The outlook for UCLA men’s basketball’s season has changed dramatically in the past couple of weeks – with the indefinite suspension of three players set to be key members of the rotation calling into question how the Bruins will look against top-notch competition.
UCLA’s season opener against Georgia Tech provided a glimpse, with the Bruins pulling out a 63-60 win; however, two of the Yellow Jackets’ best players were missing from the game.
And though UCLA required overtime to beat Central Arkansas in its home opener, the Bruins know that was not the type of opponent that would really test them. Nor was South Carolina State on Friday.
That makes this week’s Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Missouri, particularly intriguing, with UCLA set to take on Creighton on Monday and either Baylor or Wisconsin on Tuesday.
“We are cranking up the competition as we move to Kansas City,” said coach Steve Alford after Friday’s win over South Carolina State. “We know we are getting an outstanding opponent in Creighton, and then whoever we face Tuesday we know will be an outstanding opponent.”
On paper, UCLA and Creighton are very evenly matched, with KenPom.com’s advanced analytics giving each team a 50 percent chance of winning. In the site’s holistic rankings, the Bruins are No. 36 in the country and the Blue Jays are No. 39.
“It makes for a great matchup,” Alford said. “(Creighton coach Greg) McDermott does a tremendous job. … His kids play very hard; they are really talented.”
The teams last met back in 1963, when the Bruins won 95-79. Over 50 years later, it would be unsurprising to see another similarly high-scoring affair.
Both teams began the season with three straight victories, thanks to offenses that rank in the top-20 in scoring efficiency, per KenPom.
The Blue Jays are averaging a whopping 97.7 points per game thus far, including 92 last Wednesday against a strong No. 20 Northwestern team, and shooting 55.4 percent from the field.
Slowing down Creighton’s high-powered offense will require UCLA to build upon its strong play from the second half of the Friday win over South Carolina State, in which the Bruins outscored the Bulldogs 55-33 after intermission.
“We saw some growth in the last 20 minutes, which is really good because we need to see growth from these guys going forward,” Alford said after the game. “I thought in the first half we were really sluggish defensively and our offense was OK. … In the second half, we really defended well, and our efficiency showed that.”
After allowing an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent over its first three quarters back in the United States – including a mark of 59.5 percent by Central Arkansas – UCLA tightened up its defense in the second half against South Carolina State, holding the Bulldogs to a 44.3 percent effective field goal percentage.
“I think that’s how we want to play,” said redshirt sophomore forward Alex Olesinski of the second half. “We don’t really want to give up as many drives as we did, but that’s what we want to do – we want to make plays defensively and help to lead to more offense.”
The Blue Jays are led by guard Marcus Foster, who averaged 18.2 points per game last season en route to a unanimous selection to the All-Big East first team, and guard Khyri Thomas, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Foster has upped his scoring average to 19.3 points a game this season while shooting 60.6 percent from the floor, while Thomas showed off his ability to dominate a game with 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists Wednesday against Northwestern.
UCLA should have an advantage in terms of pure length and athleticism against a Creighton team that doesn’t have any player over 6-foot-9 garnering over 30 percent of its minutes this season and regularly plays three 6-foot-3 players on the wing.
“We are who we are; we have our warts,” McDermott said. “We lack a little length and athleticism at a few spots.”
Meanwhile, length and athleticism are some of the strong suits for a UCLA squad whose starting lineup not only boasts 7-foot senior center Thomas Welsh, but also 6-foot-8 freshman guard Kris Wilkes and his 6-foot-11 wingspan at the 3-spot.
“We are long and athletic, so I do think we’re going to have some rim protection and be able to block shots,” Alford said Friday. “That’s just about our length up front; we also have length in the backcourt. (Freshman guard) Jaylen (Hands) is extremely athletic. We have some guys that can block shots and rim protect.”