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Scouting report: UCLA men’s basketball vs. UNC Asheville

By Jon Christon

March 16, 2023 2:59 p.m.

No. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball (29-5, 18-2 Pac-12) will start NCAA Tournament play with a matchup against No. 15 seed UNC Asheville (27-7, 16-2 Big South) on Thursday night in Sacramento. The Bruins enter the contest as 17.5-point favorites with a 96.4% chance to win, according to ESPN’s Men’s College Basketball Power Index. Here is this matchup’s scouting report from senior staff writer Jon Christon, who is already tired of every major sports media outlet talking about the possibility of “perfect brackets.”

Coach: Mike Morrell
Starting lineup: G Caleb Burgess, G Fletcher Abee, G Tajion Jones, F Nick McMullen, F Drew Pember
Best player: F Drew Pember
X-factor: G Tajion Jones

If you don’t already know the name Drew Pember, it might be time to learn it.

Pember took home the Big South Player of the Year award with video game-like numbers this season. The forward averaged 21.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game – all conference-leading figures – while shooting 46.3% from the field and 37.3% from 3-point range.

He’s upped his play in March, too. The Big South Tournament MVP averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game across three conference tournament games, including a performance in which he tallied 24 free throw attempts in Asheville’s first-round win over Charleston Southern.


Nobody in the country shot or made more free throws than the Bulldog star, with Pember forcing 11 foul-outs from opposing forwards through 34 games this season. He gets to the line over nine times a game.

The 6-foot-11 Pember – a former high-major player at Tennessee – is simply a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs, though he is far from the only Bulldog who can hurt you.

Guard Tajion Jones – the program’s all-time leading scorer – joined Pember on the All-Big South First Team with averages of 15 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and is a sniper from deep. Jones finished third in the entire country in 3-point percentage at 45.6% from distance on more than six attempts per night.

And without Jones, Asheville would be watching the Big Dance from home. Jones scored 16 points – including 13 straight for the Bulldogs – in the final six minutes and change of the Big South tournament championship game against Campbell, including a go-ahead 3 with 55 seconds left. He and Pember combined for 53 of Asheville’s 77 points in the bid-clinching win.


Guards Caleb Burgess and Fletcher Abee flank Jones in the backcourt. Burgess is the team’s initiator and distributor on offense, leading the Big South in assists at 4.3 a game, while Abee is purely a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter at 42.1% from deep.

Abee and Jones helped lead Asheville to the seventh-best shooting mark in the country from deep, with the Bulldogs connecting on 39% of their long-range shots.

Forward Nick McMullen is a lengthy defender alongside Pember on the front line. At 6-foot-8, he’ll likely draw the assignment on UCLA senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Stat Profile:
KenPom ranking: 146
Adjusted offensive rating: 104.1 (196th)
Adjusted defensive rating: 102.6 (115th)
Adjusted tempo: 68.5 (122nd)

Asheville is like the old saying: Good at a lot of things, great at nothing.

But while the Bulldogs are merely decent on offense, Pember’s versatility unlocks the potential of a competent tournament team.

The forward orchestrates essentially all of the Bulldog offense from the top of the arc or from the high post. He has the postgame to play with his back to the basket. He is athletic enough to face up and drive to the basket against a bigger defender. He’s a good enough shooter to knock in an open shot from deep. He’s a sneakily good passer – at 2.3 assists per game – and can find a teammate cutting from the wing.


But perhaps his most important skill in the context of Morrell’s offense is his expert screen setting.

Both with and without the ball, Pember is able to create space for his guards. Morrell runs a lot of dribble hand-off sets with Jones and Abee, forcing the defense to either overreact and send two at the shooter or drop back and key in on Pember. Pember and McMullen also often set pindown screens to get shooters open or to get Burgess space to move the ball downhill.

Jones and Burgess, to their credit, have some juice as ball handlers, but Thursday’s game will be decided by Pember at the top of the arc and at the high post.

Pember has struggled against bigger, more athletic teams. He scored a season-low five points on 1-of-7 shooting against Arkansas in December. A year ago, he put up only two points in 27 minutes against North Carolina.

If UCLA freshman forward Adem Bona is active against Asheville, his length and athleticism should knock Pember and the Bulldog offense out of its rhythm. It may be a different story if coach Mick Cronin is forced to go with redshirt senior forward/center Kenneth Nwuba and redshirt freshman forward Mac Etienne at center.

On defense, Pember is similarly the focal point.

Asheville plays a basic man-to-man set on that end of the floor, meaning Pember is at the center of most of the opponent’s pick-and-roll action. He blitzes the ball-handler quite a bit but also thrives defending the paint when a play breaks down.


However, Pember isn’t a true rim protector. His block total is inflated given his lesser competition, and he relies far too much on his 6-foot-11 frame to make up for his below-average physicality. All three of UCLA’s centers – Bona, Nwuba and Etienne – weigh at least 20 pounds more than Pember and should be able to bully him down low.

Asheville does not force many turnovers, so UCLA should have plenty of possessions to pick apart Pember and this Asheville defense.

Watch for redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell to draw two defenders often on the pick-and-roll. If he’s playing up to his usual March standards, Campbell should be able to make the right play with ease and lead the Bruins to the Round of 32.

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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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