'll get to that later.
As mentioned, the departure of Kevin Love and Mbah a Moute, the Bruins have really had to change their identity on the offensive end of the floor, and much like the, Longhorns they have struggled with changing their spots. UCLA has struggled against good defensive teams as evidenced by a close win against Miami, OH, and their only loss on the year at the hands of Michigan. Against the Redhawks, the only true Bruin post threats, Alfred Aboya, Jmison Morgan, and Drew Gordon combined for 7 points. Aboya only netted 5 points in a loss vs Michigan. This group resembles Texas' 2007 team in that they play second fiddle to the perimeter players. Their athleticism allows them to defend and rebound but they really provide virtually back to the basket scoring.
With Morgan and Gordon coming off the bench, 6-8 James Keefe is the other starting forward alongside Aboya. Keefe is a decent rebounder but what makes him dangerous is that he's a legit threat from beyond the arc although he's just 2-8 on the year.
The frontcourt is certainly a weakness for the Bruins on both ends of the floor. They are a mere afterthought when it comes to defending, and offensively, you can get some nice matchups down low and on the offensive glass if teams are patient enough and have the perimeter talent to withstand and punish their tremendous perimeter pressure.
I've talked about Morgon and Gordon, who provide good talent and depth along the frontcourt. Nikola Dragovic is probably UCLA's best player off the bench however. The 6-8 forward is an accomplished scorer and rebounder who can give Howland's group a spark off the pine.
Michael Roll is a deep specialist off the bench. The guard has hit half of his 3's on the year, going 7-14.
Jerime Anderson is waterbug quick, and he'll come in to spell Collison. He's getting 9 minutes of action per game, and averageing nearly 2 assists and 2 turnovers.
Keys to the Game
This is a Texas site and I'm a Texas fan, so these keys will naturally come from a Horn fan's perspective. That said, I think Texas has the athletes to get out and guard UCLA's club on the perimeter and prevent the Bruins from going nuts like the Irish did. It's not in UCLA's nature at this point of season to just go out and drop 80 on a good club like Texas. The Bruins will be quite satisfied to play this contest in the 60's, and that's where the keys to the game come in. Can Texas get to 70? That's the question, and I'm not real confident that the answer is yes. In order to get to that magic number the following must happen.
Patience. Dueling banjo's between AJ Abrams and Damion James is a recipe for disaster tonight. If AJ and DJ tit for tat with deep bombs and quick pull up midrange jumpers early in possessions, Texas is toast. Not only will the Bruins shut down the Horns, they'll get run out opportunities and easy buckets that will go a long way in curing the Bruin scoring ills. Selfish perimeter play will eliminate the decided frontcourt advantage Texas enjoys in the matchup. Seriously, the second or third deep heat check from these two will cost me another remote.
If a primary or secondary break opportunity isn't there, Texas needs to crisply reverse the basketball, enter the post, and break down this stout Bruin defense from the inside out. If UCLA isn't forced to help and recover from the paint to the perimeter, their wing and ball pressure will smother Texas and exploit the lack of a true lead guard.
Pressure. I'm not talking about Bruin pressure, although they'll certainly apply a ton of it especially in halfcourt possessions. I'm talking about heavy defensive pressure coming from Barnes' crew. Look, the Bruins are a young team, and their backcourt has a propensity to be careless with the rock. Texas absolutely has to play this aspect to their advantage, if nothing else but to get some easy buckets in transition. If this is a grind it out, 25 second every possession game, Texas is in serious trouble. Which leads to the next key.
Tempo. Without a talented point guard it is really difficult to dictate tempo offensively, which is why the previous key, pressure, is so important. Texas wants an up and down game to the extent it's not forced offensively and is coming from turnovers and quick shots forced defensively. But won't up tempo mitigate our advantage inside, Trips? Not necessarily. This team can still get back to the basket points in the secondary break off of quick shows or cross screens from block to block across the paint.
And even in a half court setting, our tempo in cutting and screening must be accelerated compared to the speed it's been to date. Texas will have to screen solidly, cut hard, and move the basketball quickly if it's going to solve UCLA's stifling halfcourt defense. The Horns simply don't have the skilled players to take good perimeter players off the bounce. If we don't move on offense, we'll make life on UCLA a ton easier.
Enter the basketball. If a post player has a defender on his back, even if he's not in a position to score, enter the basketball. It's the best way, hell it's Texas' only way, to break down perimeter pressure and create help and recover situations. Which in turn will lead to catch and shoots and catch and blow by's that Texas wouldn't normally be able to get against UCLA.
Texas can also look to enter the basketball in the high or low post to relieve pressure as well. If a perimeter player has the ball with a chance to enter and instead reverses the basketball, he needs to have his ass pulled off the floor and replaced by someone that will.
In addition to the above benefits, post entry allows this team to get on the offensive backboards and exact some damage. Not too mention all the spoils that come from pounding the paint, like free throws and foul trouble. Remember, Texas never got into the Bonus vs. the sieve that is the Fighting Irish defense. That's piss poor and a direct result of settling for jumpers. That better stop tonight.
Prediction. I don't know, you tell me if Texas is serious about using guys like Pittman, Chapman, and Johnson inside, or will AJ Abrams try to go mano a mano with Collison. Will James settle for 15 footers instead of slashing to the goal vs. Keefe, or posting up Shipp? We have the answers it's just a matter of executing them. Texas showed signs of this type of execution against Oregon, and hopefully they can build upon that tonight. Should be a great battle and I'll be back here to discuss the outcome.
Our friends at Bruins Nation offer these thoughts.