Previewing Saturday’s UCLA/Missouri ContestPosted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) and Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on December 6th, 2013
In advance of UCLA’s visit to Missouri on Saturday morning, Pac-12 correspondent Andrew Murawa and his SEC counterpart Greg Mitchell had a few questions for each other about the teams they’ve been watching so far this year. Read on to find out all you’ll need to know about the intriguing intersectional matchup, with tips on Saturday at 11:30 AM CST on CBS.
Andrew Murawa: Last year, UCLA fans were wowed by Phil Pressey’s playmaking ability in the Tigers’ loss at Pauley Pavilion. With Pressey now gone, who’s running the show for Mizzou and how does he stack up compared to Pressey?
Greg Mitchell: Pressey was a Keion Bell missed layup away from 20 assists in that game, and it would end up being his best statistical night of 2012-13. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson is the Tigers’ new starting point guard, and he ended up at Mizzou because of a childhood friendship with Pressey. He brings a very different skill set to the table. Where Pressey broke defenses down with his speed, Clarkson can back down smaller guards because of his 6’5” frame. He doesn’t have the vision Pressey did (few in the sport do) but he is a much better finisher and scorer. He’s off to an excellent start, and looks for his shot far more than Pressey did: In fact, he is currently leading the SEC in field goal attempts.
AM: UCLA’s been on fire offensively and is currently ranked among the top 10 most efficient offensive teams in the nation. What can Missouri do to slow down the athletic UCLA offense?
GM: Defense hasn’t necessarily been Mizzou’s strong suit this season. The Tigers’ starting backcourt, however, is big and athletic. Clarkson, Jabari Brown, and Earnest Ross are all 6’5” and can bother opponents. West Virginia, which was on fire from three this season, was noticeably flustered by this length on Thursday night. The Tigers can also more or less switch effectively at all positions when forwards Jonathan Williams III and Tony Criswell are paired with those three.
AM: Perhaps UCLA’s biggest weakness defensively is along the front line and on the glass. Who does Missouri have that can exploit that UCLA weakness?
GM: Since Mizzou’s strength is overwhelming in its guard play, there are few players ripe to exploit UCLA on the glass. Williams, a freshman, had a 17-rebound game against Gardner-Webb and certainly has potential, but he is still developing. Criswell has the best rebounding metrics of anyone on the team, but was suspended for the first few games of the season and has had to work his way back into the rotation. Keanu Post has size, but has given the Tigers about as much as I have sitting on my couch this season. The big guards simply need to get involved on the glass on both ends of the floor.
AM: With Mizzou’s football team playing in the SEC Championship game on Saturday night, will this home basketball game earlier in the day fly under the radar? Or will UCLA also be facing a vocal Missouri home crowd?
GM: Mizzou football has indeed inexplicably made it to Atlanta for the SEC championship. I have no idea whether Tigers fans will show up in large numbers at the football game, but in any event the more dedicated Mizzou loyalists from St. Louis and Kansas City will certainly be there. These are likely the same people that would have made the trek to Columbia for a big basketball game, and in that sense the arena should quieter. Mizzou Arena can be electric, but generally only gets to that level a few times a year. Without the football excitement, this game may have been one of those times. But the atmosphere is likely to be tempered with the football game looming right after it.
Greg Mitchell: What has been the story of Steve Alford’s first UCLA team in the early going?
Andrew Murawa: Certainly Alford is still getting to know his players and vice versa, but eight games in both sides are still in the honeymoon phase. There are eight wins against mostly inferior competition (the best UCLA opponent was a solid Drexel team way back on opening night), there’s ridiculously efficient offensive numbers, and there is plenty of excitement. Contrary to popular belief, if you want to play slow, early returns suggest that going to UCLA would not be in your best interests. Behind sophomore Kyle Anderson taking over at the point and a bevy of athletic and versatile wings (including freshman sensation Zach LaVine, known for producing highlight-reel plays on a regular basis), the Bruins have been one of the most most up-tempo and exciting teams in the nation. But only now are they beginning to face foes with the talent to really test their mettle.
GM: Jordan Adams has been dynamite this year, what can Mizzou do to slow him down?
AM: Yes, he has been dynamite. In all eight games the Bruins have played, he’s led the team in scoring and he’s doing it in a variety of different ways. He’s knocking down threes at a 40 percent clip. He gets to the line better than seven times a game, and then hits 88 percentof his shots from there. He’s a solid finisher around the hoop. And perhaps most impressively, he’s one of the best in the nation at jumping into passing lanes on defense and turning a steal at one end into an easy bucket at the other. So, yes, slowing him down rather than stopping him should be the goal. But really, the best way to do that, aside from being wary of throwing a pass his way on the offensive end, is to stick with him as he runs off screens. Adams is really at his best as a spot-up shooter (every single one of his threes comes off an assist, as do most of his other shots in the half-court). With Anderson certainly aware of where his running mate is at all times, losing track of Adams even for a second could be deadly.
GM: If you are Frank Haith, how do you attack this Bruins team?
AM: With neither team having terrific interior players, this is going to be a game decided largely by the play of long and athletic wings. Haith and his charges have to understand that, in all likelihood, UCLA is going to get its fair share of points in this game, so the Tigers can’t get discouraged if the Bruins rip off a run here and there. But the Tigers absolutely cannot sleep on the shooters on this squad. They’ve got to stick with players like Adams, LaVine and Bryce Alford, and, if picking their poison, make those guys go to the bounce rather than the spot-up shot. And while Anderson’s size may present a mismatch in his favor on the offensive end, it is a weakness than can be exploited on defense. If Mizzou can get out in transition, their guards – including quick freshman point guard Wes Clark – could take advantage of some cross match-ups.
GM: I know it’s early, but has Alford had any discernible effect at UCLA? How did the fan base generally react to the hire?
AM: The loudest portion of the UCLA fan base – that portion that still expects to reel off championships on the regular – was in no way happy about the Alford hire. But then again, that portion of the fan base wasn’t going to be happy with anyone. But for those Bruin fans paying attention (and those numbers may not be many; attendance at Pauley remains rather meager), there is plenty of reason for optimism. The most obvious effect that Alford has had is a openness offensively. The tempo is up, the excitement level is up, players are free to make the occasional mistake without fear of getting benched, and things are just more fun around this team. But those UCLA fans can still be hard to win over long term.