MISSOULA — Travis DeCuire knows his Montana Grizzlies face a big challenge in their upcoming basketball game against the UCLA Bruins.
“Probably the toughest game we would have played in the last year or two, with the exception of maybe Oregon,” the head coach said after Sunday’s win over Cal State Northridge. "... They're about as good as anyone we can play right now."
Last season, the Griz lost 81-67 to the Oregon Ducks, who went on to make the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, where they lost by one point to the eventual national champion, North Carolina.
This year’s UCLA team — ranked No. 23 nationally in the USA Today Coaches Poll — may not be Final Four caliber, but it should be the toughest competition the Griz play this regular season. The game is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.
UCLA has been on an offensive tear during its 7-1 start to the season. The Bruins have averaged 86.8 points per game, which ranks 26th in Division I; the Griz haven’t scored more than 86 points once through eight games.
Montana will need a complete defensive effort, especially getting back in transition, to slow an athletic, uptempo UCLA team that pushes the ball. The Bruins are shooting 48.1 percent, which ranks 70th in the country, and are attempting 64.2 field goals per game, which is 29th most.
“I don’t know that anybody we’ve played pushes the ball like that,” DeCuire said. “They’re going to take the first good shot they think they can get. They have a lot of talent. Rather than worry about who got a shot where, they’re going to try to get up as many shots as they can. We have to get back and contest their shots.”
The young Bruins squad has seven freshmen and four sophomores but was still picked to finish third in the Pac-12 preseason poll.
They have two single-possession wins and have been in two tight games against mid majors. They needed overtime to beat Central Arkansas, 106-101, and Cal State Bakersfield played them within seven points late into the second half before falling, 75-66.
“They have youth, and youth makes mistakes,” DeCuire said. “They don’t have great habits with how to handle certain situations. If you can exploit them, you’ll give yourself a chance.”
The Griz can’t key in on just one or two Bruins since UCLA has five players, including four starters, who are averaging double figures scoring.
Junior guard Aaron Holiday paces the Bruins at 16.5 points. He’s contributing 5.5 assists, which ranks 40th in the country.
“He’s always constantly in attack mode,” said Griz junior Mike Oguine. “He’s a very physical driver. He’s looking for contact a lot, so we have to make sure we don’t pick up any cheap fouls on him and make him earn every bucket.”
Senior 7-foot center Thomas Welsh is averaging a double-double of 12.5 points and 10.9 rebounds, the latter of which ranks 13th in the country.
The Bruins have two 2017 McDonald’s All-Americans in freshmen guards Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands. Wilkes is scoring 13.1 points, and Hands is averaging 12.9 points as he has gone from the starting lineup to the sixth-man role after he reportedly sprained his left foot on Nov. 21.
Starters Prince Ali, a redshirt sophomore guard, and Gyorgy Goloman, a 6-foot-11 senior, are adding 11.6 and 7.5 points, respectively.
The Bruins’ height could give the Griz problems inside. They’re averaging 42.6 rebounds per game, which ranks 18th in the nation, and their zone defense could make scoring in the lane tougher.
“I’m used to playing against height,” Griz forward Jamar Akoh said. “I have to use my size and strength to work angles around them.”
The three UCLA freshmen who were suspended indefinitely for shoplifting in China in November — LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill — haven’t played yet this season. LaVar Ball, LiAngelo’s dad, withdrew his son from the school on Monday, according to an ESPN report.