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Scouting report: UCLA men’s basketball vs. Saint Mary’s

By Jon Christon

March 19, 2022 10:42 a.m.

No. 4 seed UCLA men’s basketball (26-7, 15-5 Pac-12) will take on No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s (26-7, 12-3 WCC) on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins enter the contest as 2.5-point favorites and have a 66.9% chance of winning the game, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. Here is this matchup’s scouting report from Sports editor Jon Christon – who was devastated to learn none of his assistants knew what Powell’s Books and Voodoo Doughnut were.

Coach: Randy Bennett
Starting lineup: G Tommy Kuhse, G Logan Johnson, G/F Alex Ducas, F Kyle Bowen, F/C Matthias Tass
Best player: G Tommy Kuhse
X-factor: F/C Matthias Tass

In his 21st year with the Gaels, coach Randy Bennett knows the personnel that best fits his system.

And this year, every player fits it to a tee.

Starting with the backcourt, the Gaels feature a pair of versatile guards that are tasked with both handling the ball on the perimeter and moving without the rock. Guard Tommy Kuhse initiates most of the shot creation, pacing the team with 120 assists, while guard Logan Johnson fits the slasher archetype.

In recent weeks, however, Kuhse has been asked to do more than just facilitate the offense. The West Coast Conference Sixth Man of the Year, Kuhse has averaged 18.9 points per game in the Gaels’ last seven contests, playing the entire 40 minutes in five of those matchups.

Bennett clearly trusts his point guard, and for good reason. Kuhse knocks down 47.1% of his shots from beyond the arc on a little over three attempts per game and doesn’t turn the ball over at a high clip.

What makes Kuhse even more dangerous is his chemistry with the other focal point of Bennett’s offense, forward/center Matthias Tass.

An All-WCC First Team selection – and frequent screener for Kuhse – Tass paces the Gaels with 12.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Just as Kuhse gets the offense going from the perimeter, Tass initiates much of the team’s offense inside the 3-point line. Although he can’t stretch the floor much, Tass is a surprisingly adept passer for his size, dishing out more than two assists per game.

Flanking Tass are guard/forward Alex Ducas and forward Kyle Bowen, who are often the beneficiaries of open looks created by either Kuhse or Tass. Bothare able to get their shots off with ease given their 6-foot-7-or-above frames, and Ducas leads the team with 64 triples on the season, while Bowen connects on 39.2% of his looks from beyond the arc.

Bennett has everything he needs in his starting five: a do-everything point guard, a two-way slasher who can go for 20 on any given night, a versatile playmaking interior presence and a pair of tall shooters on the wings.

The 21st-year coach has not been afraid to play his starters big minutes, with members of the five-man unit routinely cracking 35 minutes per game during the stretch run of the season.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, this doesn’t mean they will face a worn-down Gael squad Saturday. Saint Mary’s blew past No. 12 seed Indiana on Thursday while limiting its starters’ minutes in the process.

While this team won’t be UCLA’s most talented opponent of the season, it’s hard to argue that it has faced many teams that were more structurally connected.

Offensive/defensive stat profile:
KenPom ranking: 15
Adjusted defensive rating: 110.4 (49th)
Adjusted offensive rating: 89.5 (9th)
Adjusted tempo: 63.8 (338th)

Saint Mary’s utilizes its personnel to instrument a good offense and an even better defense.

Most – if not all – of that revolves around Tass.

On defense, the Gaels play a drop pick-and-roll defensive scheme, with Tass dropping back and protecting the rim when his man sets a screen for the ball-handler. While his shot-blocking numbers don’t stand out, his 6-foot-10 frame gives the opposition pause before driving into the paint.

Saint Mary’s uses the strategy regardless of who is the big defender, with Bowen and Ducas also dropping back when the people they are guarding set ball screens.

Such drop defenses are most effective on teams with capable guard defenders who can pressure the ball-handler from behind on pick-and-rolls, forcing the opponent into the middle of the defense. The Gaels have this aplenty in Kuhse, Johnson and guard Augustas Marciulionis off the bench.

Once there, the Gaels are able to collapse in, limiting shots at the rim and forcing turnovers. Saint Mary’s averages more than seven steals per game – second in the WCC – led by Johnson’s two takeaways a night.

The Gaels utilized such a strategy to become one of the best defenses in the country this season. The team’s 60.3 points allowed per game mark ranks top 10 in the nation, with its 89.5 adjusted defensive rating placing ninth.

With the paint congested, it makes it all the more important that its opponents shoot the ball from the perimeter, though Saint Mary’s is good at taking that away too. In games where their opposition shot 40% or better from deep, the Gaels are 6-5. When the other team shoots under that mark, they are 20-2.

On offense, Tass is again the focal point. The big does three main things on that side of the ball: sets high ball screens, directs traffic from one of the elbows or gets the ball on a straight post touch and goes to work.

When not setting a screen as part of Bennett’s pick-and-roll-dominated offense, Tass frequently catches the ball at the elbow and tells the rest of the Gael offense to move. The senior has the option to pass to a cutting guard, dish to an open shooter on the perimeter or take his man one-on-one with his face-up game.

The Gaels ranked top five in the country in creating scoring chances from post passes as of late January, according to Synergy. I’d venture to guess that they are still at the top of that list here in March.

The offense involves lots of moving and lots of screening. Saint Mary’s is not a team that likes to run, and it will try to grind the game away from UCLA on a possession-to-possession basis.

This spells potential bad news for the Bruins.

UCLA was nearly upset in round one by No. 13 seed Akron, a team that similarly grinds games to a halt and forces its opposition to play disciplined on both ends of the floor.

Some late shooting helped the blue and gold survive the upset bid, but it won’t have the same margin for error Saturday night. If they start the game 3-of-12 from deep with six first-half turnovers as they did against the Zips, the Bruins will be in for a long night against the Gaels.

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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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