Saturday, December 9th, 2:30 PM, CBS
There hasn’t been a season I can remember that has this many potential contenders to reach the Final Four come April. With top teams losing seemingly every night, there are arguably 15-20 teams that have the ingredients to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. This weekend has plenty of quality games matching top teams that could have an effect on seedings later on in the season. Gonzaga takes on Washington in a West Coast showdown, Wisconsin and Marquette face off in a great intrastate battle, and LSU plays Texas in a game matching two of the best players in college basketball, Glen Davis and Kevin Durant. However, the best game will be a low-scoring, defensive-minded game between two Top 10 teams in Texas A&M and UCLA.
Texas A&M rode the momentum of last year’s late-season run to the NCAA Tournament to a Top-10 ranking this year. The Aggies started the season with 7 straight wins, with solid victories over Saint Louis and Pacific. In their first game away from home, they fell to LSU by 12. They will need to play better in their second road game against a good team. A&M averages just over 74 points per game, and is one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country, allowing about 50 points per game. Ken Pomeroy has the Aggies as the 67th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 4th-most efficient defensive team.
UCLA is coming off of a 2006 Final Four appearance, and even with the loss of three starters, the Bruins have picked up where they left off. They won the Maui Invitational, with impressive victories over Kentucky and Georgia Tech, and also have a win over BYU. They have only one win by less than 13 points, and are off to a 7-0 start. The Bruins are averaging just less than 80 points per game, and are giving up under 61 a contest. According to Ken Pomeroy, UCLA has the 49th-most efficient offense and the 18th-most efficient defense.
Texas A&M was consistently ranked in the Top 15 coming into the season after last year’s 22-9 campaign and second-round NCAA Tournament appearance. All five starters returned from last year, and they have played the way they did down the stretch a year ago. Their defense is one of the best in the country, and their offensive is much improved from a year ago. They have the talent to compete with Kansas in the Big Twelve.
The frontcourt is led by All-Big 12 big man Joseph Jones. He is a dominant inside performer. He is a load for opponents to defend in the paint with his size and variety of post moves. He is an excellent rebounder and is capable of taking over any game with his scoring ability down low. Jones leads the team in scoring and is second in rebounding. Next to him down low is Antanas Kavaliauskas. He is one of the most improved players in the conference and has been a consistent scorer for the Aggies with his inside-outside ability. He had 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists in a win over Pacific earlier this season. Freshmen Chinemelu Elonu and Bryan Davis provide depth up front, while former starter Marlon Pompey also sees time off the bench.
The perimeter group for Texas A&M is one of the best in the country. Acie Law has an excellent season a year ago, and is widely regarded as one of the top point guards in the nation. He is extremely quick with the ball and loves to lead the fast break. He is a very good passer and scorer. However, he has been inconsistent this season, with four games scoring under ten points but four games with at least 17 points. Law can also shoot the three proficiently. Josh Carter is arguably the best three-point shooter on the team, capable of getting hot at any team. He is averaging double-figures in points and is also a solid rebounder and passer. Dominique Kirk also starts in the backcourt. He is an outstanding defender who can stroke the three with efficiency. Kirk does a little bit of everything. Donald Sloan contributes off the bench in the backcourt, providing scoring and athleticism.
UCLA lost three starters from their National Championship runner-up team from a year ago, but have bounced back very well. Jordan Farmar was a first-round pick, while Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman were major contributors. However, Ben Howland pieced together a quality group and the Bruins might be even better than last year. Their defense is outstanding as usual, and they have several scorers that can get points on the offensive end.
Leading the way up front for the Bruins is sophomore Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The Pac-10 Freshman of the Year a season ago, Mbah a Moute is a versatile player that can do nearly everything on the court. He is an outstanding rebounder, both offensively and defensively. Moreover, he is extremely efficient shooting the ball and is a decent passer. He is also one of the best defenders in the conference. He has two double-doubles already this season. Wing Josh Shipp has been a consistent scorer for the Bruins. He played in only four games last season due to a right hip injury, but is healthy this year. He is an excellent scorer and shooter who will is a very good second option on the perimeter. Shipp is also an underrated rebounder. Down low, Lorenzo Mata gets most of the minutes. He leads the team in rebounding and had 16 in their last outing against UC-Riverside. He is also a good shot-blocker but does not have much of an offensive game. However, he had 12 points against Kentucky and can get putbacks and garbage points inside. Alfred Aboya gets time backing up Mata in the paint. He is a decent inside scorer and rebounder.
The backcourt has developed into one of the best in the Pac-10, if not the nation, this season. The key to the quick start for the Bruins has been Darren Collison’s ability to replace Jordan Farmar at the point. He is among the nation’s leaders in assists, and has scored in double-figures in all but one game so far. Moreover, he is an outstanding defender, and is averaging just less than four steals per game. He takes care of the ball and is extremely quick at both ends of the floor. Starting next to him is Arron Afflalo, one of the best two guards in the country. He has developed into the go-to-guy for the Bruins, leading the team in scoring. He is one of the best shooters and on-ball defenders in the country. He has the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Look for him to make a run at Pac-10 Player of the Year honors. Shooter Michael Roll and freshman Russell Westbrook provide quality depth off the bench.
This game has the potential to be a very good, grind-it-out type of game. Both teams are outstanding defensively and have enough scorers on the offensive end to get points on the board. The match-up at point guard is going to be excellent. Acie Law and Darren Collison are both extremely quick and love to get steals on the defensive end and turn them into points at the other end. If Collison distrupts Law and the Aggies’ offense, A&M could be in for a long day. Inside, the battle between Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Joseph Jones will also be something to watch. Jones is stronger than Mbah a Moute, so Lorenzo Mata might have to help out inside. The keys for A&M will be to get the ball inside to Jones and Antanas Kavaliauskas. They have the advantage down low offensively and need to take advantage of it. Moreover, their perimeter defense will have to be suffocating in order to shut down Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp. Both players are capable of having big games, and lockdown defender Dominique Kirk can only guard one of them. Josh Carter will need to come up big at both ends of the floor for the Aggies. The keys for UCLA will be to create mismatches with Mbah a Moute on the offensive end. He is too quick and athletic for either Jones or Kavaliauskas. Also, Collison needs to hold his own against Law. Law is very capable of disrupting Collison and the UCLA offense. In the end, with the Bruins playing at home and the fact that they have a few more guys that can points in what will be a slow-it-down, low-scoring game, they should come away with the victory and retain their #1 ranking.
Prediction: UCLA 65, Texas A&M 58
Prediction Record: 1-1