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50 Days to Tipoff: Opponent Previews - UCLA and Northwestern

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The non-conference schedule features two teams that reached the Big Dance last year

NCAA Basketball: PAC-12 Conference Tournament-Arizona vs UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As the opponent preview series continues, today offers a look at Tech’s two power-conference opponents in November, both of which reached the NCAA Tournament last season.

Countdown to Tipoff: 22 Days


UCLA

2016-17 Record: 31-5 (15-3 Pac-12), reached Sweet Sixteen in NCAA Tournament

Head Coach: Steve Alford (entering fifth season)

Key Departures: PG Lonzo Ball, PF T.J. Leaf, PF Isaac Hamilton, SG Bryce Alford

Key Returnees: PG Aaron Holiday, C Thomas Welsh

Top Recruits (star ratings from 247Sports): 5* SF Kris Wilkes, 5* PG Jaylen Hands, 4* PF Cody Riley

The LaVar Lonzo Ball experience lasted only one year at UCLA, but it was a fun one. Behind a combination of experienced seniors and wildly talented freshmen, the Bruins won 31 games and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament thanks to one of the most prolific scoring attacks in the country. UCLA averaged 90.4 points per game and finished second in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating. The catalyst for the offense was Ball, a five-star freshman who averaged 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game. But the Bruins thrived because they had weapons all over the floor; all five starters averaged double-digit points for the season, as did reserve guard Aaron Holiday, and power forward T.J. Leaf and center Thomas Welsh both recorded over eight rebounds per game.

The bad news for UCLA is that most of those weapons are gone. Ball, Leaf, and backup center Ike Anigbogu (also a freshman) all declared for the NBA draft and were selected, with Ball going No. 2 overall and Leaf also going in the first round. Senior guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have exhausted their eligibility. That means UCLA will be without five of their top seven scorers and rebounders from a year ago.

The good news is that things could have been much worse. Holiday and Welsh flirted with entering the NBA Draft, and had they chosen to turn pro, UCLA’s roster would have been utterly barren. Instead, they decided to return to school, giving Alford a couple of very talented building blocks as he looks to restock the roster. They’ll be surrounded by a group of talented freshmen that features two five-star signees, small forward Kris Wilkes and point guard Jaylen Hands. If those two pan out, it’s likely that UCLA will field a fairly traditional lineup (center, two forwards, two guards) this season. Holiday and Hands can share backcourt duties and possibly point guard responsibilities; Wilkes can play the three while senior G.G. Goloman steps in at power forward; and Welsh can hold down the fort at center. Freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill could push Goloman for the power forward job, and guard Prince Ali—an All-Name Team candidate—is back from a knee injury and should be a useful backcourt reserve. There are a lot of question marks given the massive roster overhaul, but in the end, talent should win out and the Bruins should find themselves back in the Pac-12 title hunt.

UCLA’s game against Tech—which will take place in Shanghai on Nov. 11 (though it’ll still be Nov. 10 on U.S. soil)—is an intriguing one in terms of matchups. If the Bruins use the lineup described in the previous paragraph, it would mean a battle of senior centers between Welsh and Ben Lammers and a fun backcourt matchup between Holiday and Josh Okogie. The game might hinge on how Tech fares in every other matchup, though, because UCLA will have the talent edge at pretty much every other position. Chances are this game will go UCLA’s way, but given how much they’re having to rebuild the roster, Tech has a shot in this one.

Setting aside the 2011-12 season, when Tech’s home arena was being renovated, this will be the first time the Jackets have opened the regular season away from home in at least 20 years.

(Author’s note: as neat as it is for Tech to have a game in China, speaking as someone who currently lives in Los Angeles, I am very sad that this isn’t a home-and-home series instead.)

Northwestern

2016-17 Record: 24-12 (10-8), reached Round of 32 in NCAA Tournament

Head Coach: Chris Collins (entering fifth season)

Key Departures: SG Sanjay Lumpkin, SF Nathan Taphorn, PF Gavin Skelly

Key Returnees: PG Bryant McIntosh, SG Scottie Lindsey, SF Vic Law, PF/C Dererk Pardon, PF Gavin Skelly

Top Recruits (star ratings from 247Sports): 3* SG Anthony Gaines

Tech’s opponent in this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge was one of the best stories of the 2016-17 season. On the heels of one of their best regular-season efforts in team history, Northwestern cracked the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in the 78-year history of their men’s basketball program. The eighth-seeded Wildcats knocked off Vanderbilt in their first tournament game, then gave No. 1 seed Gonzaga a fight in the next round before ending up on the wrong end of a colossal officiating blunder bowing out. But this might just be the beginning for Northwestern, because nearly every major contributor from last year’s squad returns for the 2017-18 campaign.

The only players gone are guard Sanjay Lumpkin and forward Nathan Taphorn, both of whom were seniors a year ago. The bigger loss is Lumpkin, who didn’t put up huge numbers but was a four-year starter and a solid perimeter defender for the Wildcats. It might sound cliché, but replacing his leadership could legitimately be a challenge.

On the flip side, Northwestern returns a huge amount of veteran talent across the roster. That starts with seniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, who both averaged over 14 points per game and will give the Wildcats a seasoned and talented backcourt. The single most talented player on the roster is small forward Vic Law, a former four-star recruit who averaged 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season. Center Dererk Pardon is a defensive menace despite standing at just 6-foot-8. The frontcourt is thin on experience behind Pardon and rising senior Gavin Skelly, but it should get a talent infusion as Aaron Falzon (a former four-star recruit) and Rapolas Ivanauskas return from injury. All in all, depending on whether Collins wants to go with a traditional lineup or a three guard set, Northwestern’s starting lineup will likely feature McIntosh, Lindsey, Law, Pardon, and either Skelly or sophomore guard Isiah Brown.

This is a very tough matchup for Tech, even in Atlanta (and yes it’s very weird to say that about Northwestern, but also kinda cool). The main objective for Josh Pastner’s squad will be to force Northwestern to take lots of outside shots, because aside from Law (39.9% on three-point attempts), this team was not good from beyond the arc. McIntosh and Lindsey shot 30.7% and 32.2% from three-point range last year, respectively, and nobody else on the team shoots many three-pointers. Pardon will be a handful for Lammers on the interior, and Okogie and Tadric Jackson will have their hands full with Lindsey and Law. It’s a tough matchup across the board, but Lammers’ presence should deter the guards from driving often; if that leads to some missed outside shots, that could bode well for Tech as they seek an early win over a Northwestern team that should contend for the Big Ten title next year.