In a possible preview of pounding to come, Michigan started banging J.R. Henderson a little early Saturday.
"The word on him," 6-foot-9 reserve Wolverine forward Maceo Baston said of the less-than-bulky UCLA senior forward, "is he's a guy who doesn't like to get hit very much. So, we'll see what happens."
Because he has been the Bruins' only major inside player since Jelani McCoy's departure last month, Henderson will get leaned on plenty in UCLA's South Regional second-round game against Michigan at the Georgia Dome today.
Because the No. 3-seeded Wolverines have one of the best collections of athletic power players in the nation, Henderson is the Bruins' essential player, a slender single-tower formation against a broad wall of muscle.
Because the weight of evidence--all 300 pounds of it--is on Michigan and chunky center Robert Traylor's side, all the 6-8, 233-pound Henderson could do was smile softly Saturday and accept the consequences.
Maybe, in his own subtle way, even embrace them.
"I like challenges," Henderson said of being UCLA's last line of defense (and offense) against Traylor & Co. "I've had many challenges in my career, and this is just another one I have to face.
"He's a great player. And I consider myself a good player also."
Said Baston of Traylor: "Guys get intimidated by him. They don't play as hard against him because they fear for their health."
Of course, Michigan-UCLA is a game with many more elements than Henderson's savvy and speed vs. Traylor's bulk and hunger for post position.
There's Wolverine guard Louis Bullock's deadeye shooting vs. the Bruins' sometimes-slack perimeter defense; UCLA's full-court press against Michigan's sometimes shaky ballhandling; Bruin senior Kris Johnson's ability to bounce back from a foul-prone night to try to resume his big-scoring ways and Michigan point guard Robbie Reid and forward Jerod Ward's abilities to take advantage of the defense's obsession with Traylor and Bullock.
And nobody sees the bigger picture more clearly than Henderson.
"One man is not going to beat us," Henderson said before UCLA's 90-minute workout. "We're going to double-down on him, make him give the ball up, and if no one else can score, then we're going to win."
The words came out sleepily, as usual, from Henderson.
But Toby Bailey, his senior partner, said anyone who knows Henderson well knows that he is energized by the thought of battling such a high-profile and large-waisted player.
"J.R. has always stepped up to the competition whenever's somebody's hyping up a match between him and somebody else," Bailey said. "When it was him and [New Mexico's 260-pound] Kenny Thomas early in the season, he stepped up and showed who was the best forward in college basketball [when he outscored Thomas, 24-8, in a UCLA victory].
"I don't think it's going to be anything different tomorrow. I'm sure we'll have to help--he's giving up some size. As long as we help out, I think we should be able to handle it."
Henderson, who might be a small forward in the NBA, didn't want it this way.
He wanted to play side by side with McCoy all season, which would have allowed him to wander inside and outside, to the three-point arc and under the basket, displaying his versatility and possibly even an outside jump shot.
That didn't materialize, and instead, Henderson's list of personal challenges--from Washington 7-footer Todd MacCulloch to North Carolina's Antawn Jamison--is culminating literally with the biggest.
"He hates playing center," Bailey said. "He'll be the first one to say that.
"This summer, it just looked like it was going to be the perfect scenario. We got the great recruiting class, everybody was healthy, everybody was cool. 'J' was going to be able to play his natural spot, I was going to be able to play my natural spot, it was just going to be perfect."
And now that Henderson is locked down low?
"I don't think you even see half of his game," Bailey said. "In practice, you see him going up against smaller guys, doing his inside-out, cross-over dribble. He doesn't really get to show it that much when he's down there posting up guys.
"He shoots threes in practice, stuff like that. And he doesn't get to show that, either. I'm sure when he goes on to the next level, he's going to definitely flourish."
Henderson, averaging slightly more than 19 points this season, set career highs three times over a 13-game span this season--scoring 29 against Northern Arizona, 31 at Arizona State and 32 against Louisville.
But two of those three came with McCoy on the team, and, with McCoy gone, teams have tried to deny Henderson the ball and rattle him with physical play on both ends of the floor.
Said Henderson, when asked how much of his abilities are removed from him when he is forced to play strictly in the middle: "I don't know how much of it is suited to being a center. I can make a post move. but otherwise . . .
"I like to play around the mid-range area, maybe make a move going to the basket or pulling up. But I haven't had many chances to do that.
"In order for our offense not to be stagnant and not stand around, it's been kind of non-motional [Henderson must stay inside]. . . . We've got a lot of perimeter guys, and if I'm out there, it's everyone outside and no one inside.
"I've showed flashes of what I can do. Mainly, when I had my career highs, I was going inside and out. I don't think I have anything to prove to anyone. I was trying to do what's best for the team, try to stay inside the whole time."
UCLA (23-8) vs. Michigan (25-8). Today, 2 p.m. (time approximate) Channel 2