The level of uncertainty has arisen with this UCLA hoops squad.
After getting clowned by Cal Poly at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins bounced back with a ridiculous 82-56 win over a 6-1 Cal State Northridge team that plays in the same conference as Cal Poly (the Big West).
Which has made the upcoming tilt with the 23rd-ranked San Diego State Aztecs an important one, not just in terms of record, but RPI, while also gauging if the team fans saw against CSUN was the team we’ll see all year.
And these SDSU Aztecs are no joke; they’re 4-1 on the season with their only loss coming against the now-sixth-ranked Syracuse Orange on a neutral site. They bring back a talented squad and, most importantly, Jamaal Franklin, who won Mountain West Conference Player of the Year in 2011-12. Meanwhile, they added newcomers Dwayne Pollee II and Winston Shepard, a top-40 recruit across the board in 2012.
And Shepard will be a handful, not offensively, but defensively. Back when Shepard was in high school, he shut down a talented-as-hell 6’6” 2-guard that had proven to be an unstoppable force and earned national honors at the end of the season.
That guard would go on to play for these UCLA Bruins.
Shabazz Muhammad will probably look to avenge a poor performance against Shepard, and Shepard will be vital to stopping UCLA’s premiere scorer (who, by all accounts, is still getting his legs under him and his stamina back after an extended layoff due to NCAA investigations).
Meanwhile, a combination of Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams/Norman Powell will be tasked with guarding Franklin, who’s averaging a stellar 20.5 points a game off of 45 percent shooting. Meanwhile, he’s also their primary ball-handler (with a team-leading usage rate of 31 percent), the primary ball-distributor (with 3.3 assists a game and 26.2 percent of assists going through him while he’s on the court), and the team’s leading rebounder (averaging 11.3 a contest and gobbling up 17.3 percent of all available rebounds while on the court).
Franklin is this team’s best player, and with UCLA being “unathletic” and all, the squad’s going to have to rely on creative defense to offset his effectiveness. The zone might not help, because Franklin’s aggressive enough to attack it, but throwing two men once in awhile at the junior guard could help the cause. Unless Kyle Anderson’s defensive prowess can translate from the interior to the perimeter, the Bruins will almost certainly have to rely on a few double-teams.
And offensively, UCLA might struggle. Because Franklin, in addition to being damn good on offense, is also a scary good defender, evidenced by a defensive rating of just 67.9. As a whole, SDSU’s defense will be a killer, with no player allowing more than 92 points per 100 possessions.
Indeed, this SDSU team allows just 53 points a game, good for 12th in the nation. Even against the Orange, this Aztecs defense was stellar, holding the Orange to just 84 points per 100 possessions. A Syracuse team, mind you, that averages 78 points per contest, good for top-40 in the country.
And that fast-paced offense UCLA ran so well against CSUN? They’re going to have to do more of that to avoid allowing the Aztecs to establish themselves on defense. The Bruins seem to play best at a quicker pace anyway (earning 78 possessions against Northridge), while SDSU looks comfortable playing at a tad of a slower pace.
Overall, UCLA will have its work cut out against San Diego State. Win, and the season may have turned a serious corner, and it may lay the groundwork for a successful season. Lose, and the doubts we’ve had about Ben Howland and this UCLA squad will resurface, leading us to question if this is the most disappointing UCLA team in history.
All in all, we’d prefer the “win” route.