The marquee game of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Challenge is just hours away with the No.8 Texas Longhorns taking on the No.1 UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavillion in Los Angeles. Both team have a marquee neutral site victory on the season and will take the court Sunday evening knowing that a win by either will be key come NCAA Tournament seeding time. The top ten match-up will be the first meeting between the two programs since December 29, 1971.
The UCLA Bruins come into Sunday's contest with a 7-0 record and a big neutral site victory over #13 Michigan State (6-1) November 20 in Kansas City. Even more impressive for the Bruins, is that the #1 team in the land won without all-American point guard Darren Collison, who returned to action for the first time during the regular season on Wednesday in a win over George Washington.
The Bruins feature quite possibly the most balanced team in the country with guards Collison, Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook in the backcourt and big time freshman Kevin Love in the frontcourt along with forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya.
Love, who is just one member of an ultra talented freshman class in college basketball, is a difference maker in the paint combining toughness, hoops IQ, sound offensive go to moves and the ability to face the basket to be one of the top big men in college basketball. Love is averaging a double-double in his first seven games at 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds.
As important to the Bruins as the elite speed and quickness of Collison or the bruising post up game of Love is the dirty work defenders and rebounders in Mbah a Moute, Aboya and Mata-Real. The three forwards are physical defenders that have the ability to trap on ball screens defensively and keep possessions alive rebounding offensively.
If there is an early season weakness on the UCLA team, it's from beyond the three-point line. The Bruins have converted just 35.0% from the three-point line. While that is not a terrible percentage in college basketball, it does make for the probability of a lot of 2-3 zone by the Longhorns Sunday evening. Junior guard Josh Shipp is the top shooter in makes and attempts at 16-40 for 40.0%.
UCLA is also a below average free throw shooting team at 67.2%, but fouling wisely is the key for Texas. Love converts at 71.9% and Westbrook at 70.5% and they have combined for more free throw attempts than the entire Texas team. While they will both get to the line, Texas ability to put the forwards on the free throw line instead of giving up layups or at the end of the game if fouling is required. Mbah a Moute, Aboya and Mata-Real have combined to make just 16 of 35 free throws on the season.
For the Longhorns to put themselves in a position to beat the #1 team in the country in Pauley Pavillion, the guards will have to handle the intense ball pressure that will be applied on any screen/roll. UCLA will test the Longhorns more on ball screens than any
team Texas has played in the last couple of seasons. The Bruins will look to push the ball screen out to 35-feet with an aggressive trap that will take it's toll on Augustin physically. Augustin will have to get quick help from his teammates and Texas must attack quickly on the catch as UCLA gives up rotation quickness in return for physical disruption on ball screens.
A second key for the Longhorns will be rebounding as the Bruins are one of the best in college basketball. Texas has to cut down on the fly by three-point attempts defensively on the perimeter and instead make the decision to play for the long rebound as this has
been an area of weakness in the first six games of the season.
The game will be the first meeting since December 29, 1971. The Bruins won 115-65 in 1971 as well as 99-54 in 1969 for a 2-0 series advantage.
The game will be televised on Fox Sport with tip-off scheduled for 7pm central.
The Pac-10 holds a 4-3 lead in the Hardwood series thus far with four games to be played today.
A look at the numbers
Texas shoots 55.6% from the floor, 50.0% from three and 75.6% from the free throw line.
The Bruins enter Sunday's game converting 47.6% overall, 35.0% from the three-point line and 67.2% from the foul line.
Texas surrenders just 35.5% from the field, while UCLA checks in at 38.6%.
Texas owns a +3.5 rebound advantage, while UCLA is one of the nations best at +11.0. Texas commits just 10.0 turnovers per game to 14.6 by the Bruins.
The projected starters
G D.J. Augustin 5-11 sophomore (17.5 points, 7.0assists, 2.3 steals)
G A.J. Abrams 5-11 junior (20.7 points, 2.8 rebounds)
G Justin Mason 6-2 sophomore (12.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists)
F Damion James 6-7 sophomore (10.5 points, 8.2 rebounds)
C Connor Atchley 6-11 junior (11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks)
Key reserves are 6-8 forward Alexis Wangmene (5.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks), 6-10 center Clint Chapman (2.3 points, 2.2 rebounds), 6-10 sophomore Dexter Pittman (3.5 points) and 6-1 guard J.D. Lewis (3.4 points).
G Russell Westbrook 6-3 sophomore (13.3 points, 3.7rebounds, 6.3 assists)
G Josh Shipp 6-5 junior (15.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists)
F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute 6-8 junior (8.0 points, 3.9 rebounds)
F Alfred Aboya 6-8 junior (3.7 points, 2.6 rebounds)
C Kevin Love 6-9 freshman (18.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists)
Key reserves include 6-1 guard Darren Collison (14.0 points, 5.0 assists), 6-9 forward Lorenzo Mata-Real (5.7 points, 7.4 rebounds), 6-8 forward Nikola Dragovic (4.7 points) and 6-8 forward Chance Stanbeck (2.3 points).
Also for the Bruins, 6-5 junior guard Michael Roll has been out all season with plantar fascia of the left foot, but returned to practice mid-week. Roll is a spot up shooter and could be factor for UCLA when Texas is in a 2-3 zone.
Keys to the game
First, Texas has to play their best game of the season in all phases. The game will likely be a battle of tempo as Texas wants to run the floor and quicken the pace, which could wear down UCLA center Kevin Love. Love has had knee issues in the past and is recovering from a sprained ankle 10 days ago. UCLA will look to get Texas into a half court game in which the Bruins can use their size advantage on both ends of the floor and wear down the Texas guards making them defend and chase off of physical screens.
Rebounding and offensive players moving to the basketball to help Augustin under the intense ball pressure and jumping of ball screens are the main keys that are must execute keys no matter the pace of play.
Defensively, Texas will likely play a of 2-3 zone and a big line-up may be required for longer stretches than at any point this season. If Texas chooses to play big and a 2-3 zone, that means UCLA will have the desired tempo. Texas has to make the most of the big 2-3 by not giving up second chance scoring opportunities.
Texas has been beginning games this season with a 2-2-1 3/4 court trap look that has been successful against New Mexico State and at times against other opponents. If Texas is looking to force a quicker tempo from the jump ball, expect a similar look early. The quickness and speed of Westbrook and Collison may prove to be too much for the 2-2-1 look as they can both beat the potential trap off the bounce and then advance the ball to the wing quicker.
The key players for the Longhorns on Sunday night will likely be Justin Mason and Damion James. Both players have to attack offensively and give the Longhorns some scoring as the Bruins will look to make players other than Augustin and Abrams beat them. That means Texas has to do a good job of getting the ball to James in good position and with good timing in the post and Mason has to put the ball on the floor and get to his
improved mid-range jump shot. The post entry passing angles have been an issue early in the season for the Texas guards, so high/low looks will be the best way to get James the ball in the post. James also has the ability to step out to 20-feet and put pressure on a UCLA big man to contest the three, but also be in position to defend laterally.
The way in which Texas attacks Love on the defensive end is something to closely watch. Love will be forced to defend wither Atchley or James, so expect the Longhorns to use the man Love is defending as the high ball screener. Making Love work laterally and rotate defensively is the best defense for the talented freshman. Love is going to receive his touches and score the ball, but taking the 260-pounder out of comfort zone defensively is going to be key.
As stated previously, understanding that Mbah a Moute, Aboya and Mata-Real aren't quality free throw shooters to this point in the season is key. Instead of giving up easy lay-ups or six foot scoring chances, committing smart fouls and making the forwards earn the points at the free throw line is key.
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