Breaking Down a Potential UCLA-Indiana Final in the Legends ClassicPosted by Chris Johnson on August 7th, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn
Playing formidable competition in early season invitational tournaments is the best way to build a solid RPI foundation upon which to base the rest of your non-conference schedule. In recent years, as teams have adjusted to the notion that non-league scheduling does, in fact, have an appreciable affect on the bubble cut line come Selection Sunday, these tournaments have provided some intriguing matchups featuring national title contenders. The Legends Classic, one of the more anticipated tournaments in the early season college hoops calendar, released its bracket Monday. The 12-team field, on the whole, is a bit underwhelming, but tournament organizers did do us the favor of setting up a potentially epic finale on November 20 at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Indiana and UCLA, after staging two regional round games on their respective home courts, will need to win only one game against a power conference team before meeting in the tournament’s final game. If UCLA can sneak by Georgetown and Indiana takes care of business against Georgia, the two surefire preseason top-five outfits will put it all on the line for the Legends Classic crown.
That’s must-see viewing for any college hoops fan, a tantalizing early season matchup of Final Four-worthy opponents. With more than three months remaining before the bracket kicks off, there’s plenty of time to salivate over this enticing showdown. But in these news-bereft late summer months, where Midnight Madness can’t come soon enough, I’m bringing you a way-too-early positional breakdown of what figures to be one of the best non-league fixtures in the upcoming season. To take this a step further, I’ll provide a prediction, score included, as a way of sparking the debate for which team is better positioned to make good on their considerable preseason hype. Remember, Georgetown or Georgia could knock off UCLA and/or Indiana in the semifinals and thus prevent the more favorable and altogether more entertaining finals matchup. But if the Hoosiers and Bruins are indeed what most preseason prognosticators are making them out to be, they should both advance to the championship round. Still, there’s no guarantee, so take this predictive exercise at face value.
Point guard: Yogi Ferrell/Jordan Hulls vs. Kyle Anderson/Larry Drew II
If Ferrell outplays hulls in preseason practice, Crean likely will insert him into the starting lineup in time for this highly-touted matchup. Ferrell is a true point guard who penetrates and finishes at the rim, but scoring won’t be his primary responsibility this season; facilitating the group of talented finishers around him—guys like Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey, Christian Watford and Cody Zeller—is the first order of business. Hulls has been around long enough to remember discernibly darker days in Bloomington, the pre-Kentucky upset era—faraway as it may seem—and can make up for his deficiencies on defense with experience, leadership and pinpoint three-point marksmanship. He may ultimately start alongside Ferrell at the two. Countering the Hoosiers’ duo is Anderson, one of the more intriguing skills-to-size prospects in the 2012 class. At 6’7″, Anderson poses a major athletic and size advantage over most every point guard, yet he also boasts the shrewd ball handling, court vision and mid-range touch to excel at the position. He functions efficiently on the low block, posting up defenders and finding open shooters on the perimeter. Drew II, a year after transferring from North Carolina, will challenge Anderson for the starting job. Both players should see significant floor time this season, and they could split minutes in this early nonleague tournament.
Edge: Anderson/Drew II. Ferrell and Hulls will find success offensively, but will struggle to overcome their physical deficiencies against the longer Anderson. Drew II is an efficient distributor who could infuse the younger Bruins with an air of veteran maturity.
Shooting guard: Victor Oladipo vs. Norman Powell
After being named to the All-Big Ten defensive team last season, Oladipo is ready to expand his game as the Hoosiers make a strong push for a conference title. He mixes lockdown perimeter defense with a versatile offensive skillset, all packaged tidily within a 6’5″, 215-pound frame, to provide a limitless supply of productive energy on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile Powell, who averaged 4.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in 33 games last season, could be the weak link in an otherwise star-studded Bruins lineup. He made major strides last season, improving his ball handling and perimeter defense, and could be primed for a breakout sophomore campaign. Powell will elevate his burgeoning offensive game and defensive intensity to match the considerable talent around him. Yet Oladipo is the more complete two-way player, and he should exploit Powell on both ends of the floor. On defense, Oladipo can relax on the offensively-challenged Powell to provide help on Anderson. And while Powell is a formidable perimeter defender, Oladipo, a wily, springy slasher, will find his way to the cup.
Edge: Oladipo. On paper, the Bruins enter this season with one of the nation’s best starting fives. Powell is not one of the reasons why. Oladipo will take advantage.
Small forward: Will Sheehey vs. Shabazz Muhammad
While last year’s NCAA Tournament lacked for buzzer-beater drama, Sheehey’s game-winning baseline jumper with 12.7 seconds left to beat VCU in the third round provided an arousing culmination in what proved to be the Hoosiers’ final victory of a redemptive 2011 season. The peerless stroke that slayed the Rams and eliminated any hopes of a Final Four return for Shaka Smart’s plucky squad typifies what Sheehey meant to the Hoosiers last season. Jump shooting is his modus operandi, his area of expertise. With Oldadipo, Zeller and Watford providing the lions share of interior scoring, Sheehey will continue to operate much in the same fashion he did last season: camping out on the perimeter, waiting for a defensive relapse and converting from beyond the arc. He faces a stiff challenge in Muhammad, the No. 1-ranked player in the class of 2012 according to Rivals. A refined scorer with an NBA body (and a fruitful NBA career ahead of him), Muhammad can score in a variety of ways, some more efficiently than others. His mid-range game is impeccable, and Sheehey will struggle to contain his aggressive slashes into the paint. Oladipo is the better defensive matchup here, though Muhammad seems a tough assignment for even the nation’s strongest perimeter defenders.
Edge: Muhammad. It’s hard to argue against Sheehey’s timely jump shooting, but Muhammad, a surefire NBA lottery pick, is a transcendent talent, and he’ll lay waste to whatever defense the Hoosiers choose to counter his offensive efforts.
Power forward: Christian Watford vs. Travis Wear
Most of the preseason dialogue about UCLA heading into this season centers on its highly-touted recruiting class and the ongoing weight issues of Center Josh Smith. What’s going overlooked is the return of Wear, who was arguably the Bruins’ best offensive player last season. Wear averaged 11.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, morphing into an efficient interior force, all the while getting overshadowed by the overall doom-and-gloom culture surrounding the program last season. With a batch of shiny new recruits at his side, Wear is poised to elevate his game. Watford, the man responsible for last season’s historic buzzer-beater against Kentucky at Assembly Hall, eschewed the NBA Draft to return for a national championship run. His versatile offensive game—the baseline jumpers, subtle backdoor cuts, crafty hook shots—serves as a fantastic complement to Zeller. Of all the position-by-position matchups, this one holds the most intrigue. Watford is the better shooter, while Wear has the edge in post-up scoring. The contrasting styles should play out in a hotly-contested two-way battle on the low block.
Edge: Watford. Since transferring from UNC, Wear has developed into a well-rounded offensive force. Yet Watford is a unique talent, armed with range out to the perimeter as well as a diverse interior skill set. He’ll force Wear to guard him outside the paint, freeing up cutting lines for Oladipo, Sheehey and company.
Center: Cody Zeller vs. Joshua Smith
It’s hard to envision Zeller—after taking the Big Ten by storm last year with the most impressive season-long performance by a true freshman outside of Anthony Davis—regressing with a year of experience under his belt. Last season he overwhelmed opponents with shrewd post moves and a relentless motor, not to mention a constant supply of active rim-protection on defense. Zeller carries sky-high expectations into this season, and while he may not live up to the hype, there’s no reason to expect anything short of an All-American-type campaign. For Smith, who has long been identified with a poor work ethic and a ballooning waist line, this season bring newfound optimism with the belief that he’s finally overcoming his weight issues and devoting himself to a more thorough preseason preparation program. If Smith has indeed shed the extra pounds and discovered the inner drive to maximize his All-conference potential, the Bruins will finally have the massive yet highly-talented interior force they’ve longed for since Smith’s arrival three years ago. Yet Even if Smith shows considerable improvement, he can’t hope to slow down the hyper-active Zeller. What Smith can do is capitalize on his size advantage by muscling Zeller in the paint, crashing the glass and finishing from close range.
Edge: Zeller. It’s unclear how much (if at all) Smith has improved, while Zeller has already provided credible evidence of his imposing two-way game. Smith poses a daunting physical challenge for Zeller, but he’s always struggled to stay out of foul trouble.
Bench: If Anderson starts at point guard, Drew II will be the Bruins’ key reserve guard, a sure-handed leader charged with calming his inexperienced teammates. Junior combo-guard Tyler Lamb boasts a versatile offensive game and offers an effective scoring punch. Incoming freshman Tony Parker, a true big man in every sense of the word, brings a refined offensive game to go along with great size at 6-9, 275 pounds. Reserve center Anthony Stover, the team’s leading shot blocker last season, was dismissed from the team Monday, but the Bruins are well-equipped with front court reinforcements, including Parker and David Wear, brother of Travis. The loss of energetic guard Verdell Jones III leaves Indiana without one of its key bench contributors from last season. If energetic forward Derek Elston can make a leap forward, and the incoming crop of freshmen plays to its highly-touted bona fides, the Hoosiers should have a versatile and productive range of options off the pine. Sophomore Remy Abell could also play increased minutes after an encouraging freshman campaign.
Edge: UCLA. An effective player at UNC, Drew II could thrive with a talented lineup around him. If Smith continues to struggle with foul trouble, Wear and Parker provide reliable insurance options. With freshmen Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea providing relief off the bench, the Hoosiers have talent, but their reserve ensemble doesn’t come close to matching the multi dimensional group coach Ben Howland has at the ready.
Prediction: Both teams have high hopes heading into this season, and this early non-conference clash (provided Georgia and/or Georgetown doesn’t prevent its occurrence) provides a nice way to identify areas of improvement before getting into league play. Neither squad will be at its late-February peak. There’s one underlying dynamic playing strongly in IU’s favor: continuity. The Hoosiers return their starting lineup from last season, with a nice infusion of talented new blood. Much like last season, Indiana will run an efficient offensive system, an inside-out attack revolving around Zeller and his ability to draw double teams and find open shooters. Add Ferrell and a handful of other promising recruits, and the Hoosiers appear ready to reprise their offensive prowess from a year ago, only with greater efficiency and finesse. UCLA returns Smith, Wear and Powell, but its lofty preseason projections center around the coterie of blue chippers Ben Howland landed this offseason. If Muhammad, Anderson and Parker don’t pan out right away, things could get ugly in a hurry. And while I have every confidence Howland can congeal this freshman-heavy roster into a legitimate Pac-12 title contender, the calculus won’t quite work out this early in the season. The more experienced Hoosiers, who can carry last season’s offensive dominance into this season, will outduel the talented but young — and perhaps easily-rattled — Bruins. If these two teams meet again come Tournament time, when there’s a better chance the Bruins have found a way to make all the new parts fit, the matchups, and perhaps the outcome, might shift in the Bruins’ favor.
Indiana 88, UCLA 81