St. John's (10-16, 4-10 Big East) is coming down the home stretch with a minuscule six-player unit - but they are learning on the job. Whether it's Phil Greene applying the nuances of being a scoring guard during a game, Sir`Dominic Pointer figuring out how to get his offense in garbage time, or Amir Garrett honing his defensive skills against the teams' backcourt, the Red Storm will likely end up with a losing record and a foundation for growth next year.
Meanwhile - on paper - the UCLA Bruins have a bigger, better, more experienced team.
But the Bruins are struggling at 15-11 in a soft Pac-12 conference, the fans are losing faith, and national writers are saying that Coach Ben Howland has lost some control/ discipline over his team [AUDIO LINK]. The Bruin fans are even noting that Lavin had more consistent results than Ben Howland.
The Bruins will likely have to win their conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament; even their NIT hopes are faint. Meanwhile, the Red Storm are playing for pride in Madison Square Garden and toward their future development.
The game will be one last nationally-televised chance for Assistant Head Coach Mike Dunlap and the Red Storm freshmen to show that the future is bright, despite the small roster, the lack of size, and with their head coach Steve Lavin watching from the suites overhead.
More, below the fold.
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Tip Off: 1:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: UCLA Bruins (15-11, 8-6 Pac-12)
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
TV: CBS | CBS Sports.com Radio: Bloomberg 1130 | Sirius 93 | XM 194
Opposition blog/ message board: Bruins Nation | Bruin Basketball Report | Bruin Report Online (message board/ site) | Bruin Gold (message board) | Bruin Zone (message board) | Bruinville (message board)
Pomeroy page ($)
See also: Storm Warnings: Frosh Five in the past 6 Red Storm games | Bruins Nation: UCLA at St. John's Preview
Last year's game at Pauley Pavilion was a foul-filled affair... for the Red Storm. Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith, Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson, and Tyler Honeycutt went to the line a combined 41 times in the game - more free throw attempts than shot attempts. Josh Smith dunked all over the Red Storm. And Dwight Hardy's 39 points wasn't enough to stave off defeat in Steve Lavin's "homecoming", as UCLA's size made it hard for the rest of the Johnnies to be effective.
This year, the size factor is similar, but the names are not.
Lee and Honeycutt left the Bruins for the NBA draft. Reeves Nelson was suspended from the team, invited back to help the team compete in the Maui Invitational, and was soon booted again for insubordination. Jerime Anderson was suspended two games for the theft of a laptop. Joshua Smith remains rotund and unable to log heavy minutes, though his conditioning is improving. Despite Smith's struggles, forwards Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover have seen little time. Stover is currently injured, and could see minutes on Saturday.
The Bruins managed to lose to teams like Middle Tennessee State and Loyola Marymount early - the latter described as "straight bums" AFTER the loss by Smith - but have improved. The Bruins have won two true road games and lost five.
Bruins plus: size. UCLA, by possession-weighted height, are the tallest team in the NCAA. They block shots, get defensive rebounds in their area, and have a lot of bulk. The Bruins are dangerous deep in the post, with a player who works to create shots in the paint - something the Red Storm have not faced much of this season.
Howland has his team hunt for scoring opportunities inside, focusing on Josh Smith when he can get deep position; the guards also will slash to the basket. The Wears will sometimes run high-low passing action with Smith, and will take deep 2-pointers and the occasional three.
Bruins plus: Howland pressure. The Bruins have been decent on defense, using their size to be bothersome - the Wear Twins play at forward and wing. Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb, and Lazeric Jones (aka "Zeke") can get some steals in the halfcourt man-to-man defense; the primary ballhandlers, Phil Greene and Sir`Dominic Pointer, can't be lulled into a false sense of security if they don't see extended pressure.
Bruins minus: defensive contain. In transition, the big men struggle to keep up with the opposing team at times. And in the halfcourt, the Wears' lack of lateral quickness can be exposed. The Bruins struggle to contain penetration at times, and can be exposed on defensive switches when playing man defense.
Bruins minus: scoring diversity. The Bruins are actually one of the better three-point shooting teams in the country, hitting 41% of their outside shots in conference... but they don't shoot the three that often or run plays designed to earn outside shots. The team doesn't have a dominant passer/ playmaker from the wing, and often struggle to share the ball for assisted baskets. And with a lack of dynamic, attacking wings, a lack of offensive flow, and bigs who don't draw fouls, UCLA is overly dependent on their two-point scoring.
Five Points/ Keys to the Game
Transition scoring. St. John's is far better in transition than in the halfcourt, especially against a large team like UCLA. UCLA doesn't defend particularly well in transition, and St. John's has to take advantage of that by getting stops and finding finishers like Amir Garrett, God`sgift Achiuwa and Maurice Harkless in early offense.
Prepare in the post. St. John's has to be focused and aware when defending inside the paint against the large Bruins, keeping players like Smith from getting deep position as best as they can, and bothering passes going inside to him.
Harkless and Harrison at their best. For the team to win, D`Angelo Harrison has to get hot from the outside (and draw fouls); Moe Harkless has to be an aggressive, slashing scorer that makes the Wears, et cetera grab and foul him.
Win some rebounds. St. John's will get out-rebounded. But if they are as active as they were against Georgetown, they can minimize the rebounding gap enough that it doesn't hold strong sway over the game outcome.
Defensive chaos. The Johnnies have to make life difficult on the Bruin perimeter players on the road. The ball pressure by Amir Garrett and Sir`Dominic Pointer could create runout/ early offense opportunities if Lazeric Jones and the Bruin guards are reckless.
Prediction: UCLA's size wins the day, but it won't be comfortable, 67-62.