Friday, March 20, 2009

NCAA Tournament, Second Round - #3 Villanova Wildcats/#6 UCLA Bruins Preview

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Here is a preview of the Wildcats' second-round clash with UCLA, scheduled for 1:05 EDT/10:05 PDT, on Saturday, March 21, 2009...

We should be honored - the entire nation will be viewing the Wildcats taking on the Bruins... the reason - our game is the earliest one scheduled, and there will be no other games going on simultaneously... of course, if we get demolished, CBS's Greg Gumbel cannot mercifully and seamlessly take the rest of the nation away from our game, and to a more exciting one... it's all or nothing....

Villanova/UCLA Rivalry History

The schools have met just three times. The first meeting came in the 1971 national championship, when the Wildcats faced John Wooden's UCLA dynasty. It was the second of Villanova's three Final Four visits - the Wildcats participated in the first-ever Final Four at the Palestra in 1939 (granted, the field was only eight teams). And of course, there was the Cinderella run to the 1985 national championship 24 years ago this spring...

The teams would not meet again for three decades, until a home-and-home series was arranged for the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

March 27, 1971

UCLA 68, Villanova 62 (The Astrodome, Houston, Texas)

January 13, 2001

, Villanova 65 (Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, California)

February 9, 2002

Villanova 58, UCLA 57 (The Pavilion, Villanova, Pennsylvania) - you can read my recap, written at the time, here...

The UCLA Mystique - A Concise Summary

This is Villanova's 30th NCAA tournament appearance, ninth-most nationally. They were tied at 29 with Notre Dame entering the season, and with Notre Dame missing the field this year, the Wildcats are in sole possession of ninth place.

UCLA is one of the eight schools ahead of them - the Bruins received their 43rd bid this year, which ranks second only to Kentucky. But more importantly, UCLA has won 11 national titles, 10 of them by the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden. (The most recent came in 1995, under Jim Harrick.) UCLA has also reached the Final Four no fewer than 18 times, most in the nation - including the last three seasons under Ben Howland. Their NCAA tournament winning percentage, .739, is second in the nation only to Duke's .750.

If the Bruins prevail on Saturday, they will hit the century mark for NCAA tournament wins (Kentucky, also at the century mark, is the only other team to have reached it - but those Wildcats are absent this year as well, for the first time in 17 years.)

How the Bruins Got Here

UCLA brings a 26-8 record into the contest. They went 13-5 in the Pac-10 regular-season, finishing in second place to the Washington Huskies. They were upset by crosstown rival USC in the semifinals of the Pac-1o tournament, which was eventually won by Arizona State (who, regrettably, ended the #11 Temple Owls' run Friday afternoon).

The Bruins did not play a particularly rugged nonconference schedule. Their only significant opponents were Michigan and @ Texas. The Wolverines, a #10 seed in this year's tournament, defeated the Bruins on the neutral court of Madison Square Garden. They also lost on the trip to Texas, in the Pac 10/Big XII Hardwood Series at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.

They did face Big East member DePaul in Los Angeles - which undoubtedly looked like a stronger opponent when it was scheduled. But given that DePaul went 0-18 in the Big East regular season (before finally winning a Big East tournament game), UCLA's lopsided win over the Blue Demons isn't that impressive.

Against the Pac-10 teams, the Bruins did very well. Four of the five losses came to NCAA qualifiers. They lost @ Washington, @ Arizona, and were swept by Arizona State - the Sun Devils won the game @ Pauley Pavilion in overtime. The only inexplicable loss was a home defeat by Washington State.

A few days after falling to the Cougars, the Bruins eliminated them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament. But after sweeping USC in the regular season, they were undoubtedly surprised that the Trojans knocked them out of the conference tourney.

The NCAA Tournament - First Round

The Bruins appeared to be in good shape to get past #11 Virginia Commonwealth, in the second game at the Wachovia Center on Thursday night. They led for most of the second half, before a last-ditch rally by VCU instantly made the game competitive and threw a scare into the Bruin faithful. VCU actually had the chance to win on the final possession, trailing by just one, as superstar Eric Maynor had the chance to fire a difficult buzzer-beater for the upset. But UCLA's Darren Collison defended him expertly, and Maynor's shot hit the front of the rim.

And so, the Bruins escaped narrowly with a 65-64 victory. (President Barack Obama, who selected Villanova to reach the Sweet 16, went with the upset pick for UCLA/VCU, pencilling in the #11 Rams in his bracket for reaching the second round.)

How Much Does Experience Matter?

Villanova is in a strong position in that category. Having qualified for the NCAA tournament every year for the last five season, every Wildcat on the roster has seen the Madness up close and is familiar with its unique challenges. But UCLA's NCAA tournament experience far surpasses Villanova's. The Bruins have reached the Final Four for each of the last three seasons, playing in the title game once, a loss to Florida.

What We Might See (Or Not See) From UCLA

The Bruins lost three starters - all underclassmen, ironically - from last year's Final Four edition, to the NBA draft - Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Seniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp are the two who remain. (Ironically, according to UCLA blogger Brian Dohn, Shipp's brother Jerren played for Arizona State against Temple, probably making them the only siblings ever to face two Big Five schools - on separate teams - in one weekend of the NCAA tournament.)

Senior Alfred Aboya and junior Nikola Dragovic - role players last season - and freshman Jrue Holiday round out the starting lineup. (And also from Dohn - Holiday's brother Justin played for Washington, the Pac-10 regular season champions, in the tournament.) Aboya's role is to rebound, which he does very well, and Dragovic is a highly dangerous three-point shooter.

UCLA has a high-octane offense, ranking among the nation's leaders in field goal percentage and three-point accuracy. Collison in particular is a highly accurate shooter. Where the one weakness may be - in an anomaly for a Howland-coached team - is defense; according to CBS's Seth Davis, the Bruins ranked just seventh among Pac-1o teams in field goal percentage defense.

Howland is very familiar with Villanova, having coached against the Wildcats when he was at Pitt (and conversely, Wright is familiar with him). Against VCU, Howland opted to use his starters for the vast majority of the minutes. In what turned out to be an extremely close contest, only three Bruins made it off the bench, for 24 total minutes. One was guard/forward Mike Roll, a junior who missed nearly all of last season with an injury - he logged 10 minutes. James Keefe, another junior forward, saw eight minutes. Freshman guard Jerime Anderson played six minutes, in which he committed four turnovers and did not score or deal an assist.

Freshman guard Malcolm Lee, a McDonald's All-American, played 13 minutes and scored nine points in the Pac-10 tourney loss to USC, but didn't play at all against VCU. Neither did freshman Drew Gordon, who saw seven minutes against USC. But according to Inside UCLA with Brian Dohn:
I asked UCLA coach Ben Howland why Malcolm Lee didn't play last night, and he said he wanted to stay with guys who were in the game and familiar with the press VCU was running. He added Lee was going to play Saturday against Villanova. Also, backup center Drew Gordon is supposed to practice today, and if it goes well, he will be ready for the Wildcats. And as far as Villanova's home court advantage, some of the 'Cats were getting annoyed at the line of questioning, with some suggesting their won't be much of an advantage.
All five starters reached double figures against VCU on Thursday, indicating a balanced attack and one which can likely absorb an off-game from any particular player. But not from too many - in the Pac-10 tourney loss to USC, Holiday was held to a single point on 0-8 shooting, while Collison was limited to four points on 1-9 shooting. The Bruins as a whole shot just 27% in their ten-point loss to the Trojans.

As always, you should check out the Various Viewpoints on the right sidebar, for their take on the upcoming clash:

I'll have a full recap after the game...

Go Wildcats! Reach the Sweet 16!

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