The Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series begins tonight with Oregon traveling to take on talented freshman Michael Beasley and Kansas State. While that game is appealing to many if for nothing else than a chance to see Beasley play against solid competition, the series really kicks into high gear on Sunday, December 2, when there are three marquee games, beginning with Kansas facing Southern Cal and then Texas A&M facing Arizona.
But it’s the third game that provides the most intrigue when #8 Texas travels to Los Angeles to face the top-ranked Bruins of UCLA. This is the one game in the series that will match two teams with legitimate NCAA title hopes come March, and as such, gives fans the possibility of seeing one of the most anticipated games of the early season.
Texas enters the game as a bit of an unknown. The Longhorns lost star Kevin Durant to the NBA, but returned several key players from last season, namely point guard D.J Augustin. However, none of the Longhorns are big names.
It was probably a blessing for coach Rick Barnes as his team had been able to play under the radar through a few games, but that lack of notoriety changed when the Longhorns destroyed Tennessee last week. Barnes has been saying since early fall practices that he believes that the 2007-2008 version of the Longhorns would be better than last year’s version despite the loss of Durant. The early returns have proved him correct, at least so far.
The Bruins come into the contest with a 7-0 record, including convincing wins over Maryland and George Washington and a hard-fought victory over a good Michigan State squad. What’s most impressive about the undefeated start, though, is that because of injuries UCLA has done it with essentially six players.
The walking-wounded included preseason All-America point guard Darren Collison and probable starting shooting guard Michael Roll. UCLA was also without forward James Keefe, who was supposed to get big minutes off the bench for the Bruins. Collison returned against GW and will be ready to go against Texas.
PROBABLE STARTING LINE-UPS:
PG D.J. Augustin
SG A.J. Abrams
SF Justin Mason
PF Damion James
C Connor Atchley
PG Darren Collison
SG Russell Westbrook
SF Josh Shipp
PF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
C Kevin Love
Both teams’ starters play a lot of minutes; now that Collison has returned, both teams will have a solid 7-man rotation. The threat of fatigue shouldn’t be an issue except for maybe Collison as he’s been out of games for the better part of a month. However, the Bruin point guard has been practicing for a while now and looked quite good against GW, playing 26 minutes and scoring 14 points while displaying no ill effects from the sprained knee he suffered against Azusa Pacific at the beginning of November.
Texas is going to try and push the tempo, but it’s something the Bruins have seen before, against both Maryland and Michigan State, as well as to a lesser degree against GW. UCLA will run when it can but look to get into its solid half court sets now that they have Love in the post. And that’s where the game will be won or lost.
The backcourt duel will be one to watch as both sets of guards are quick, smart, and athletic. The difference may be that Westbrook and Collison are both bigger and stronger than either Longhorn starter. Even if the backcourt battle is essentially a wash, the frontcourt is where the real test will be. Up to this point Atchley and James have been solid role players, with Atchley stepping up in some games to be a serious low post scoring threat. Now he and the other Longhorn big men face one of the best frontcourts in the nation.
Think of this; Lorenzo Mata-Real, last year’s starter for the Bruins in the post, is coming off the bench because of Love. And Mata-Real is quite a bit better than last season. UCLA goes four deep in the low post while Texas really only plays two big guys. Quite frankly, any one of the four Bruin posts would start ahead of their Longhorn counterparts if they played in Austin rather than L.A.
The Bruins are better in the frontcourt…check. The Bruins are probably slightly better in the backcourt…check. While Barnes is a good coach, Ben Howland of UCLA may be the best coach in America right now…check. The game is a home game for the Bruins…check. Unless the Bruins don’t come to play, they should win, and win relatively easily. There appears to be a gap between the real contenders for the national title, (UCLA, UNC, and Kansas), and the rest of the nation. Texas, while a nice team, isn’t up to that level, at least not yet. The game will be entertaining (and closer if the Bruins continue their struggles at the free throw line), but it shouldn’t be as close as many think.
UCLA 82, Texas 72