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Strange Bruins: Cats face stiff test

It took about three minutes last night to see who No. 20 Kentucky would be facing in the second semifinal of the Maui Invitational tonight at 9 pm ET (Bracket PDF). UCLA's many athletes and jump shooters made quick work of host Chaminade, who -- yet again -- was unable to pull off the stunning upset everyone's been waiting for since Dec. 23, 1982, when the Silver Swords took down then-No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson. Arron Afflalo had 25 points as UCLA won, 88-63.

No. 5 UCLA presents a very different challenge to the Cats than did Depaul. While Monday's opponent was an athletic, open-court team full of dunkers, UCLA is much more balanced on offense and dedicated to defense, thanks to the teachings of coach Ben Howland.

The Bruins are coming off a surprise NCAA Finals appearance that saw them punished by a Florida team firing on all cylinders. But to be fair, that UCLA team had little business in the NCAA Finals, meaning only that they had played such stout defense and with so much guts that they had willed their way past several more talented offensive teams (Gonzaga, Memphis and LSU) before running into the Gators.

The primary losses from that team are big ones. The NBA took star point guard Jordan Farmar a year too early (for UCLA, I mean) and seniors Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman, but left behind Afflalo, the Bruins' sweet shooting swingman. Also returning is the engine that really gets UCLA moving, versatile big man Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He should present a very different task for Randolph Morris and freshman Perry Stevenson, who may find better luck against the thinner, quicker Mbah a Moute than he did against the wider Depaul interior players.

Ramel Bradley will need to bring his A game like he did against Depaul, as he'll be paired off with Darren Collison, UCLA's scatterquick point guard. In a lot of ways, the two players are similar. Both attack the rim with abandon. But while Bradley may have the edge in perimeter shooting, Collison is more unselfish.

While Morris' fouls and production will be key, no matchup intrigues me more than the pairing at small forward, where UK senior Bobby Perry has a big experience advantage but not a talent one on Josh Shipp, UCLA's sophomore starting three-man. Shipp battled injuries last year but is healthy and can strike quickly, especially off Collison's penetration. Shipp had 16 against Chaminade.

As the second of three straight days of games, look for fatigue to play more of a role, depending on whether UCLA plays uptempo or more of a grinding, defensive game. Normally, I would say that Tubby Smith in a grinding game is a good bet. But I'm slowly coming to the realization that this UK squad may be a rare offensively gifted, but defensively challenged group. Thankfully, the second unit has shown flashes of brilliance. Freshman Derrick Jasper was outstanding for stretches against Depaul, and Jodie Meeks and Michael Porter were equally vital in taking out the Blue Demons.

Interestingly, in recapping their win over Chaminade, my SBN counterparts over at Bruins Nation had this to say about their young but talented team:

Long way to go still. I do believe we are going to end up with a good team. And we have a lot to build on from our first two games. As our guys get comfortable with playing each other (easy for all of us to forget this team is missing 3 starters from last year playing in the NBA) they will come around.

Sound familiar? Subtract two NBA players but the sentiments are the same. Kentucky, too, is still stretching its legs, finding the rotations that work best and trying to stay focused. The focus issue is the key right now in the early part of the year, and last night's win was a great example of this. After a sterling 10-0 start to the game, the boys' minds wandered, they chucked up some quick shots and played no defense for all of about two minutes. The result was a quick turnaround for the Blue Demons and a tougher game for Kentucky. Some consistent pressure in the first half yesterday and a more comfortable 10-point cushion throughout may have been more possible. But that's what the non-conference slate is for.

Now the Cats' first true test arrives. I have high hopes for another win, see no reason it's not possible. But better focus and continued strong bench scoring will dictate this one, I think.

Update [2006-11-21 17:9:45 by JL Blue]:

Poster IL Wildcat has a great, concise scouting preview of the UCLA Bruins over at TCP boards.