If the UCLA Bruins aren't yet prepared for the rigors of Pac-12 play, a battle with the No. 7 Missouri Tigers should do the trick.
After a rough start to the season, Ben Howland's squad has reeled off four straight wins, and on Friday night, we'll get a chance to find out if that turnaround—three of those wins have been at home against powerhouses Prairie View, Long Beach State and Fresno State—is for real.
The Bruins get to stay at the revamped Pauley Pavilion, but Missouri, which sits at 10-1 with revealing wins over Stanford, VCU and Illinois, will give them a challenging test before conference play gets started.
Let's take a look at everything you need to know about this intriguing battle.
Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 10 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Missouri Injury Report (via USA Today)
F Tony Criswell, Finger, Out
G Dominique Bull, Suspension, Out
G Michael Dixon, Suspension, Left Team
UCLA Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Nick Kazemi, Knee, Out
F Joshua Smith, Left Team
G Tyler Lamb, Left Team
What They're Saying
Last year, Missouri was dangerous because it showcased a four-guard lineup that could catch fire from the outside and turn a close game into a blowout in a matter of minutes.
Oh how things change.
Ben Howland (via CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein) points out where the Tigers' strengths lie after losing guys like Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Michael Dixon:
Howland on Missouri "They lead the nation in rebounding margin. They're really tough on the boards."— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 27, 2012
That number was significantly improved last week when Missouri out-rebounded then-No. 10 Illinois 51-29 in a huge win.
Power forward Laurence Bowers, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best 4's in the country, points towards his frontcourt mate as the reason for Missouri's successful identity transformation (via Rush the Court's Danny Spewak):
“Alex is just a monster on the glass. We see that every day in practice. We call it eating,” senior forward Laurence Bowers said. “That’s how Alex eats.”
Oriakhi—a transfer from UConn—is averaging a career-high 9.1 rebounds per game and is 50th in the nation in rebound rate.
Missouri Player to Watch: Jabari Brown
Brown, who was ranked by most as a 5-star prospect in the Class of 2011, played just two games for Oregon last season before deciding to transfer.
In those two games, he shot 3-of-11 for 12 points and turned the ball over 11 times. Nothing like a 1-to-1 point-to-turnover ratio.
So far for the Tigers, Brown has gotten off to a little better start with 30 points and just five turnovers in two contests.
The sophomore does a lot of things well, but if Missouri is going to make a deep run in March, Brown is going to have to consistently knock down the three-ball.
He certainly hasn't been shy so far (seven three-point attempts in both contests), but it has only resulted in 28.6 percent mark from beyond the arc. Nonetheless, he has shown nearly limitless range and the ability to make defenses pay when he gets hot.
Pay close attention to Brown, as he will be a crucial weapon for the Tigers, who are just 211th in the country in three-point field-goal percentage and 269th in three-point field-goal point percentage.
UCLA Player to Watch: Shabazz Muhammad
You could go a number of various ways here.
At 6'9" Kyle Anderson, who plays anything from point guard to power forward, is one of the most unique players in the nation. Jordan Adams, the forgotten freshman in UCLA's top class, has provided more scoring consistency than anyone. Larry Drew II boasts a ridiculous assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.4-to-1, which is fourth-best in the land.
When the Bruins are on offense, they have a seemingly limitless amount of options, but there are none better than freshman Shabazz Muhammad.
I feel a little cheap naming the most obvious playing in this section, but I'm listing the phenom here not because of what he's doing, but how he's doing it.
Coming into the season, Muhammad, who was seen as a near lock for Freshman of the Year and the No. 1 pick in next year's NBA draft, was touted as a ridiculous athletic specimen who could score pretty much however he wanted, although he needed some work on his outside shot.
Well, he's done pretty much the opposite. Thanks to an offseason of turmoil, the talented wing is still not in ideal game shape, and as a result, hasn't really looked all that explosive off the dribble. Teams have forced the lefty to his opposite hand, and he hasn't been able to drive past defenders with ease.
Yet, in incredibly quiet fashion, Muhammad is still finding a way to average 18.8 points per game and 27.1 points per 40 minutes (which is 12th in the nation).
Surprisingly, a consistent outside stroke has helped him accomplish those impressive numbers. Muhammad is shooting just 39 percent on two-point jumpers (via Hoop-Math), but he's knocking down a staggering 48 percent of his threes.
Muhammad is an energy-filled hard worker who still is most dangerous getting into the lane, but if he continues to shoot from the outside at this pace, he is going to be unstoppable on the offensive end.
Matchup to Watch: Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers vs. The Wear Twins
It's close, but you have to give the backcourt advantage to UCLA in this one.
If the Bruins want to win, however, they are going to have to limit the damage Oriakhi and Bowers do on the inside.
Travis and David Wear have plenty of size at 6'10", but they are face-up power forwards and don't do much banging down low. As such, they rank 501st and 558th in the nation in rebounding rate, which are atrocious numbers considering their height.
UCLA is still a good rebounding team because Anderson, Muhammad and Adams all provide sublime rebounding for wing players, but Missouri, which ranks third in the country in rebounding rate, is unlike any team the Bruins have faced.
The big boys are going to have to find a way to keep Oriakhi, Bowers and the rest of Missouri's glass-crashers (say that three times fast) out of the lane.
Expect Missouri, much like it has done all year, to control the glass against UCLA's underwhelming frontcourt.
But at home, the Bruins, who have looked gaudy with the ball in their hands in the last three contests, should be able to provide just enough offense to offset that and their inconsistent defense.
Go with the upset.
Missouri 75, UCLA 79