Scouting SDSU’s next opponent, UC Irvine

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

The Aztecs next opponent is the Anteaters of UC Irvine. UCI is coming off a road loss against Utah State last Saturday. They also lost to San Jose State earlier in the season. This game presents the Aztecs with an important measuring stick for how they compare to a pair of conference foes. 

SDSU returns home after two road contests. Playing in front of The Show should help as the Aztecs try to get the bad taste out of their mouth after losing to Grand Canyon on Tuesday. A victory over the Anteaters would give SDSU some momentum before facing Stanford and Gonzaga at the end of the month.  

General observations

UC Irvine is a defensively focused team, although they are good on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they are efficient behind the arc, but they take very few threes. What limits them offensively is turnovers, as they rank 253rd in offensive turnover percentage. Defensively, they are good at forcing misses but can be foul-prone as a team. They have the depth to absorb those fouls, though, as their bench players play more than any other team in the nation. 

Guarding UC Irvine

Conceptually, the game plan to slow down the Anteaters isn’t difficult. UCI wants to score in the paint, often declining decent perimeter looks to do so. They prefer the dribble drive but aren’t opposed to posting up a big, either. The Anteaters don’t run a lot of set plays with complicated actions and weak side movements. They tend to run a lot of high pick and roll. If the first screen doesn’t work, the big will pivot and set another one until it works. 

Head coach Russell Turner’s squad executes very well. They have guards who can get into the paint, and the interior passing is excellent. Their guards excel at drawing help from a defensive big man and then dumping the ball off to their teammate for an open layup or dunk. 

UCI can do it in slightly different ways, too. They can dump off to a rolling big, as in the video below. Or they can dump off to a big who is in “read opposite.” That means the big man stays in the weakside dunker spot, waiting for their defender to leave him open. 

If the defensive big steps up, it also makes it easier for an Anteater to get an offensive rebound and putback, which is something the Aztecs have struggled with at times. Their bigs are also great at passing to the weakside dunker spot if they get double-teamed. 

If the defensive big doesn’t help, the guards are adept at scoring themselves. So it’s a “pick your poison” type of situation. 

The Aztecs have a very help-heavy defensive system, where the defensive bigs are expected to step up and help contest shots, and wings are often expected to help even from one pass away. UC Irvine has been able to succeed against that style of defense more often than not. 

 The Aztecs have solid defenders and are longer than UC Irvine along the perimeter. It will serve them to try to guard the Anteaters one-on-one as much as possible. If the Aztec defenders can stay in front and contest shots, they will be in a better position to grab rebounds and end possessions.

Switching on screens may help in that regard. It’s not something the Aztecs have done a lot of, but they’ve done it for a few different stretches. If the Aztecs can switch on screens for a few possessions every once in a while, it may throw off the rhythm of the Anteaters’ offense. 

If the Aztecs can’t stay in front, then the Anteaters will feast on passes through tight windows and offensive rebounds. 

One last note, the numbers say UC Irvine runs at an average pace, but it’s deceptive. They like to get up the floor quickly, occasionally even running after a made basket. It’s just not always successful, so they have to pull back and play in the halfcourt. If the Aztecs get back slow, they will get burned, despite what the numbers say. 

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Attacking UC Irvine

Similar to their offense, UC Irvine’s defense is relatively simple in concept but hard to score against. Their bigs are almost always in a drop coverage. It is rare to see their big man without at least one foot in the paint. If the player they are guarding is a non-threat from outside, they will leave them completely alone. 

It will be interesting to see how they treat LeDee in this game. Will he be seen as a perimeter threat or not? If so, the Anteater’s slow-footed big men will be further away from the basket, hopefully opening up driving lanes. If not, LeDee could have a field day raining down those mid-range jumpers he’s been so good at this season. 

Playing a drop coverage on screens opens up several possibilities. It leaves shooters open when running off screens, especially if the perimeter defender goes under the screen. Aztec fans will recognize what that looks like, as it’s the defense UCSD was using when Lamont Butler led the comeback to win that game. 

UC Irvine tries to have its perimeter players go over the screens instead, with the hopes of forcing ball handlers into the midrange to take tough twos. When that happens, the ball handler will need to decide if the best option is to pull up from midrange, attack a slower-footed big man to finish at the rim, or give the Anteaters a taste of their own medicine and dump off to a big man. The best option is usually the dump-off, although it’s also usually the hardest option to pull off successfully. For all of the struggles Butler and Trammell have had scoring the ball, they’ve both been passing the ball well. 

Play to watch for

UCLA Pick and Roll

The first screen in this set isn’t technically a UCLA screen, but it’s the closest thing I know of. The ball handler passes to the wing, then cuts up the court off of a screen. This is followed by the new ball handler running a pick and roll. It is a deadly play against the type of defense the Aztecs like to run because LeDee will traditionally help on the first cut, leaving him out of position to help in the pick and roll. It’s a really simple design but works very well. 

Players to watch

Justin Hohn, #2, 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1 assist

Hohn is the leading scorer for the Anteaters and does so with efficiency. Part of the beauty of the Anteaters system is that they don’t need one guy to carry them every night, but when it comes to taking the last shot, it will likely be Hohn. 

Pierre Crockwell, #3, 4.8 points, 1.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists. 

Crockwell is one of the better pure point guards in the nation. His assist percentage of 41.4% currently ranks 10th in the nation. He is extremely good at drawing a second defender and dishing the ball through traffic to a big man for an easy bucket. Guarding him one-on-one may be key in this game. 

Andre Henry, #4, 10.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists 

Henry is arguably the best perimeter defender on the team. He is a two-way play who can hound the opposition as well as lead his team in scoring on any given night. 

X-Factor- Perimeter defense

If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, the Anteaters like to drive the ball inside and finish in the paint or dish to their big men. Staying in front on the drives will be crucial in this game. If the Aztecs can stay in front and force tough shots, they’ll live with the results. 

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