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Pregame Party: Georgetown v. UCLA

A closer look at the Hoyas-Bruins showdown

UCLA basketball!
UCLA basketball!
Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Your mighty Georgetown Hoyas travel to Brooklyn this week to square off with some high-level competition. First up is tonight's opponent, the top-15 ranked UCLA Bruins, the once-great power that, after a dip over the past few years, may be roaring back thanks to a strong recruiting class. The teams come into tonight's game in similar positions, having won their first few contests without their presumed star. As a result, the clash between the Bruins and Hoyas should be a proving ground for both squads, not to mention a prelude to a possible showdown with #1 Indiana on Tuesday night. So what can you expect to see tonight? Let's get to it.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. The Hoyas and Bruins have met just twice, both Georgetown losses, which is less surprising considering they occurred in the joyless interregnum known as the Esherick Era. The latter of these defeats came in UCLA's first year under Ben Howland, one-time Pitt Panther head man. Now in his tenth season in Westwood, Howland has brought soaring highs--three straight Final Fours--and crushing lows, missing the tournament entirely two of the last three years, being the subject of a Sports Illustrated exposé, and generally being associated with Reeves Nelson. But things are looking up this year, as the Bruins have their sights set on a Pac-12 title.

Bruins to Know. There's been a lot of turnover on the Bruin roster in the past year, but a top-three recruiting class has kept plenty of talent in UCLA uniforms. The headliner tonight and presumably for much of the season will be freshman shooting guard Shabazz Muhammad, whom the NCAA, in its very finite wisdom, deemed on Friday to be eligible. Muhammad will be a scoring threat from the opening tip, as he can light it up by attacking the basket, in the mid-range, and occasionally from distance. Who will join Muhammad in the back court is less certain: UNC transfer and senior point guard Larry Drew II (6.0 ppg, 8.3 apg) has run the offense well through three games but reportedly sprained his ankle in practice on Saturday and will be a game-time decision against the Hoyas. Junior off guard Tyler Lamb (4 ppg, 3 rpg) is an ace defender but has missed the last two games with a swollen knee. Sophomore guard Norman Powell (12.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg) has stepped up in Lamb's absence but will lose playing time with Muhammad on the court.

If Drew is sidelined, don't be surprised to see onetime recruiting circus and Hoya target Kyle Anderson (7.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.3 apg) shift to the back court. Anderson has started the first three games on the front line but has the ball-handling and passing skills to serve as the point in a pinch. Flanking Anderson will be still another freshman, wing Jordan Adams (24 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 40 3FG%), a long-range threat and the team's leading scorer through three games. Veteran UNC exiles also populate the front court in the twin forms of juniors David Wear (12.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Travis Wear (11.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 blk pg). Two rotund big men with NBA-caliber names, junior center Joshua Smith (7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and freshman Tony Parker (6.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg), round out the rotation (AMIRITE?). (Of far lesser on-court impact is first-year walk-on Adria Gasol, Pau and Marc's younger brother).

When UCLA Has the Ball.

  • Bruins' strength: passing. Through three games against sub-100 competition, UCLA has posted one of the top 20 offenses in the country, averaging nearly 89 points. One highlight from the balanced Bruin attack has been their passing, as they've assisted on nearly 64 percent of made baskets, a top-40 mark nationally. While trying to draw inferences from a few-game sample likely would drive the Wizards at Hoya Prospectus up the wall, there's reason to think this trend might continue, as UCLA has both a relatively competent point guard (Drew) and an able front-court passer (Anderson).
  • Hoyas' strength: defensive rebounding. UCLA generally has been sterling offensively but merely good at offensive rebounding, grabbing just under 38 percent of their own misses against lesser and often undersized competition. Georgetown has controlled the boards against similar mighty mites, grabbing nearly 79 percent of defensive rebounds, a top-ten mark nationally. Keeping the much bigger Bruin bodies off the offensive glass will be imperative tonight.
  • What to watch: foul trouble? UCLA has made it to the line about as often as Georgetown, averaging north of 30 attempts per game (while playing at a somewhat faster pace than the Hoyas). Adams has led the parade to the charity stripe, averaging nearly 10 attempts per game. The newly eligible Muhammad also figures to attack the rim and, in so doing, draw the occasional whistle. Georgetown has been fairly foul-averse through two games, but Duquesne and Liberty both relied on outside jumpers that don't tend to draw fouls. A couple of early calls against Mikael Hopkins or Nate Lubick could jumble the Hoya rotation.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: getting to the line. Let's be clear: the Hoya offense has been pretty mediocre thus far, rating as just the 88th most efficient in the country. Of course, there are some good reasons for the struggle: primarily, the absence of Otto Porter, the Hoyas' best and most efficient offensive force, and secondarily, JTIII's experimentation with young and unproven rotations. One bright spot has been that the Hoyas have made it to the line for 48 free throws in their first two games; getting (hopefully) easy points can help smooth over the otherwise rough offensive stretches.
  • Bruins' strength: protecting the paint. Howland's best squads, first at Pitt then at UCLA, have set themselves apart on defense: the three Final Four squads all finished in the top 3 nationally in defensive efficiency. This year's Bruins, in addition to the perimeter stopper Lamb, have plenty of size inside: the Wears and Smith are all 6'10", with Parker (and Anderson, though he's not much of a post) just an inch shorter. As a whole, UCLA's length makes it the sixth-tallest team in the country (per Ken Pomeroy's measurement of effective height). While that's no guarantee of good defense, it certainly helps, especially inside. Through three games, Bruin opponents are shooting under 41 percent from two.
  • What to watch: post play. For a Georgetown team that enjoyed a consistent size advantage over Duquesne, tonight will be an adjustment. Will Mikael Hopkins, who appears to have made great strides in his second year but still lacks the bulk of most centers, be able to create space down low against much bigger defenders? What about Nate Lubick, who seems to have wiped away memories of his lackluster sophomore year with a pair of strong outings to start this season?
  • What else to watch: three-point shooting. The Hoyas have struggled mightily from behind the arc in their first two games, connecting on barely a quarter of their three-point attempts. Most disappointing have been Greg Whittington (who, in fairness, has been very good in other respects) and Markel Starks (ahem), who each shot in the mid-30s from three last year but have made just 2 of their combined 13 attempts so far. UCLA has been stingy defensively but a bit more generous from behind the arc, where Bruin opponents have made about a third of their tries. That number isn't particularly weak, but Georgetown may find some open looks behind the stripe. The bigger question is whether they'll convert those opportunities.

Prediction. Tonight might not be the prettiest game. Both teams are still adjusting to new faces, as well as old faces in vastly expanded roles. Both likely will be incorporating (or in the Hoyas' case, reincorporating) their presumed star. And both will be facing a far better opponent than the lighter fare they've consumed so far. In seasons gone by I've felt bullish coming into these higher-profile preseason contests, and perhaps I will again by the time the Hoyas face Tennessee and Texas in a couple of weeks. But these Hoyas still seem to be finding themselves, and still seem prone to defensive lapses and sluggish half-court offensive sets. I suspect they'll keep it close Monday but remain a tad pessimistic. UCLA 64, Georgetown 61.