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Is UCLA Basketball Lucky or Good? NC Preview

UCLA plays a top opponent who is again missing a key player

Marcus Paige represents the best guard UCLA has faced all year
Marcus Paige represents the best guard UCLA has faced all year
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Is UCLA Basketball for real or is it the luckiest team in UCLA history?  UCLA had its best home win in years over #1 Kentucky and a great road win over a tough Gonzaga team.  Both those teams had key injuries to their big men during or before the game.   Now UCLA can have its best neutral court win over a preseason number 1 North Carolina and once again:

They played their first six tilts without their best player, Marcus Paige, and now are without their steadfast big man, Kennedy Meeks, for a few weeks. That's unfortunate, because we're being robbed of seeing UNC at full strength, meaning it's getting harder to truly evaluate, and enjoy, this team at its best.

Regardless this could be a very good game:

Saturday's game in Brooklyn is arguably the most compelling game in college basketball this weekend.

This is the last significant out-of-league game for both teams this season. Given each team's standing, UNC needs it more. Roy Williams' group has two losses, both of them on the road, by a combined six points.

For North Carolina it is going to be all about its star Marcus Paige:

All of this means UNC will need Paige to be at his best, running a group that ranks third in offensive efficiency and clipping 118 points per 100 possessions on KenPom. Paige has to remain aggressive. He's UNC's best shooter, its clear leader, best defender in the backcourt and its best overall player. If he's not at his best, the team can't be. Williams knows that.

Those quotes were from the CBS North Carolina article.  The CBS UCLA article goes to talk about Bryce at length:

The biggest difference in what they're doing schematically there has to do with who they're playing at the point. Early in the season, freshman Aaron Holiday did a lot of the heavy lifting as far as getting the team into its sets and it struggled. However, in-between the sixth and seventh games of the season, coach Alford sat down Holiday and his son Bryce and decided to allow Bryce to handle the ball more. That's resulted in more controlled play, which is to be expected when you're handing the reins from a freshman to a junior.

CBS is certain portray this as Marcus v.  Bryce.  However, if Bryce at point keyed the offense, I would say Jonah Bolden as stopper has keyed the defense.  The improved defense may be a bigger reason:

Let's start on the defensive end. The Bruins gave up 106.4 points-per-100-possessions in their first six games, a number that would have been good for 253rd nationally last season. In the five games since, that number has dropped to 98.8 points-per-100-possessions, as the defense continues to learn how to play next each other without Norman Powell around to solve a lot of the issues.

Breaking down that further, UCLA defense has been good on the interior but seems susceptible to outside shooting.  This is in part of the design of Alford's defense to make the opponent beat you from the outside.

That may be more dangerous against UNC.  Paige is shooting an amazing 54% on 6 three point attempts a game.  The other starting guard Joel Barry is shooting 39% on an average of 5 attempts a game.  This could spell trouble for UCLA.

Starting small forward Justin Jackson goes a bit the other way.  He shoots 3 shots a game from three but is only making 29%.  This is an interesting matchup for UCLA.  Jackson passes well and is a good defender.  Despite shooting under 30% from three he shoots over 52% overall.  It seems like Aaron Holiday gets the matchup with Paige but Isaac Hamilton or Bryce seems like a tough match up with Jackson.  I would gamble with Bryce on Jackson and tell Bryce to let him shoot outside.  Whoever has the small Berry has to stay on him which historically has been a problem for Bryce.

UNC goes with the 6'9‘ Brice Johnson inside.  Brice is a better matchup for our bigs because he is definitely not a stretch big.  In four seasons at UNC he has yet to make a three.  However he is shooting 61% from the field and a very impressive 88% from the line to go with over 9 rebounds a game.

Filling in for the injured Meeks is Senior Joel James.  James is also an inside only player and quite frankly what he has going for him most is size (6'10" and 280 pounds) and experience.  The moral of the story is UCLA has an advantage inside to start the game.

Keep in mind this is North Carolina and Roy Williams.  This means while Paige is key, the cast around him will be constantly changing as UNC will play a lot of people.  Most intriguing is Theo Pinson, while 6'6", started for Paige at guard.  He is shooting 42% from three and went 3-8 from three in a recent game.

What this all means is UCLA will have an advantage inside and Tony Parker or Thomas Welsh have the potential for a good, even great, game.  UNC starts big on offense which will give added comfort to Parker and Welsh on defense.  However, Paige is the best guard UCLA has faced all year.  Berry and Pinson, off the bench, give UNC the potential to have three good outside shooters on the floor at once to make UCLA pay for packing it in.

On the flipside of North Carolina's injuries are UCLA injuries.  The good news is Thomas Welsh will be playing and should be at full health.  The bad news is Prince Ali is "day to day" because of the knee bruise.  While I bet Ali does play in front of his family in New York he may be limited or his timing may be off from lack of practice.

So will this be another upset win on the back of Welsh or Parker over a hurting team ala Kentucky and Gonzaga.  Or will UCLA be shredded from the outside ala Kansas?  Either way it will be another game to test how real this team is.

Go Bruins!