I had the Bruins losing to Kentucky in my season preview. It didn't take a genius to make that prediction. As a matter of fact, I thought it could be a rout even back then. Still, this feels different now. The reverse cupcake theory is in effect. I had been saying: beat the cupcake by at least 25 and I won't nitpick about the details. Perhaps the Kentucky blogs are thinking that now about Saturday.
From the preview before the season started, it was all about the PAC-12 and getting into the tournament. UCLA did not get a signature win against Oklahoma. I didn't include a win at Alabama, but now that's important for our Tournament resume and for the team's morale. Finishing third in the PAC-12 should get the Bruins into the Tournament, but maybe not without a significant OOC win and limping past San Diego and Fullerton. It's happened before to the PAC-12.
The Bruins can slow it down like Buffalo and Columbia did to Kentucky, but it's just not in their DNA. They can also pack the defense in, hopes Kentucky is way off from the perimeter, and beat them by raining three's. I'm not counting on that either.
As we get close to the start of the conference schedule on January 2 at Colorado, I actually hope the Bruins are back to square one -- starting all over ala Steve Alfords's come-to-Jesus/loosen-up-with-rap-music picnic at his crib before last year's PAC-12 tournament. Get past Saturday without going into the fetal position, and then move forward against Alabama and the Colorado/Utah weekend.
So sadly, I won't be focused on the score -- I'll be trying to read the tea leaves for the two weeks following.
Here's what I'd like to see:
1) Defense: How do you cover a team designed to be athletic and picked because they are willing to buy into a system: Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense plus attack the offensive boards? And there are two Kentucky platoons. And they play defense to boot. Gonzaga and UCR proved you can go at Looney, but I don't think Kentucky will bother to scheme that way against us (Lyles and Towns are not skilled scorers like Wiltjer).
Two things: show effort in the man-to-man and in the zone -- pack it in. Did you see yesterday's stats? They can't shoot. Though Looney has had his problems in the man, the defensive strength has been rim protection from Looney, Parker and Welsh. How good is the rim protection against TWO fresh teams of big and athletic all-stars?
2) Offense: As lax as the defense has been, I'm more concerned about the offense. Salford was a defensive coach in the past, but the drumbeat over the past two years has been about the offense.
I've been saying that there is an identity crisis on offense. Are the Bruins an up-tempo team, a post team or perimeter-shooting guard-oriented team? You're supposed to be competent at all three, but naturally the players you have at your disposal will have certain strengths.
The opposing defenses have taken away the transition game, bottled-up Looney and thus left the guards open to shoot. On top of that, we have three guards who want to shoot.
Having competent shooters is a great weapon to have. Unfortunately, the 46 FG% and 37 3P% isn't enough to overcome the points UCLA allows.
Having Looney step out has helped. There's room for improvement -- his mid-range from the elbow will fall more and he will finish around the rim. Will his foul-shooting improve -- we can only hope since he will continue to go to the line A-lot.
Tony Parker has always had a post move, and it got better this year.
They're average time of possession is still 15-16 seconds, but my eye test tells me this is from jacking it up early in the shot clock -- not from transition. It's not a transition team, whether it's the personnel, allowing too may wide-open easy shots or the opposing coaches are scheming against the transition after watching it for a year and a half.
The team has to be more deliberate. Use the Hi-Lo with Looney and Parker. As Looney becomes more of a threat from outside, he'll be able to move closer to the basket without getting bottled up. Most importantly, the guards need to show patience. The shots will come in the flow of the offense.
I'm asking the team to do this against the best interior in the land. I know. I want them to develop the offense for the conference.
Here's Kentucky by position:
Centers: Kentucky Blue Team: Willie Cauley-Stein, White Team: Dakari Johnson. Good luck to Tony Parker trying to stay on the floor, and not get into foul trouble, and good luck to both Parker and Thomas Welsh trying to get a shot up over WCS.
Shooting Forward: Blue: Devin Booker, White: Trey Lyles (plays on both platoons with the injury to Poythress - small forward on one, power forward on the other). My first guess is that Looney covers Lyles but it could be Powell when Towns is also on the floor. There's a possible interesting mismatch here. Powell can go past Lyles, but unfortunately there will still be one or two big tree waiting for him in the middle.
I've said Looney is the best rebounder in America except possibly some combination of Kentucky players. What a test! I'm waiting to see this. One-on-one it will be hard enough, but Kentucky will have three players crashing the boards.
BTW, the low FG% is mainly due to the Harrisons. Devin Booker can shoot.
Power Forward: Blue: Trey Lyles, White: Karl-Anthony Towns. Here are two freshmen who are big and athletic but not volume scorers at this point. I don't think they go directly at Looney ala Gonzaga's Wiltjer, but they will give the Bruins' best player defensive pressure at the elbow and on the boards.
Guards: Blue: the Harrison twins, White: Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee. Kentucky plays a modified dribble-drive motion offense. I say modified because Calipari adapts to his talent, and he has a bunch of trees who dominate the paint. Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis break down the defense with penetration, and look for the open big under the basket. If it's not there, the ball gets kicked out - mainly to Aaron Harrison, Devin Booker and Marcus Lee. Our guards can't play with them. They have to stay close to home, clog the middle and hope Kentucky is cold.
In straight-up matchups, only Looney comes close at power forward, and there is a potential situational mismatch with Powell. Other than that, Kentucky is bigger, faster and more skilled at every position (Ulis is small, but very fast).
Columbia slowed the game down to 50 possessions, played a packed-in zone and Kentucky obliged by missing a lot including from the free throw line. Columbia lost anyway. UCLA has more talent, but I doubt that they can exert Columbia-like discipline, the Bruins will probably show their nerves in Chicago, and Kentucky (with their ultimate goal of dethroning UCLA has the all-time leader in national championships) will be up for the Bruins.