The No. 4-ranked Villanova Wildcats are set to take on the No. 2-ranked UCLA Bruins on Friday night in Los Angeles. Both teams are coming off impressive opening night tune-up games as ‘Nova took down Mount Saint Mary’s with ease, and Mick Cronin’s group dominated CSU Bakersfield.
Scouting the Bruins
UCLA comes into the 2021-22 season with national championship aspirations, fresh off an unforgettable run from the First Four to the Final Four. They bring back their entire core, led by a deadly duo of wings in Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. Juzang was named to last year’s Final Four all-tournament team, the East region’s most outstanding player, and comes into the year a preseason All-American. Jaquez was a breakout star in the tournament, bursting onto the scene with a 27-point performance against Michigan State in the opening round. Both can score from all three levels, so Brandon Slater, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels should have their hands full with these guys all night.
Joining them in the backcourt is Tyger Campbell, a first-team all-hair selection and a third-year starter. Campbell is the heart and soul of this team and averaged 10.4 points and 5.4 assists per game a year ago. Jules Bernard is one of three seniors in the rotation, a sharpshooter who shot 40% from deep last year and 4 for 8 in the opener. Peyton Watson is a heralded five-star freshman forward who struggled in his debut, but cannot be taken lightly.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, senior big man Cody Riley suffered a sprained left knee on Tuesday night. Riley was impressive in the tournament and had declared for the NBA draft before deciding to return for one last ride. This is a break for the Wildcats, though UCLA does have options in the frontcourt. Myles Johnson is a 6-foot-10 transfer from Rutgers, where he averaged 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game last year. Also, Kenneth Nwuba is a 6-10 junior who will eat up some minutes off the bench. So despite the injury, UCLA still figures to be the bigger team down low. If they are the better frontcourt remains to be seen.
Can the ‘Cats Keep Rolling?
The Wildcats put together an impressive performance on Tuesday, albeit against a much lesser opponent. The defense was extremely active, forcing 18 Mountaineer turnovers and setting the tone early. The ball movement was crisp and the shot selection for the most part was really good. We didn’t make many mistakes as there were only 6 turnovers for the game. And there were some great individual performances to admire as well.
It all starts with Justin Moore. What a game. Coming into this year I was expecting him to be the leading scorer for this team and it seems like he’s taken on that “killer” mentality right out of the gate. He got to the rim at will, shot the ball exceptionally well, and flashed improved vision with six assists. We’re one game in, but it already seems like one of the major keys in this team’s success is going to be Moore getting buckets on his own, and that opening things up for the other guys - including Gillespie playing off the ball.
Brandon Slater was the other guy that really stood out. Man, it was good to see him wreaking havoc at the top of the press. Not only that, he was a menace in the half court defense all night as well. His shot looks much improved and he is playing with confidence we haven’t seen before. Slater has massive upside and if he can build off of his game one performance, he will become a nightmare for Big East coaches to prepare for.
Gillespie and Samuels remain reliable producers and the leaders of this team, but in a game like this, it is going to be crucial that someone who hasn’t been mentioned steps up. A couple jumpers off the bench from Caleb Daniels, a few post ups from Eric Dixon, a bucket or two from Longino, Patterson, Njoku or Arcidiacono could very well be the difference against a formidable opponent like UCLA.
The Bottom Line
This game might not mean much come Selection Sunday considering where both teams are projected to finish. As we’ve seen in years past (Oklahoma 2016) results in these early-season tilts don’t always tell the tale of how good a team is come March. But a win at Pauley Pavilion against the No. 2 ranked team would be an incredible confidence-booster to build off of. Expect a high-level game between two veteran-led, well-coached teams Friday night.
We’ve waited all offseason for this one. I’ll be countering the 11:30 p.m. ET start time with an espresso martini. Let’s see what this team’s got.