Now comes a better test of UCLA basketball. In the next three days UCLA will play three games in the Maui classic. Likely against a couple pretty good teams with some interesting opponents. It begins tonight at 8:30 on ESPN against UNLV.
It will be a test of UCLA's new found depth. Three games in three days means your bench will have to play some substantive minutes. Last year in the Battle for Atlantis UCLA's bench was exposed as every time Kevon Looney went out of a game, UCLA was blown out. Our inexperience at point guard also shown through in that our starting backcourt had 7 assists and 20 turnovers in the Battle for Atlantis's first two games. Last year UCLA had no other option.
This year we do have a bench in Prince Ali and Jonah Bolden. How will they do in their first games away from Pauley? Will Alex Olesinski and Noah Allen get a chance as well?
There are other story lines in this tourney as well. For the first time UCLA will be facing a team just as big.
UCLA first opponent, UNLV, has a strong legitimate big inside player in seven foot Stephen Zimmerman. Zimmerman was interested in UCLA and had a family connection but ultimately decided to stay home in Las Vegas. Zimmerman is averaging almost a double-double and also had 3 blocks against our common opponent Cal Poly. Will UCLA make Zimmerman regret not choosing the family legacy?
Zimmerman is paired with 6'10" Goodluck Okonoboh who is a defensive force:
Named to the Mountain West's All-Defensive Team ... One of five true freshmen to get court time for the Runnin' Rebels ... Led the team in blocks per game (2.9) and tied for tops in total blocks with 90, which is fourth in program history for most blocks in a season ... Appeared in 31 games, making 29 starts ... Averaged 5.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while playing an average of 26.7 minutes per contest ... Shot 52.1 percent from the field, leading the team ... Was second on the team in rebounding ... Led the Mountain West in blocks and was ninth in the nation (first among freshmen) ... Set the MW freshman blocked shots record for league play with 46 ... He averaged 2.7 bpg, which also led the league ..
As if that is not enough UNLV also has former Oregon Center 6'9" Ben Carter coming off the bench and/or starts, regardless he splits time with Goodluck. Carter played against UCLA three times two years ago. For the first time, UCLA will be playing against a team that is bigger inside and good defensively. In a sense UNLV starts two players who could be centers just like UCLA.
UNLV is led this year by 6'7" Patrick McGraw. Despite his height McGraw takes most of his shots from three. However, again UNLV is bigger than UCLA. McGraw gambles on defense and led UNLV in steals last season.
Jerome Seagears is the starting point guard and presents another problem for UCLA not related to height. For Seagears is a redshirt senior having sat out last year after transferring from Rutgers were he was the starting point guard. Will Seagears be the crafty veteran taking advantage of the only playing his fourth college game Aaron Holiday?
The last starter is another transfer, this time a graduate transfer. The 6'5" Ike Nwamu led Mercer in scoring last season including hitting 80 three pointers. Nwamu will likely get matched up with Bryce. Will Nwamu make Bryce pay for any lapses on defense?
UNLV also has Jordan Cornish, another tall 6'6" guard that likes to shoot the three and will see a lot of minutes and 6'7" Freshman Derrick Jones who can play three or four. UNLV has reasonable depth.
UNLV is bigger inside and outside. UNLV has some good shot blockers inside and an interesting thing happen in their game versus Cal Poly which in some ways tracked UCLA's:
Cal Poly trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half but tied it 67-all with 2:20 left on Joel Awich's dunk. Jordan Cornish followed with a layup to put UNLV back on top, and the Rebels defense went to work, forcing a stop on each of the Mustangs' next four possessions.
Just like against UCLA, Cal Poly rallied to almost beat UNLV. So what does this mean for UCLA?
UCLA will have to play its best game of the year to beat UNLV. UCLA will be challenged inside by a team that also goes big-big. Tony Pakrer is leading the nation in rebounding right now. Can he have another solid performance against the bigs of UNLV? How will Thomas Welsh deal with being matched up with a seven footer?
UNLV is also a team that likes to shoot three pointers. UCLA perimeter defense looked good against Pepperdine but Pepperdine does not like to shoot three pointers. UCLA perimeter defense has been suspect, will UNLV be able to make them pay?
Lastly, UNLV plays nine deep. Will UCLA's bench be able to keep the starters rested and out of foul trouble?
If UCLA wins this game they will face Kansas the next day and begin their murders row schedule playing North Carolina, Kentucky and Gonzaga in the next month.. If they lose they play the D-III tournament host and a likely easy win.
More importantly, they need to beat a UNLV team that is similar but not as good as UCLA on paper. They need to come together as a team including off the bench.