Friday, January 19, 2018

UCI vs. UCSB Game Preview, by Gaucho Freg

UCSB vs UC Irvine Preview
Saturday, January 20, 2017, 9:00pm PST

UCSB, now 2-2 and 6th place in the Big West is coming off one of their best games of the season in defeating first place Cal State Fullerton by 19.  They now face the preseason media poll first place pick, UC Irvine who currently stands in 4th place. 
The Gauchos and UC Irvine have played 88 times since 1968 with Santa Barbara leading the series 51-37. The Anteaters swept the season series last year, winning 64-47 at home and 66-62 at the Thunderdome.

By the Numbers                                                              
OOC Record, all games 8-13 13-5
BWC Record 3-2 2-2
Home/away vs D1 1-10 (away) 6-0 (home)
 National Rankings
DC2              194 105
RPI 181 96
RPI SOS 78 255
Pomeroy              182 105
Massey 166 100
Preseason Poll Pick 1st 6th
Efficiency Rankings (Pomeroy)    
Offense 232 46
Defense 97 230
Scoring 70.8 78.2
PPG Allowed 71.1 70.9
Best win: Idaho (away, 122 DC2)
Worst Loss: UTRGV (away, 224 DC2)
Trend:  Are 3-2 to open Big West play including a double digit win over Long Beach and a 3pt home loss to Fullerton. 

Shared Opponents: UCSB defeated Montana by 7 in Pepperdine while the Aggies lost to the Grizlies by 18 on the road.  UCSB defeated Fullerton by 19 at home while Irvine lost by 3, also at home.  UCSB lost by 1 to Poly on the road while Irvine handled the Mustangs at home by 7 after leading by as much as 20.
Head Coach:
Russell Turner is in his 8th season at the helm of the Anteaters and has an overall record of 144-115 (.556) an outstanding 72-42 (.632) record in the Big West.  His streak of consecutive 20+ win seasons (5) is in jeopardy this year.  In 2015 he led the Anteaters to their first NCAA tournament where they narrowly lost to Louisville in the first round.  In 2016 he led the Anteaters to 28 wins, best in school history.  He’s known for a fiery demeanor on the sideline and for having multiple 7 footers on his teams. Ought to be some fireworks on the sidelines when he & JP line up. 
Irvine, like Fullerton, is a young team and the preseason favorite status may have been unfair given their youth.  Going through some growing pains this year and is another certain contender in 2018/19.
Guard Eyassu Worku 6’2” 170 lbs, Sophomore.   Leads the team with assists, 3.6 pg and turnovers 2.4 pg.  Second in scoring with 11.3 ppg, not the highest percentage shooter, scores from inside and outside the arc and gets to the FT line often.  Still just 19 yo, his play has been inconsistent and is part of the reason why UCI turns the ball over 15+ times per game, 314 in the country.
Guard Evan Leonard  6’1”, 190 lb, Sophomore,  Leads the team in scoring, 12.1 ppg and is second in three pointers made and in FT attempts. 
Wing John Edgar Jr.  6’5”, 217 lb, Sophomore  Has played himself into a starting role and is scoring 8.9  ppg and pulling 4 rebounds per game.
Forward Tommy Rutherford  6’8”, 220 lb, Sophomore.  This hard working forward is second on the team in rebounding with 5.7pg and turns the ball over a lot for a forward, about two per game.  He gets to the line the most on the team makes them at a 65% clip.  He’s averaging 9.4 ppg.
Forward/Center Jonathan Galloway  6’10”, 235 lb, Junior  While not a scoring threat, Galloway is a terrific defender and rebounder, 7.3 rpg. 

Key Reserves:
Guard Max Hazzard   5’10”, 170 lb.  RS Sophomore.  Easily the most accurate 3 point shooter on the team, .440 from beyond the arc, he is third in scoring with 9.6 ppg and second in assists and is playing starter minutes at 23 mpg.
Center Brad Greene  6’10”, 320 lb Sophomore.  The girthy center averages 4.6 ppg and 4.1 rpg in 14 minutes of play.
Forward Elston Jones  6’9”, 275 lb RS Junior Another big body off the bench, he averages 5.6 rbg and 4.2 ppg.
Wing Brandon Smith  6’5”, 195 lb Junior averages 14 mpg. Has started 7 games.  He has attempted 15 three pointers and made just one.
Guard Justin Wertner, 6’4”, 203 lb RS Freshman.  Plays fewer minutes, about 10 mpg, but is a significant 3 point threat, making them at a .455 clip.

View from an Irvine Fan:
--Thanks and credit to Beefeater, very well done.

I classify this as a transition season, meaning that it begins a new cycle with new players. 2016-17 was the culmination of Luke Nelson's four year career and also the last of four consecutive years of UCI's featured 2-3 zone defense, employing a 7-plus foot center in the middle of the paint. Last year's team had only three upperclassmen, all seniors, all graduated. So, unlike last season, this team has no seniors, doesn't use a 7-plus foot center, and plays primarily man-to-man defense. The rotation goes with 3 juniors, 7 sophomores, and, occasionally, a freshman. UCI still plays bigger up front than most DI teams. The bigs are big and they play two bigs at a time. Turner will rotate four players through the PF and C positions.

UCI's strength is in defense and rebounding. The size up front, combined with a quick bunch of guards, gives them a combination of rim protection near the basket and sticky perimeter defense. The weakness is offensive execution and the limited scoring ability of several key rotation players.

Team stats are distorted due to the difficulty of the schedule, but this has partially corrected even after just 5 BWC games. 3-point shooting percentage has increased and turnovers have dropped a bit. The non conference schedule turned out to be far more difficult than the coaches had envisioned when they booked these games. In terms of quality, it ranks in the top ten of all DI (currently #7). Beyond the quality of teams, it also placed the team on a vagabond journey, visiting nine other states (plus Nor Cal). UCI only managed to win 3 out of 14 DI matches. The biggest lowlight of preseason was losing in Southern Texas to UT Rio Grande Valley on the back end of a trip through Logan, Utah. UCI's downfall was succumbing to 40 minutes of full court press. The URGV loss highlighted the team-wide issues with ball handling, and the dearth of practice time available while travelling.

Most of the problems with ball control on offense were to be expected coming into the season. The backcourt features a three sophomore rotation, with another sophomore starting the small forward position. Worku leading role at PG has been a shaky transition from his backup role as a freshman. Not only did he lack the experience, but he's unusually young for his class and so a bit less physically mature than a typical sophomore. He's improved since November, but still has a tremendous upside that probably won't become visible until next season. There has been major positive growth from both Evan Leonard and Max Hazzard. But, against the level of competition they faced in preseason, the backcourt as a whole made too many errors to produce wins in preseason. In BWC, though, all their numbers are up, across the board, as you would expect given the huge difference between the BWC and a top ten schedule.

There have also been problems with the junior class. Some of the problems with inexperience and immaturity might have been alleviated had the two returning juniors provided an offensive anchor for the younger players to hang on to. But, both Galloway and Smith have struggled to produce. It's not a big surprise, because Galloway and Smith were never scorers prior to this season. In 2016-17, the offensive load was carried by other starters, allowing Galloway and Smith to be defensive specialists. The current team doesn't have the luxury of leaning on a go-to guard like Luke Nelson or a low post scorer who commands a double team like Dimakopolous. So, the imbalance of production from Galloway and Smith is bigger problem, at least as long as the sophomores are still experiencing their own struggles with the growth curve. The more dynamic scorers are younger and still prone to mistakes and inconsistency. So, there's no strong identity for the offense yet.

It remains to be seen if the schedule (given the high volume of games, the copious travel, level of competition, and the contrast in styles of each opponent) slowed the growth of the team in the first two months. It certainly seemed like there wasn't much time for the team to focus and concentrate on addressing the biggest weaknesses. The test will be if the team plays better in February than in January, because facing teams a second time and having a normal practice and travel schedule in Big West play will present be the opposite challenge of the non-conference schedule's difficulties. So far, UCI is 3-2 and appear to be trending upward. But, they have yet to beat one of the teams in BWC I would consider to me contenders (lost to UC Davis, lost to CSF, haven't played UCSB or Hawaii yet). Long Beach State doesn't count.

The offensive and defensive rankings (#232 and 97) are revealing, but I think the reality is even more extreme than the rankings. In terms of half-court offense, this has been the worst UCI Russell Turner team, so far. Even the 2011-12 team was better. That team also had no seniors, but at least the junior leaders of that team (Wilder, Starring, Folker) could score the ball and were comfortable in those roles. The current team gets more transition points off steals and fast breaks than prior teams. That is reflection of the speed and athleticism that this team possesses. But, if not for those out-of-system points, the offense would look even worse than it is. Going the other direction on defense, the volume of turnovers, missed shots, and layups has put the UCI defense under more pressure than is necessary. The half court defense, when allowed to set up, is excellent.

There is potential for this team to be good when the offense stabilizes. A certain amount of improvement is inevitable due to the youth of the main offensive players. I think the defense will reveal itself to be top notch the more that they are able to set themselves and not chasing back after missed layups or turnovers. The fact that this team can get points off fast breaks and steals, and is also an excellent offensive rebounding team. In fact, this is the best UCI rebounding team I have ever seen, by far. The half court offense doesn't need to be excellent for UCI to win most games. It just has to rise to the level of competency necessary to support the defense and renounding. There are a number of players on this team who can score, including Rutherford, Leonard, Worku, and Hazzard. If the team can bring those turnovers down and minimize the sloppy possessions, there is the potential to beat anybody in Big West with the grinding defensive style that has been successful for UCI the past five seasons, plus more transition offense than we've seen from UCI in recent years.

UCI was picked by the media to win BWC. At this point, I expect UCI will be somewhere in the mix for the top four spots, but it appears that UCI is a step behind a few teams. This team is more likely to be middle of the pack in January and make a late run in February. I will stand by my prediction for 3rd place, and 4th seems like a pretty good pick, too. I just don't think there will be a way to win the conference race unless the ball handling issues are solved in January. I am seeing some progress, but still a lot of inconsistency.

Some issues may be possible to correct before March (such is turnovers), others may be harder to fix. The lack of improvement in Nov. and Dec. from Galloway and Smith, at least on the offensive side, is troubling. Galloway is scoring under 4 ppg and regularly misses layups. Because he is the best defender and rebounder and something of a leader for the team, his position in the rotation is solidly secured. So whatever UCI does as a team, it has to incorporate Gallo's offense in order to benefit from his defense. Having a non-productive offensive player on the court is a bigger problem if the other four are not highly productive and can all handle the ball. If Gallo doesn't come around in BWC, that is going to be a drawback, regardless of his defense. At the small forward position, Smith has been in a prolonged funk. He lost the starting position to sophomore John Edgar Jr, a preferred walk-on (now on scholarship). Edgar Jr. is one of the most improved players and he brings some scoring punch that Smith lacks. But, Edgar Jr. was not expected to be the primary SF this season. He's inconsistent as well, as one would expect going from a minor role last season into a starting role this season. It has been a serious challenge to get five players on the court together who can execute offensively. Between the struggles of Galloway and Smith, Worku's immaturity, and the inconsistency of some others, such as Edgar Jr., most of the time UCI does not have a reliable offensive unit. The question will be if most of those issues can be solved over the next couple months or if it's going to require another offseason of individual development to get this team to play connected and consistently. 

Match-up & prediction:

As Beefeater made clear, UCI’s record and statistical ratings are a product of a very difficult, mostly road OOC schedule.  Still, with losses to Davis and Fullerton, the preseason pick of first place was too lofty for such a young team.  Irvine strikes me as a team somewhat similar to Fullerton, with some speedy guards on in Worku, Hazzard and Leonard.  Down low they don’t have a forward as offensively skilled as Jackson Rowe but they have more size & depth and boast a  +7.2 rebound margin (#21 in DI).  They are better defensively than Fullerton, more similar to Hawaii in how they rank nationally.  From three, they are more accurate than Fullerton so the pack-line defense that the Gauchos employed against the Titans may allow the Anteaters to get theirs from beyond the perimeter. The Anteaters turn the ball over a lot and at a -4.5 turnover margin they are one of the worst in the country (#344 in DI).   Their only road win on the season is against CSUN.

Keys to the game for the Gauchos: 
·         Canty needs to stay out of foul trouble and Ami & probably Hart too will need to put in some solid minutes to defend the glass.
·         Stop the penetration as they did against Fullerton.  Packing it in may leave the team susceptible to three point shooting but still the better strategy.  Our guards & CT & Blackmon  off the bench need to bring the same level of defensive intensity.
·         Keep the offense moving.  It flowed beautifully against the Titans and now ranks #46 in the country in terms of efficiency.  Irvine is better defensively but I still think the Gauchos will get theirs.

Prediction:  Gauchos win this but Irvine will keep it fairly close.  UCSB 74  UCI 67

Irvine Fun Facts:  Its Irvine, there are no fun facts.
Ivy & Brian Fact:  In the 2010 Census, Irvine was 45% Asian

Official Site:
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How to Watch:   ESPNU

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