Saturday, March 29, 2008

UCLA vs. Xavier Preview

For all the talk about UCLA having the easiest path to the Final Four, the Bruins certainly have not made it look easy. On the other hand, Xavier has played excellent basketball late in games and has momentum heading into the Elite Eight. It should be a great game.

UCLA, the top seed in the West Region, has been less than impressive so far in the NCAA Tournament – yet is still one of the favorites to win the national title. The Bruins opened the Tournament with an easy win over Mississippi Valley State, holding the Delta Devils to just 29 points. In the second round, Texas A&M looked like it might pull the improbable upset as the Aggies led by as many as 10 points in the second half. However, UCLA fought back and got the win on Darren Collison’s lay-up with nine seconds left. The Bruins blocked (fouled?) Donald Sloan’s game-tying attempt with time running out. UCLA was in control of its Sweet Sixteen game against Western Kentucky, but foul trouble allowed the Hilltoppers to keep it close in the second half. The No. 12 seed couldn’t take the lead, though, and UCLA was headed to the Elite Eight.

Xavier came into the NCAA Tournament on the back of some late-season struggles, but the Atlantic-10 champions clearly deserved their No. 3 seed. The Musketeers looked like it was going to be a short trip to the Big Dance, though, as they fell behind by 11 to Georgia in the first round. However, they made a late run and eventually won by 11 points. In the second-round against Purdue, it was another tightly-fought contest. Purdue took the lead in the second half, but the Musketeers went on a quick 7-0 run to take back a lead they would never relinquish. The Sweet Sixteen brought one of the hottest teams in the country, West Virginia. Xavier jumped out to an early lead, but the Mountaineers started knocking down shots and took a late lead. After Joe Alexander hit a turnaround back-shot for WVU with 14 seconds left but missed the ensuing free-throw, the game went to overtime. Back-to-back threes by XU’s B.J. Raymond would prove too much for WVU, though, and Xavier was moving on.

UCLA has been near the top of the rankings all season, mainly because the Bruins have one of the best point guards in the country (Darren Collison), one of the best big men in the country (Kevin Love), and arguably the best coach in the country (Ben Howland). This trio is trying to lead UCLA to its third consecutive Final Four appearance. Collison is lightning-quick at both ends of the floor, and can change games with his defensive tenacity and penetration abilities. He is a good three-point shooter but is at his best when driving into the lane. Love is dominant in the low-post, and is very difficult to stop due to his strength inside. He can also step out and hit the three-pointer if left open. Defensively, he is a very good shot-blocker. Russell Westbrook is one of the best defensive players in the country; he constantly gets into passing lanes to intercept passes. He is also very athletic and can finish around the basket. Josh Shipp has struggled lately, but he is a very good shooter and scorer. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can do a little of everything, but has tended to turn the ball over too much in the NCAA Tournament. James Keefe put forth a career game in the Sweet Sixteen, scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata-Real provide depth inside.

Xavier was the Atlantic-10 favorite before the season, and proved it all year long, winning 18 of its last 20 regular-season games. The Musketeers are very experienced, with five juniors or seniors in their top six players. They also have plenty of inside-outside balance, making them difficult to defend. Josh Duncan leads the way. The team’s sixth man for much of the season has moved into the starting lineup for the NCAA Tournament; he is too good to keep off the floor. He is difficult to defend due to his ability to score around the basket as well as on the perimeter. Derrick Brown is the other forward – he is one of the most athletic players in college basketball. He is a tremendous rebounder. C.J. Anderson plays on the wing, but his game is predicated on taking smaller defenders into the lane and finishing inside. In the backcourt. Drew Lavender is one of the most underrated point guards in the country. He takes care of the ball and is a very good leader and distributor. Furthermore, he can score if he needs to. Stanley Burrell used to be one of the team’s leading scorers, but he has sacrificed his personal numbers and has become one of the best defenders left in the Tournament. He can shoot the ball well. B.J. Raymond is a tremendous outside shooter who can get hot from deep. Providing inside help is Jason Love, who started 20 games this season and can rebound and score down low. Dante Jackson comes off the bench in the backcourt; he is a solid shooter and defender.

This game should be a terrific battle between two teams who can hurt teams both inside and outside, and play very good defense. Both teams can play at multiple tempos and have won in a variety of ways this season. If UCLA is to advance to its third Final Four in as many years, it is going to have to take care of the ball. It has turned the ball over far too often in the NCAA Tournament, and Xavier will take advantage of that. Furthermore, the Bruins need to stay out of foul trouble. Collison fouled out against Western Kentucky, and Shipp and Westbrook both had four fouls. That helped fuel the Hilltoppers’ comeback. Defensively, UCLA has to contain Lavender and slow down Duncan. Lavender is the heart and soul of Xavier, and the Musketeers will be lost if he is not playing well. Offensively, Shipp has to hit shots and the Bruins need to get the ball to Love inside. On the other side, Xavier has to utilize its balance and multitude of weapons to its advantage. Six players average double-figures, and UCLA will have to play outstanding defense to defend everyone. UCLA has very good perimeter defenders, but Lavender will have to penetrate and then distribute. Defensively, the Musketeers have to stop Love inside. He is capable of taking over the game, and XU can’t allow that. Additionally, Xavier will have to be careful with the ball. UCLA has made runs in each of its games based off of steals by Collison and Westbrook, which they turn into easy fast-break points.

In the end, the difference is going to be Kevin Love inside; he is too strong for anyone on Xavier to handle. Additionally, UCLA has the guards in Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook to pester Drew Lavender and the Xavier wings. Unless Josh Duncan has a huge game, UCLA will move on.

Prediction: UCLA 71, Xavier 65


  1. Every pick you make is exactly on the spread of vegas. They stomped them silly by way more than 6 guy... serious grow some nuts

  2. Considering I don't look at betting lines before I make my picks, I'll take that as a compliment.

    So, thanks.

    And, by the way, you're telling me to grow some nuts and you're posting under "anonymous." Ironic, don't you think?