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Conversations With the Enemy: Talking UCLA With Bruins Nation

Welcome back to another edition of Conversations With the Enemy, wherein we shock and awe opposing bloggers with mildly antagonistic questions about upcoming games.  This week's victim: DCBruins from the fantastic UCLA blog Bruins Nation.

My answers to his questions are posted at Bruins Nation.  Below, I'm in bold.

It's a bit jarring that a team which compiled a 13-5 Pac-10 record only merited a 7 seed.  But, it seems that it's been an up-and-down year for the Bruins.  Could you briefly recap UCLA's season for us?

After winning its first three games against local teams, UCLA lost four in a row that featured losses of every type.  We were beat by a then-better Villanova team, we lost to VCU despite a furious comeback, played Kansas even in Lawrence and lost on a bad call, and then got destroyed by the worst team of the group, Montana, at home.  It did not make much sense at the time but it was a sign of things to come.

UCLA has a habit of going through really bad periods in games and letting bad teams back in games (UCI and Arizona State) or just showing up for parts of games (Stanford and Washington State) but ultimately winning. Then against some of the best teams we play up and beat teams like BYU and in our best game destroyed Arizona in "Old Pauley Pavilion's" last game before it is being remodeled. 

That Arizona game was our "Purdue": it locked us in the tournament.  The next game was for our slim chance to win the PAC 10 outright.  We played well but folded in the hostile environment of Washington (who desperately needed a win) as their third string shooting guard had the game of his life with 24 points in the second half.  This happen a number of times in our losses where we shut down the best player (Isaiah Thomas of Washington was scoreless for the first 36 minutes of the game) only to have another "lesser" player have a career night.

But then we seemingly quit. We almost lost to a Washington State team missing their backcourt and forgot to show up to the PAC 10 tournament with our worse lost of the year.

UCLA's high turnover percentage and low three-point percentage seem to suggest that the Bruins have suffered from poor guard play this season.  Is this an area of vulnerability for UCLA, and if so, who needs to step up?

This is another sign of what a strange team we are.  Our small forward Tyler Honeycutt leads us in turnovers.  His problem, as legendary Laker announcer Chick Hearn used to say, is "the mustard's off the hot dog."  He tries to make the highlight reel pass and fails much more than he succeeds.  Other times he over-passes.  Coach Howland actually told him to shoot more.

Second in turnovers is our power forward Reeves Nelson who is our press breaker and, more early in the season, leads our fast break.  Yes, our power forward does that and it can be bad at times.

The guards themselves are more a mixed bag.  The PG Lazeric Jones has been battling injuries to his hands (both of them) and will be playing Thursday with a wrapped wrist..  It is unfortunate he is not going to be healthy until after the season but that contributes to the turnover and three point problem as well.  When healthy, he is our best three point shooter, but he has been off.

If we remember to go inside out we seem to shoot threes better.  Sometimes when Smith is out we are too content to force threes. If MSU can keep the ball from going down low and make UCLA settle for threes, you will win.

More, after the jump.

You have said that Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson have at times dominated opponents this season.  Can you give us a brief scouting report on both players?  And, how have teams been able to best neutralize them this season?

Reeves Nelson is an unusual player, and there is good and bad Reeves.  Good Reeves tipped in the winning shot against Cal, is a good finisher, shut down one of the best players in the country in Arizona's Derrick Williams, and is clutch in big games (24 against BYU and 51 points in 2 games against Arizona).  Bad Reeves sulks (literally), drives to the basket running over people (he has racked up a number of charges) and, more often early in the season, takes defensive possessions off.

To shut Reeves down get in his head and make him shoot outside.  Don't let him drive or get the ball inside.

Joshua Smith is big.  This is worth stating because you don't realize how wide and big he is until you see him play and dwarf the other players around him, including guys of the same height.  He plays kind of like a vintage Moses Malone and is a force on the offensive boards like no other.  He can't shoot outside six feet but he really does not need to.

The best way to stop him is get him into foul trouble.  Coach Howland did not start him during the PAC 10 because the PAC 10 refs have a tendency to call a lot of early cheap fouls while setting "tone." (sounds totally unlike any other conference I've heard of.  -ed.) Howland wanted to protect Josh from that.  He is still learning the game and has had trouble against various kinds of defensive schemes but also had destroyed those schemes.  Josh lost a lot of weight but is still overweight and can tire out if the pace of the game is too fast. 

If this ends up being a close game, which Bruin would you most want to take the final shot, and why?

UCLA has had six players lead the team in scoring this year and all the starters have led the team multiple times.  Every starter except Smith (who made a number of clutch free throws) has hit a big shot with the game on the line as we have had a lot of close games.

I guess I would chose Malcolm Lee because he is the leader who made a couple clutch shots and free throws.  But that is the best part of this team when it is healthy: all 5 starters can score and burn you.

Finally, how do you see this game playing out?

A defensive struggle.  It should be a chess match battle of two great coaches.  I think the two keys for UCLA are first Malcolm Lee (who is coming off a knee injury) on Lucas.  Lee is one of the best defensive guards in the country and we beat BYU because he flustered Jimmer Fredrette into the most turnovers he had all season.  If he is effective on Lucas you could be in trouble.

The other thing to watch is Smith's minutes.  The more Smith is on the floor the better for UCLA.  UCLA fans are very happy not to have the PAC 10 referees who literally would call fouls on Josh because he was so big (someone would run into him and it was a foul on Josh).  If Josh can stay in the game, he affects play so many ways that it should help UCLA to a win. 

From MSU's perspective Durrell Summers may be the guy that beats UCLA.  UCLA has often been able to take away a team's number one offensive option only to have another player have a career night.  With Summers'  tournament history, he is something UCLA should fear.  

So I guess if Smith plays more than 29 minutes UCLA wins, if Summers scores more than 17, MSU wins.  If both happen . . .

. . . MSU wins by 50, obviously!  Again, visit Bruins Nation for all your UCLA reconnaissance needs. Thanks again to DCBruins, and may his team fail spectacularly on Thursday.