Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:57AM

Texas Longhorns (5-3) vs. UCLA Bruins (5-3)
Reliant Stadium | Houston, TX | Tip: Approx. 4:15 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #229

Three months ago, the match-up between Texas and UCLA appeared to be one of those early-season non-conference battles that give fans an early taste of March Madness. The Bruins boasted the nation’s top recruiting class and were ranked 13th in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll. The Longhorns were a fringe Top 25 team hoping to succeed with a well-seasoned sophomore core.

Josh Smith is the latest in a long line of departing Bruins
(Photo credit: Jason Redmond/Associated Press)

Since then, Myck Kabongo has been the subject of an interminable NCAA investigation into his eligibility and hasn’t played in a single game. Jaylen Bond suffered separate injuries to both feet, and saw just a few minutes of action in a loss to Division II Chaminade. At UCLA, another NCAA investigation delayed the start of Shabazz Muhammad‘s season by three games, while troubled big man Josh Smith and guard Tyler Lamb have both left the program.

The two teams have identical 5-3 records heading into this afternoon’s contest, taking all of the luster off of what was once an exciting non-conference game. Although the Bruin losses to Georgetown and San Diego State are certainly understandable, going to overtime against UC-Irvine is worthy of some head-scratching. Even worse, UCLA dropped a home game to Cal Poly when Norman Powell lost track of the score and intentionally fouled in a tie game with 14 seconds left.

The Longhorns, meanwhile, suffered the most embarrassing defeat of the young season when they lost to Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. A day later, they fell victim to their own late-game miscues in an overtime loss to USC. Things seemed to be clicking along rather nicely after that, as the Longhorns rebounded to put together a nice three-game win streak with dominating defense. The wheels came off in New York on Tuesday night, however, as Texas turned the ball over on 32% of its possessions in a 23-point loss to Georgetown.

So while today’s game might not be as appealing on paper, it’s now become even more important. For two teams who had high pre-season expectations, their NCAA tournament résumés are now alarmingly empty. Neither team is going to attract national attention by winning this afternoon’s game, but the victors could be earning a Top 100 win that will be beneficial at season’s end. Even more importantly, the loser will fall to just a game above .500, with conference play looming just weeks away.

By the numbers

Long known as a defensive coach who slows down the game, Ben Howland has adjusted to his young, talented roster by opening things up a bit this season. The Bruins are free to push the tempo in transition, and their offense looks much better as a result. UCLA’s tempo is up to 69 possessions per game, a far cry from the sub-65 possessions that the 2006 and 2007 Final Four squads averaged. Although they aren’t racking up fast break points, the secondary break is giving the Bruins lots of good looks for their strong shooters.

UCLA plays sound defense without fouling opponents
(Photo credit: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Defensively, UCLA isn’t as dominant as they were during the late 2000’s, but they are still very strong on that end of the court. The Bruins are allowing only 0.928 points per possession, thanks to their strong presence on the defensive glass and their ability to play defense without fouling. With a very tall backcourt, UCLA is limiting opponents to a 28.6% success rate on their offensive rebounding opportunities. The Bruins also have a defensive free-throw rate of 25.7%, the 26th-best mark in the country. In simpler terms, that means that UCLA only gives opponents roughly one free throw for every four field goal attempts.

Fortunately for Texas, the Bruins don’t rely on forcing turnovers to shut down their opponents. Of course, that hasn’t meant much for a Longhorn team that is sixth-worst in all of DI hoops when it comes to losing the basketball. The Bruins have a lot of size and their perimeter defense has the luxury of length, so they could rack up the turnovers without really even trying.

Meet the Bruins

The man that runs the offense is point guard Larry Drew II (No. 10), a former UNC Tar Heel who seems to have turned things around in Westwood. In Chapel Hill, Drew was often criticized for under-performing, and he announced his intent to transfer shortly after losing his starting job. Although that looked like the move of a man unwilling to work hard and improve, it’s clear he’s made some major strides since heading west.

Drew has cut way down on his turnovers, posting a nice 6.2 assist-to-turnover ratio so far this season. He’s also improved his midrange shot, although he still much prefers to facilitate. Most importantly, Drew has provided leadership to a team full of young stars.

Although Drew has played nearly 35 minutes per game, the Bruins have some flexibility at the point thanks to freshman phenom Kyle Anderson (No. 5). At 6’9″, he is truly a point-forward who looks completely comfortable handling the ball and running the offense. It looks so effortless when Anderson handles the basketball that it’s very easy to forget that he has six inches over most of his defenders.

Anderson isn’t much of a jump shooter and is averaging only 6.6 points per game, but the matchup problems he creates and the rebounding he brings from the wing are huge contributions. His 8.1 boards are tops on the team, and he’s ranked in the top 300 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates.

The other big name in the freshman class is Shabazz Muhammad (No. 15). Like Anderson, he was a consensus Top 5 recruit in the 2012 class and brings an explosive scoring threat to the Pac-12. He’s a left-handed slasher with a good mid-range game and accuracy that goes beyond the arc. At 6’6″, Muhammad is also a good rebounder from the wings, and he’s second on the team with 5.6 rebounds per game.

Jordan Adams is scorching the nets as a freshman
(Photo credit: Gus Ruelas/Associated Press)

The team’s top scorer is Jordan Adams (No. 3), who was the least-heralded member of the top-ranked freshman class. Adams actually started the season on the bench, but played so well that Coach Howland had no choice but to move him into the starting role. The freshman has great body control, so he’s able to work through traffic and get off shots that sometimes seem to defy explanation. Adams is also very strong for his size, so he can muscle up near the paint to finish through contact. He’s also the team’s most consistent outside threat, hitting 37% as he chucks up nearly six three-point attempts per game.

The final piece of the starting rotation is 6’10” junior Travis Wear (No. 24), who also came to UCLA after transferring from North Carolina. Like his twin brother, David, Travis is a great stretch forward who is often used for perimeter screens and is deadly on the pick and pop. Coach Howland has said that both twins bulked up a bit in the offseason and should be better suited to bang down low on offense.

With the freshmen immediately earning playing time, David Wear (No. 12) shifted to a sixth-man role, where he’s earning about 22 minutes per game. The Wear twins both provide a good defensive presence in the lane, although David is not nearly the shot blocker that Travis is. Where David bests his brother, however, is on the offensive glass. So far this season, David has an offensive rebounding rate of 10%, while Travis has grabbed just under 6% of his opportunities.

The other former starter who has been squeezed into a reserve role is guard Norman Powell (No. 4). The sophomore is an excellent perimeter defender and dangerous three-point shooter who still averages nearly 28 minutes per game despite the demotion. Powell also has great closeout speed and seems to come out of nowhere to deflect shots when he’s providing help defense or recovering from behind the play.

The final member of the rotation is also the final member of the highly-touted recruiting class, freshman Tony Parker (No. 23). Although Parker only averages about seven minutes per game, there’s hope that he can fill the role that Josh Smith never quite could. At 6’9″ and 275 pounds, Parker provides a lot of heft in the paint and uses his soft hands to get off a jump hook that earned praise in high school.

Keys to the game

1) Limit the turnovers – Unless things dramatically improve, this key will likely be a mainstay in this portion of the game previews for the rest of the season. Texas is posting turnover numbers that are unheard of in the Rick Barnes era, and the inability to hang on to the ball is rendering the offense completely ineffective.

When the Horns are posting defensive numbers that should keep them in just about every game, it takes a special kind of ugly on the offensive end to still get blown out. The Longhorns managed to find a way to to do that on Tuesday night, and if they can’t eliminate those kinds of mistakes this afternoon, the Horns could be in for another embarrassing performance.

2) Battle on the glass – The Bruins have great rebounders on the wings in Anderson and Muhammad, while the 6’10” Wear twins provide the size inside. That kind of length has propelled the Bruins to a defensive rebounding rate that’s just outside the Top 70 and an offensive rebounding rate that is 102nd in the nation.

Texas has struggled to get rebounds in all three of their losses, and even had trouble getting boards in victories over the smaller Sam Houston State and UT-Arlington squads. Facing a UCLA team that has height advantages all over the court will certainly provide a big challenge for these young Longhorns. Some of the team’s turnover problems can be mitigated by earning second chances, but turning the ball over and failing to get offensive rebounds would be a recipe for the kind of offensive futility Texas fans saw on Tuesday night.

3) Get back on defense – Much of UCLA’s offensive success this season has come on the secondary break, as the Bruins look to push the tempo and attack a disorganized defense. They have been great at finding the open man as the D tries to get set, moving the ball crisply to keep opponents scrambling.

To slow down the UCLA attack, the Longhorns must get back down the floor and force the Bruins to work their halfcourt sets. UCLA has looked weakest against zone defenses, while Texas actually has a pretty solid 2-3 this season. Stopping transition and getting set in that zone will certainly make things tougher on the Bruins.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:50AM

Texas Longhorns 69, UCLA Bruins 59

It looked like more of the same early Saturday afternoon for the Longhorns. UCLA beat them handily on the offensive glass, while Texas coughed it up at inopportune times. The Bruins even managed to get hot from long range, where they had been struggling all year long. Then, the lights went out.

Rick Barnes practiced his Howard Dean yell
(Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

A power outage extended the under-four media timeout to roughly a fifteen minute intermission, a break that Rick Barnes and the Longhorns used to make adjustments and charge back from an 11-point deficit. Texas went on a 9-4 run to close out the half and then opened the second stanza with a 17-7 spurt to build a lead they would never relinquish.

The tale of two games renders moot our usual post-game structure of “What looked good” and “What needed work,” because everything that needed work in the first half was adjusted in the second. Fans can only hope that this game is a microcosm of the season as a whole, with the young team learning and adapting for a stretch run in conference play.

The most glaring issue for Texas in the opening twenty minutes was a tendency to give away possessions. Whether it was turnovers or an inability to secure defensive rebounds, the Longhorns constantly gave UCLA extra opportunities with the ball. Texas allowed eight second chance points on eight offensive rebounds, including one possession where the Bruins grabbed their miss three times and only gave the ball back when a shot bounced over the backboard.

The Longhorns also coughed it up seven times in the first twenty minutes, which fortunately only led to six UCLA points. But in a game that finished with only 56 possessions, that many self-inflicted wounds were huge. Many of the turnovers could have been easily avoided, as Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman were each stripped while holding the ball near the free throw line, and a handful of Texas passes were thrown off the mark.

Both of these issues were practically erased in the second half. While the Longhorns still gave up another nine offensive boards, they only allowed one second-chance point. UCLA players who grabbed the missed shots typically found themselves amidst a cadre of Longhorn defenders standing tall and altering shots. In the first half, UCLA made 46% of their shots from inside the arc, with most of them coming in the paint. In the second, Texas limited the Bruins to just 24% on their two-point shots.

The Horns also limited their miscues in the second half, turning it over just four times. In fact, two of those came in the game’s final minutes, with the result already well in hand. As Texas came from behind and took charge in the second half, the team went nearly 16 minutes with only one turnover.

While we’ve spent much of the season’s first month talking about the problems facing Texas on the glass, that storyline has evolved. The Longhorns are still one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, and gave up more than 44% of their chances against UCLA. But at times this season, Texas has done excellent work on the offensive glass, as was the case again yesterday. The Longhorns posted their best offensive rebounding percentage of the year, reclaiming 49% of their missed shots. Against a formidable frontline like UCLA’s, that was a huge accomplishment.

Texas also impressed with their ability to find easy looks in the second half. The Longhorns scored 22 points in the paint, with a majority of the buckets coming on the fast break or excellent passes to the interior. Dribble penetration and great passing also opened up good looks from the perimeter, where the Horns knocked down 5-of-11 to fuel the scoring run. All told, the ball movement led to 13 Texas dimes, for an assist percentage of nearly 45%.

Myck Kabongo dropped eight dimes on the Bruins
(Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Individually, Myck Kabongo really stood out. He logged eight of the 13 Texas assists, and added 13 points on 55% shooting. His success from the field came as a result of being patient, a point best illustrated on the one three-pointer he knocked down. Kabongo received a ball screen, but the defense reacted. He simply waited for the screen to be set a second time, then took advantage of the brief space and drilled the triple.

From a statistical standpoint, it’s interesting to note that Kabongo’s best game to-date came on a day where he didn’t attempt a single free throw. Coming into the UCLA game, the freshman guard had the highest individual free-throw rate in the country. Kabongo’s sky-high FTR of 128.6 meant that he had taken even more free throws than field goals.

After a couple of quiet games where J’Covan Brown was deferring to teammates, there was no question who was the go-to guy when the team kicked it up a notch. Brown was absolutely nails from long range, making 4-of-8 en route to a 22-point performance. Three of those triples came in a 3:29 stretch that sandwiched the half, a time span that saw Texas outscore the Bruins 13-4 and tie the game.

Clint Chapman also had a solid performance in front of friends and family who had made the trip from Oregon. Although his mid-range jumper was cold and he refused to follow his shot, he came up with a ton of clutch rebounds in the second half to keep UCLA at bay. He also had two big blocks, including one on Reeves Nelson just before the half that helped to maintain the Texas momentum heading into the locker room. While Clint still needs softer hands at times, he answered the bell when it mattered against a good group of UCLA forwards.

With UCLA sputtering to a 2-5 start to the season — and with one of those wins coming against Division II Chaminade — the Bruins are dangerously close to spiraling out of control. Nelson sat for the entire second half of the game, which coach Ben Howland said was due to a missed defensive assignment at the end of the first half. While that might be the case, Nelson’s recent history suggests that he may have said or done something in the locker room to warrant the punishment.

If Nelson’s attitude issues bring this team down, Texas will be deprived of a quality win when it comes time to build the brackets in March. The Longhorns will certainly get credit for winning on the road, but Texas fans have to hope that UCLA can get things figured out and put together a respectable conference record.

Texas meanwhile, has a trio of winnable home games next on the docket. If they can take care of business in those games, the Longhorns will be sitting at 8-2 as they head into a tough pair of tests against Temple and North Carolina.

Up next: UT-Arlington (4-2); Tuesday, 7 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:08AM

Texas Longhorns (4-2) at UCLA Bruins (2-4)
L.A. Sports Arena | Los Angeles, CA | Tip: 3:30 P.M. CT | TV: FSN
LRT Consecutive Game #193

The Texas Longhorns have made things interesting for their fans so far this season. In New Jersey, the team gave up an eight-point lead before finally losing in overtime to Oregon State. Two nights later, an 18-point second-half lead disappeared in a loss to N.C. State. Less than a week after that, Sam Houston State made things dicey in a tight, low-scoring Texas win at the Erwin Center. If history is any indication, this afternoon should be just as nerve-wracking for Longhorn fans.

Texas and UCLA have a limited history, playing just four times prior to this afternoon’s matchup. The Bruins won the first two, with their most recent victory coming all the way back in 1971. But thanks to a short-lived series of games between the Pac-10 and Big 12, the rivalry was renewed earlier this decade. Texas won both contests against UCLA, but managed to do so by a combined margin of just six points. Number-cruncher Ken Pomeroy thinks that today will be much of the same, as he predicts a narrow, two-point win for Texas.

Ben Howland is having a rough start in 2011
(Photo credit: Eugene Tanner/Associated Press)

By the numbers

During UCLA’s three-year streak of Final Four appearances, Coach Ben Howland had an absolutely suffocating defense, finishing in the top three nationally in adjusted efficiency each of those seasons. This year, the team’s performance on D has been decidedly un-Bruinlike.

While UCLA showed some improvements against Pepperdine on Monday night, they have been almost incapable of stopping dribble penetration. The team’s poor rotation and bigs who refused to challenge at the rim made things even worse. On the occasions that the scrambling defense has actually been able to head off the ballhandler, wide open shooters are waiting behind the arc.

All told, these defensive weaknesses add up to the sixth-worst effective field-goal percentage and worst three-point defense in all of D-I hoops. UCLA opponents have knocked down 56.9% of their long-range attempts this year while posting an eFG of 59.4%.

While they’ve always been a team that will lock you down on D and then win the rebounding battle, this year’s questionable defense makes it seem like some extra offense will need to be added to the equation. Unfortunately, the Bruins are struggling in that area, as well. UCLA’s own eFG of 43.8% is in the bottom 60 of Division I, while their offensive rebounding mark of just 30% is incredibly low for a team with such a deep frontcourt.

A big part of the problem has been UCLA’s tendency to settle for three-point shots instead of working the ball inside. Often, this happens when big man Josh Smith is in the game, as he usually camps out on one block and makes little effort to work across the lane. As a result, opposing defenses can pack in to prevent the entry pass, and UCLA’s guards settle for long jumpers and threes. On the year, the Bruins have made just 27.5% of their three-point shots.

The one thing keeping UCLA in a lot of games is their ability to steal the ball and possessions from their opponents. Their steal percentage is sixth in the nation, while their defensive turnover percentage ranks just inside the top seventy. In their most recent game, the Bruins forced 15 Pepperdine turnovers, including six steals by Lazeric Jones.

These below-average numbers have led UCLA to a disappointing 2-4 start this season. After home losses to both Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State, the Bruins have been looking for a shot of confidence before conference play starts. They whiffed on a big opportunity in Maui, losing to both Kansas and Michigan. Outside of a home game against the Richmond Spiders in late December, this afternoon’s contest with Texas provides the only remaining chance for UCLA to get a signature win before tackling the Pac-12 schedule.

Lazeric Jones runs the point for the Bruins
(Photo credit: Eugene Tanner/Associated Press)

Meet the Bruins

Also known as Zeek, Lazeric Jones has been giving opposing guards trouble all season long, leading the Bruins with 16 steals. Unfortunately, the senior point guard is having less success on the other side of the ball. Although his 9.8 scoring average is third on the team, he’s posted nearly as many turnovers (16) as assists (21) so far this season and is struggling with his shot. Jones has made just 28% of his attempts from the field and less than 24% of his three-point tries. Fortunately, Zeek has been able to draw fouls when he puts the ball on the floor, taking a team-high 25 trips to the stripe, where he’s made 88% of them.

Joining Jones in the backcourt is sophomore Tyler Lamb, who is seeing an increased role following Malcolm Lee‘s early entry into the NBA Draft. He’s a crafty guard who can create his own looks with hesitation dribbles and drives to the paint, but defenses can sag off of him thanks to his abysmal mark behind the arc. After shooting just 20.5% from long range as a freshman, Lamb has made just 25% of his attempts so far this season.

Lamb is also having problems on defense. As mentioned previously, the Bruins have given up quite a bit of dribble penetration this season, and quite often it comes from the man Lamb is guarding. He consistently lets the ballhandler get him on their hip, and without the rotation from the rest of his team, that often leaves Lamb out to dry. The Longhorn guard that gets matched up with Lamb in the halfcourt needs to be aware of this and attack the sophomore early and often.

Coach Howland may have a very deep frontcourt, but he has also had some personnel issues early this season. That’s led him to frequently run a three-guard look, giving Jerime Anderson four starts in that third guard role. After serving a two-game suspension for stealing a laptop in the offseason, Anderson has emerged as the team’s go-to scorer. The senior guard leads the team with more than 11 points per game, and has even added six steals and a block on the defensive end. Supremely athletic and quick with the ball, Anderson is a guy the Longhorns must keep in check this afternoon.

In the frontcourt, twin brothers David and Travis Wear give the Bruins a pair of sweet-shooting forwards who can stretch out the defense and still provide quality work on the glass. They both cause matchup issues for opponents, as they have a good face-up game to go with those jump shots, and can easily put the ball on the floor to get near the lane for a short jumper or hook shot.

On a team that has lacked fire and energy this season, the Wear twins have been one of the few bright spots. Against Pepperdine, Travis played with stitches in his foot after suffering a snorkeling accident in Maui. Despite that, he almost logged a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds, and even came back into the game after getting his two front teeth knocked out by Pepperdine’s 7-foot center.

In the middle, big man Josh Smith is the team’s mercurial star. When he’s in the game, there is little that defenses can do to keep him off of the blocks or away from the offensive glass. But Smith has a motivation issue, and can often be seen giving partial effort or just walking down the floor when the team is trying to defend a fast break. Although the big man is averaging 5.5 rebounds and more than eight points per game, the UCLA offense has actually looked much more fluid and productive when he hasn’t been on the floor.

The other talented big man who is giving Coach Howland headaches is Reeves Nelson, the heavily-tattooed junior whose early-season issues would make Dennis Rodman raise his eyebrows. After getting into a verbal altercation with the head coach during a film session, Nelson was suspended for the team’s loss to Middle Tennessee State. Then, he missed the team’s flight to Maui and was benched for the first half of their opening game against Chaminade.

Since then, Nelson has made an immediate impact. He drained a trio of three-pointers in the Maui Invitational semifinal against Kansas, nearly matching the four he made all of last season. He crashed the glass against the Jayhawks and the Wolverines, grabbing nine rebounds in his 51 minutes of action. Most importantly, he attacked the rim inside and made excellent passes to open teammates, something the Bruins will need if their inside-out approach is going to work.

The Bruins do have a pair of frontcourt reserves in Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover, but the pair has combined to average less than 11 minutes per game, even with all of the discord during the first few weeks. Stover isn’t much of an offensive threat, but is a skilled shot blocker and tenacious rebounder who provides a spark off the bench. Lane is a versatile guy who can play power forward or center and averaged 15 minutes per game last season, but the arrival of the Wear twins has eaten into his playing time.

Freshman Norman Powell is the only other option off the bench for Coach Howland, and he’s managed to find PT in each of the team’s first six games. Although he isn’t a great shooter, he is still incredibly quick with the ball and can get inside for easier looks. Powell has made just 5-of-18 from long range so far this year, so Texas needs to give him space when he’s in the game and make him beat them from outside.

The Bruins also had a promising start this season from JUCO transfer De’End Parker, but he has not played since November 15th due to an injury to his right knee.

UCLA will be tough to beat on the glass
(Photo credit: Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

Keys to the game

1) Be competitive on the glass – Although the Bruins are a bigger team with a deep frontcourt, they have not been as dominant in the rebounding department as would be expected. For a Texas team that has struggled on the glass all season long, that is a very welcome development. The Longhorns must grab a fair share of their missed shots, but also must keep UCLA from extending their own possessions. This game is going to be an excellent litmus test for Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman before they face the likes of KU’s Thomas Robinson and Baylor’s All-World frontcourt.

2) Force UCLA to win with the jumper – The Bruins have struggled to knock down shots this season, especially from beyond the arc. Texas would be wise to play a packed-in zone against this poor-shooting team, making it more difficult for Smith to get established inside. Even with this approach, the Longhorns will need to keep a close tab on the Wear twins, as that pair can certainly knock down their jumpers.

3) Push the tempo – The Bruins have had a very tough time defending the transition game, often giving up easy fast-break points or scrambling and allowing the secondary break to find success. Texas has looked very good playing up-tempo earlier this year, so it stands to reason that the Longhorns can pile up some easy points against the Bruins by looking for the quick outlet.

4) Take care of the ball – Texas has been very careful with the basketball so far this season, coughing it up on just 17.6% of their possessions. But UCLA has done an excellent job forcing mistakes by their opposition, not just against the mid-majors, but also against the big boys. The Bruins caused 18 Jayhawk turnovers during their matchup in Maui, and could easily disrupt the Texas offense in the same fashion this afternoon.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 6:22PM

National Broadcasts (All times Eastern)

West Virginia Mountaineers (13-4, 3-2 Big East) at #12 Georgetown Hoyas (12-4, 2-2) | 7 PM, ESPN
The Hoyas are looking to start piling up wins in conference play now that the toughest stretch is behind them. Despite the league placing eight teams in the top twenty-five, the next six games for Georgetown include only one ranked opponent. The Mountaineers, unfortunately, have no such luck. After traveling to face Georgetown tonight, they will take on Pitt and Louisville before the end of January. For two teams stuck in the middle of a packed conference, this could very well be a turning point.

#18 Purdue Boilermakers (14-4, 3-2 Big 10) at #21 Minnesota Golden Gophers (16-2, 4-2) | 7 PM, ESPN2
Michigan State’s home loss to Northwestern has cracked the door open in the Big 10, and these two teams are the ones best positioned to take advantage. Sure, the Golden Gophers had their own loss to the Wildcats on Sunday, but they have the privilege of only playing the Boilermakers once — and having home court in tonight’s match-up. The Spartans, who now lead the conference by only one game, still have two-games on tap with Purdue. If Minnesota can hold home court tonight, they could reap the rewards as the other contenders knock each other off.

St. Louis Billikens (11-6, 2-1 Atlantic 10) at Temple Owls (9-7, 1-1) | 8 PM, CBS College Sports
If you’re fortunate enough to get this channel, you might be disappointed that the A-10 game on the air tonight isn’t Dayton’s visit to Foggy Bottom. But if you happen to tune into this contest between two of the conference middle-tier squads, you’ll be treated to the play of star Dionte Christmas, who is leading the way with 21 points and six boards.

St. Mary’s Gaels (17-1, 4-0 WCC) at San Diego Toreros (12-7, 4-0) | 9 PM, ESPN2
The WCC has quietly built itself into a power conference at the top, with Gonzaga still statistically ranked as one of the best teams in the land. But it’s the emergence of St. Mary’s and San Diego that have made the league stronger. San Diego crashed the NCAAs last year with a win in the conference tournament before shocking the country with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Meanwhile, the Gaels have earned all sorts of pub with their Australian pipeline, which has brought previously unheralded players such as Patty Mills and made them stars in the states. While this may seem like an unimportant game to the casual viewer, it’s actually a must-win if either team hopes to challenge the Zags this year.

#13 UCLA Bruins (14-3, 4-1 Pac-10) at Washington State Cougars (11-6, 3-2) | 9 PM, FSN
After stumbling early in the season against Michigan and Texas, the Bruins have quietly plugged along, having won ten straight games prior to Saturday’s overtime loss to Arizona State. The loss dropped the Bruins into a three-way tie for the league lead with Cal and Washington, who they will face this weekend. Ben Howland’s team can’t afford to look ahead to that match-up, though, as guard Taylor Rochestie lit up Oregon this weekend to the tune of 30 points. And the Cougars will certainly be fired up in front of the home crowd, as they hope to exorcise the demons of an eight-game losing streak to the Bruins.

USC Trojans (12-5, 3-2 Pac-10) at Washington Huskies (13-4, 4-1) | 11 PM, FSN
Coach Tim Floyd has brought a frustrating brand of defense to Los Angeles, which has turned the Trojans from a conference also-ran to a contender in just a few seasons. Never was that defensive transformation more apparent than Thursday night, when USC absolutely shut down Arizona State’s National Player of the Year candidate James Harden. The super soph, who has averaged 22 points per contest, was stifled by the Trojans, going 0-for-8 from the field and finishing with only four points from the line. USC will have to spread out that solid defense tonight, though, as the Huskies run a balanced attack with four players averaging double-digits in scoring.

ESPN Full Court

Not a lot to choose from on the pay package tonight, but if you want to be the guy who predicts the 14-seed upsets come March, you might get some added intel from this set of games.

Vermont Catamounts at Hartford Hawks | 7:30 PM, ESPNFC1

UW-Milwaukee Panthers at Valparaiso Crusaders | 8 PM, ESPNFC2

New Mexico State Aggies at Boise State Broncos | 9 PM, ESPNFC4

Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:07PM

#9/#12 UCLA Bruins (4-1) at #8/#8 Texas Longhorns (5-1)
Tip: 8 PM CST | TV: ESPN2

UCLA remembers this Texas celebration well
(Photo credit: AP/Gus Ruelas)

In last year’s inaugural round of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series, the Texas Longhorns scored a momentous victory on a Damion James dunk with only eight seconds to play. The throwdown capped a hard-fought, tense battle between two top ten teams, and the 63-61 victory over the homestanding Bruins gave Texas their first road win over a #1-ranked team in school history.

You can be sure that will be on the minds of the eight returning upperclassmen on Ben Howland‘s team when they make the return trip to Austin tonight. Although the Bruins have lost 39 points and 20 rebounds per game to the NBA with the departures of Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Russell Westbrook, UCLA is anything but rebuilding.

The offseason saw Howland ink a recruiting class that was ranked #1 in the country by Scout, a group of freshmen so talented that it warranted the re-issue of Michigan’s famous “Fab Five” nickname. Led by freshman starter Jrue Holiday, the newest quintet of Bruins all but insures that UCLA is the easy favorite in the Pac-10 this season.

By the numbers

The most glaring problem with the new-look Bruins is their lack of an inside presence. Without Love and Mbah a Moute, UCLA’s top returning rebounder is wingman Josh Shipp, who grabbed only 3.2 boards a game last season. Despite missing a true bruiser in the paint, the Bruins still boast a +9.2 rebounding margin so far this season, actually a +0.8 shift from last year. Granted, the sample size is small and includes a bevy of easy opponents so far this season, but the numbers are something of a relief for UCLA fans who expected disastrous results on the glass this year.

Coach Howland has expressed an interest in opening up the floor a little more this season, and with a senior point guard like Darren Collison, why wouldn’t he? Long famous for a patient offense and an even more patient defense, Ben’s Bruins have always relied on low-scoring affairs with a lack of possessions that serve to highlight their efficiency. Despite their coach’s professed interest in a more up-tempo game this year, it seems so far that the 2008-09 UCLA team is more of the same. Tempo numbers from Ken Pomeroy reveal that the Bruins are actually playing at a slightly slower tempo this year, with only 64.3 possessions per game.

One notable issue so far this year for UCLA has been issues with ball control, something that the Longhorns exploited in last year’s road victory. Texas built its first-half lead last year on the strength of ten fast-break points, and the statistics say there’s a good chance that Rick Barnes could have his team do the same tonight. In the season opener against Prairie View A&M, the Bruins had a ridiculous 24 turnovers, including six each from point guards Collison and Jerime Anderson. In a loss to Michigan just a week later, UCLA coughed it up 17 times.

The starting five

The big name for the Bruins is obviously the aforementioned Collison. Practically a guaranteed lottery pick in last year’s NBA draft, the point guard returned to school in hopes that he could finally lead UCLA from being just a Final Four team to being National Champions. The son of world-class sprinters from Guyana, Collison can push the ball with the best of them and easily zip past defenders to get the rack. But defenses cannot simply sag off of him, as his three-point shooting is deadly. Last season, he set a UCLA record with a 52.5% conversion rate from behind the arc, and has hit 7-of-10 to start the current year. Against a Texas team that has difficulty shutting down long-range threats, Collison could have a field day.

Holiday leads a loaded freshman class

Freshman combo guard Holiday is not just a heck of an athlete, but also a surprising source of help for the rebounding worries surrounding UCLA. At 6’3″, Jrue isn’t the biggest man on the floor, but he has been dubbed by Coach Howland the best pound-for-pound rebounder on the team. Holiday also has quality handles and can take over at the point for Collison, giving Howland a bit more flexibility if the senior guard gets into foul trouble or needs a rest.

At the wing, Shipp is providing a much-needed offensive boost for the Bruins. He is the second-leading scorer that returns from last year’s team, and although he has recently struggled from long range, Josh is still always a threat to drop a three. His ability to create and also hit the outside shot really helps to open up the floor for Collison and the Bruins, something that was all too evident when he had an off day against Michigan. In the loss to the Wolverines, Shipp was held to only five points, and his struggles against the Michigan 1-3-1 zone allowed the defense to sag even further off. If Texas can limit the damage from Shipp tonight, it will make things easier elsewhere on the defensive end.

Inside, Cameroonian center Alfred Aboya provides senior leadership. Never a huge scoring threat, Aboya is going to need to eat up a lot more minutes for the Bruins and provide quality defense and rebounding. He showed some problems controlling his fouls against Michigan, so perhaps that is something that Damion James and Gary Johnson can try to exploit.

The Bruins are also looking for increased contribution from forward James Keefe, who missed most of last year with a foot injury and didn’t start to shine until late in conference play. His breakout game was a double-double performance in the Sweet 16 against Western Kentucky, but that post-season performance hasn’t quite carried over to the 2008-09 campaign. Keefe definitely has a dangerous mid-range shot and his hustle inside leads to the occasional putbacks, but his averages this year are a paltry 3.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per contest.

Off the bench

With Holiday the only member of that recruiting class in the starting lineup, there is a ton of young talent on Ben Howland’s bench. But the biggest X-factor for UCLA could actually be the play of wingman Michael Roll, a junior who has struggled with injury throughout his career. A scrappy 6’5″ player, Roll can spread out the floor just as well as Shipp can, and hits at a steadier rate from behind the arc. He’s currently 50% from long range this season, and he’s showcased a nice mid-range touch in non-conference play.

LSU’s coaching change sent Morgan west
(Photo credit: L.A. Times)

The freshmen class provides some added depth in the post, with former LSU commit J’Mison Morgan playing really solid defense for a first-year guy. His five blocks lead the team despite the fact he only plays eight minutes a game, and the kid really grasps the concept of verticality.

Drew Gordon is another big body down low, although he’s a bit smaller than Morgan. Gordon is a lengthy guy who isn’t afraid to throw his weight around, but early on he’s shown some incredible athleticism for a guy his size. He’s certainly not a one-and-done guy for Howland, so UCLA fans will get a chance to see this talented player develop over the next few seasons.

In the backcourt, Anderson is being groomed to be the point guard of the future, while Malcolm Lee is a talented two guard who played for the USA under-18 team this summer. Ben Howland loves Lee’s defense, but he could stand to spend some time in the weight room with college strength coaches. When he adds some more muscle to his frame, opposing guards are going to be even more frustrated on offense.

Suspended for the first game of the year, Nikolas Dragovic is eating up a bunch of minutes off the bench for the Bruins. He’s not a huge scoring threat, although he has certainly taken his share of three pointers so far this year. His sixteen attempts from behind the arc is second on the team to only Shipp, and his scant 25% success rate is second-worst on the squad. In his freshman campaigmn, Dragovic was just as bad from long range, making less than 24% of his attempts.

Keys to the game

Win the turnover battle – The Longhorns have been careless with the ball quite often this season, and against a UCLA team that limits the number of possessions, Texas cannot afford to throw away scoring opportunities. In addition, the Bruins have displayed their own difficulties with ball control, so the Longhorns must continue their early-season success in forcing points off of turnovers.

Crash the glass – Part of the reason the Bruins are so efficient is their dedication to keeping opponents off the offensive glass and limiting them to one-and-done possessions. Texas has had an uncharacteristically stagnant offense so far this year, so they will likely need second and third chances in the half court. James, Johnson, and Dexter Pittman will need to be vacuums on both ends of the court today.

Searching for Connor Atchley – Atchley provided some key plays in last year’s game and helped to stifle Kevin Love on the defensive end. When Atchley was missing due to foul trouble, the Texas offense paid the price — particularly A.J. Abrams — who found it more difficult to get open on the perimeter. Connor will need to put aside the timid play he has shown so far this season and step up in tonight’s contest.

Mason must lead the way – If you’re close enough to the court to hear the players, it’s amazing just how much Justin Mason is coaching the team. And while he’s stepped up as a vocal leader, lately he has become a scoring leader as well. Against a very well-schooled, patient defense, Mase will need to create points and shepherd the offense. And on the other end of the ball, he will have to continue his lockdown defense against an excellent backcourt.

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