The eyes of the college basketball nation will be focused squarely on Austin tonight when the No. 8 Texas Longhorns host the No. 9 UCLA Bruins in a Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series rematch.
When Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns traveled west to meet Ben Howland’s UCLA Bruins at the Pauley Pavilion 368 days ago, the two squads brought in a combined 13-0 record with one year and ranked in the Top 10, with UCLA sitting No. 2 overall. Though each school lost a key player or two since last season, not much has changed as the two teams prepare to meet again tonight at the Erwin Center in Austin.
Each school will bring a loss into this one as compared to the unbeaten marks they had before the game on Dec 2, 2007. The Longhorns (5-1) fell to Notre Dame 81-80 in the semis of the Maui Invitational when A.J. Abrams’ (Sr, 5-11) half-court heave clanged off the front of the rim as time expired. UCLA’s only loss so far came in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden about two weeks ago when Michigan upset the Bruins, 55-52. In that game, Josh Shipp (Sr, 6-5) was held to a season-low five points.
When the Horns and Bruins met out in LA last season, Texas coughed up a 16-point lead before a Damion James (Jr, 6-7) dunk in the final seconds secured a 63-61 win to snap UCLA’s 25-game home court winning streak. James’ winning dunk at the end game him 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the game. This will be the fourth meeting between the two, the first on Texas’ hardwood.
Since their loss to the Wolverines, the Bruins have beaten the Southern Illinois Salukis 77-60 and Florida International 89-54. Darren Collison (Sr, 6-0) leads UCLA with a 15.0 point average, also topping the team charts with 4.8 assist per game. Freshman guard Jrue Holiday (6-3) is the only other Bruin in double figures at 11.6 per contest with Shipp just under the mark at 9.8 per game.
UCLA comes into this one a bit banged up with three key contributors at less than 100%. Malcolm Lee (Fr, 6-5) is nursing a slight right ankle sprain but has managed to play in all five games so far for the Bruins, averaging 12.6 minutes per night. Alfred Aboya (Sr, 6-9), who had a season-high 22 points in the win over Southern Illinois, is playing despite a sprained left wrist he suffered against Michigan. And Euro import Nikola Dragovic (So, 6-8) has been limited with a left knee contusion.
Following their loss against Notre Dame out in Hawaii, Texas cruised to 70-57 and 77-56 wins over Oregon and Rice respectively. Abrams leads the team in scoring with a 15.8 average while James is the leading rebounder and 8.0 boards per contest to go with his 14.5 ppg. Justin Mason (Jr, 6-2), following a totally lackluster performance in the Longhorns’ 68-50 win over Saint Joseph’s in their Maui opener, has averaged 16 per game since and leads the team in assists with 4.7 per contest.
The key player for Texas in this one could be Gary Johnson (So, 6-7) who has seen his minutes slowly increase since the season started. The Aldine HS product out of Houston has reached double-digits in all but the first game of the season, averaging 10.8 per game and 7.8 rebounds.
With three consecutive Pac 10 titles and three straight Final Four appearances, there’s no question that Howland and the Bruins know how to win and have proven that against top teams. In their eight games against ranked schools last season, UCLA went 6-2 with the only losses to Texas in the regular season and Memphis in the Final Four.
Texas also knows how to win with a 24-8 mark at home against ranked schools since Barnes arrived 10 seasons ago and a 95-6 overall home record in their last 101 at the Frank Erwin Center. The last eight ranked opponents to travel to Austin have all gone home with a loss.
The two teams are very close statistically across the board. Texas has averaged 73.2 ppg to UCLA’s 72.8. The Bruins are turning it over 15.0 times per game while Texas chimes in with 14.0 miscues. The stat similarities also include poor free throw marks with UCLA hitting just over 64% from the stripe and Texas just 61%, so if it comes down to free throws at the end, as these games so often do, it could get very interesting.
The spread is sitting on six in favor of the Longhorns, and at that number I like the road dogs with UCLA +6. Texas should win, but I think a 3-4 point differential at the final buzzer, say 78-75, sounds about right.