Assumption #1: The UNLV "closed scrimmage" tells us something (positive) about this team.
A few days ago, we had heard that UCLA had put a pretty good beating on preseason #18 UNLV in a closed scrimmage. Everything rational about me says to not read much into this. By rule, the radio silence coming out of the game itself means that details are few and far between, and that nothing official will ever get out. Regardless, we know about the composition of our team: Shabazz didn't play and neither did Lamb. This meant we were down to eight scholarship players against a ranked team but the results suggest that our eight presented enough matchup problems to make life difficult for the Rebels.
You can see where such mismatches come from with a freshmen difference maker like Kyle Anderson, and offensively it can be difficult to contend with the Wear twins down low if your team has playmaking ability like Anderson and hopefully Larry Drew II can provide us. The other possibility is that UNLV isn't a team worthy of its rank, and while that may end up being the case, yesterday's preseason Bracketology doesn't think so; giving the Rebels a 4 seed. As a side note, Joe Lunardi also gives us a 3 seed, putting us in the San Jose/Los Angeles regional pairing that we want. This assessment may also price in the uncertainty surrounding Shabazz Muhammad, but we'll leave that alone for now.
Add up what we know about the scrimmage, and I'm going to (tentatively) buy the assumption that the closed scrimmage foretells good things about our season.
Assumption #2: Two Wear Lineups are a Disaster
The two Wear lineup has been deeply unpopular among fans that associate it with frequently poor and porous defense that plagued last year's team en route to an embarrassing 19 win fifth place conference finish. In addition to that, knowing that this was a manifestation of Howland once again playing favorites paired with the unflattering SI article that lambasted him in part for his favoritism only added to its unpopularity.
As someone who has led the charge on this particular meme, I'm not sure this line of thinking holds up anymore. On offense, the argument centered around diminishing returns, having two players that basically play the same position, and on defense there was only one position that they could adequately guard. Starting with offense, we had heard that in China there was a push for Travis Wear to take up more minutes at center. This changes the game quite a bit when you look at who potentially surrounds a 4/5 Wear lineup. You (might) have Shabazz at 3, Tyler Lamb/Norman Powell/Jordan Adams/Anderson/LDII at 1 and 2, which compared to any lineup last year is going to be a much quicker and faster lineup from top to bottom. That makes having both Wears in the lineup not only feasible, but dangerous. The absence of Joshua Smith in this discussion is intentional, because to be honest, we just don't know what we're going to get from him in three days.
On defense, well, I'm going to push that discussion to the next section, but that doesn't have to be a dealbreaker if Howland is smart enough and flexible enough to make it work. For these reasons, I say that this assumption is no longer a hard and fast rule.
Assumption #3: We need to play some zone
Ah, the third rail of Ben Howland's defensive philosophy. Ryan's great series about discussions with Howland and his views going into the season indicate that at the very least, he is more amenable to the Z word than he has been for the past 9 years. That he had experimented with the defense in China indicates that this is more than just talk, but again, this is the same guy who often opines that his team should have played some zone after some random loss where our perimeter defense gets shredded again and again. Zone defense needs to not just be a move you make in desperation to stop the bleeding. As Howland indicated in Ryan's article, he has the personnel to play zone effectively. Depending on opponent, I suggest that it may not just be a luxury, but a necessity.
The issue at hand is the same issue from past years: dribble penetration. Though we may be able to keep opposing point guards out of the lane with a potential upgrade defensively in LDII, all things being equal, we are still likely vulnerable out on the wings. What this means is that, whether we play the double Wear lineup or we have Smith in there, we're going to be vulnerable on the perimeter and that's a lot of attention that's going to go inside to our forwards and center. So if you have guys like the Wears with length, and a foul prone and not particularly mobile big like Smith, it would seem prudent to go to zone immediately or start out in it when we go up against team X's athletic wing player. It's not that Powell or Lamb can't stay in front of these guys, but history shows that they don't do it consistently. Shabazz will also likely be suspect at least in his first few games, whenever that is, as one of his reasons for coming to Westwood is to learn how to defend, and his lateral movement is not as impressive as every other part of his game. For these reasons, I think this assumption is a must, and I admit to being mildly relieved by Ryan's article that suggests that Howland gets it.
Bits and Pieces:
Whenever Shabazz is cleared, he will likely be ready to go.
Should we meet up with Indiana early on in the Legends Classic, they will be shorthanded.