In terms of the Pac 12 race, UCLA still finds itself trailing Oregon by one game, but in terms of perception and how the victory was viewed nationally, the win was enormous. The Wildcats were the #2 RPI team in the country and #6 in both polls. They had beaten Florida and San Diego State. The fact that the Bruins did this on Arizona's home floor and with two starters playing with lingering effects of the stomach flu, and a third starter going out midway through the first half. makes the victory even more satisfying.
However, now it's time to come back to reality with another game for the Bruins to play before they can successfully leave the desert. Unranked UCLA will play at unranked Arizona State (@ Tempe, 1 PM PST, FSN), and the game should be difficult for a variety of reasons. In fact, based on what happened Thursday night, wining this game has the potential to be more difficult than winning in Tucson.
One of the biggest reasons why the game will be difficult is redshirt freshman point guard Jahii Carson (5'10" 185 lbs.). He is without question the best point guard in the conference. About the only thing he doesn't do well is shoot three-pointers. He leads the team in scoring at 17.5 PPG and in assists at almost 6 APG. The biggest reason that Carson will be an issue for the Bruins, though, is because he is very quick. He is quicker than any guard that Larry Drew II and Norman Powell have seen yet this season and they probably won't see one quicker. Just on his ability alone, the Sun Devils have a very realistic chance to pull out this game.
From there, however, personnel matters tilt in UCLA's favor. None of the remaining Sun Devils are great athletes, although they are smart basketball players. The remaining cagers for Coach Herb Sendek are led by senior forward Carrick Felix (6'6" 197 lbs.), who began last year quite well but tailed off as the conference season began. He again started well this season but he has kept his performance at a high level. He averages 14.6 PPG and a team-leading 8.1 RPG, is shooting better than 52% from the field and is the most consistent and dangerous three-point shooter at 37%.
Sendek's main threat in the low post is junior Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 250 lbs.). He has been solid, averaging 9.9 PPG on plus-50% shooting, 6.9 RPG and has been a physical presence in the paint, averaging a whopping 4 BPG. He still doesn't shoot free throws well, but his main contribution to the team's success has unquestionably been his shot blocking. The funny thing is that Bachynski is a very average athlete on a good day. He has managed to train himself to be in the right position at the right time. It also helps that he is a legitimate 7'2". However, the Bruin have the advantage of running an offense that minimizes the impact of a shot blocker, both because of the early nature of the offense and because of the ability of both Wears and Kyle Anderson to hit the mid-range jumper. Heck, we can even count Tony Parker now after he hit that falling fall-away and-one at Arizona on Thursday night. The point is that the Bruins are apt to pull away Bachynski from the rim because if he roots himself there then any of the basket-facing Bruin forwards could go off.
Sophomore Jonathan Gilling (6'7" 215 lbs.) of Denmark will start at the power forward position. Gilling deserves credit for developing his game from last season, being strictly a skinny three-point specialist last year. While he still is a three-pointer waiting to happen (120 of his 152 shot attempts have come from beyond the arc), he has really developed his ability to hit the boards, averaging 7.1 RPG. He isn't quick at all, though, and the Bruins would be advised to face-guard him all game.
Rounding out Sendek's essentially six-man rotation are junior transfer Evan Gordon (6'1" 187 lbs.) and senior Chris Colvin (6'2" 185 lbs.). Gordon starts but Colvin, who was suspended for the first UCLA game last season, plays starter's minutes. Gordon, who is the younger brother of former Indiana standout Eric Gordon, is also a three-point specialist, taking 104 of his 172 shots from outside the arc. However, he is averaging 11.1 PPG. Colvin has become the do-everything guy for Sendek and while his shooting has been so-so his rebounding average would be around 7 RPG if he played the same amount of minutes as Gilling or Felix. Colvin sat out the Thursday game against USC and last weekend's game against Arizona for another violation of team rules. It isn't known yet if he'll play on Saturday. Sendek was forced to play senior Ruslan Pateev (7'0" 255 lbs.) for 23 minutes. Pateev started ahead of Bachynski last season for part of the year and is a similar player but without the shot-blocking of his teammate.
The total package of Arizona State, however, is better than the sum of its parts, mostly because Carson takes the team to another level. UCLA should enjoy an advantage, at least partly, at every other position on the floor, but Carson can be so dominant that he can single-handedly beat the Bruins.
That's because Sendek has changed his offense. He is clearly more up-tempo than he has been in the past. In fact, much of ASU's offense will resemble the dribble-drive motion. Here's how the Sun Devils' work their offense: Bachynski generally sits on the opposite low post while Gilling, Gordon and Felix sit outside the three-point line. Carson drives and demands help defense because if you don't he'll score 30+ points. If you give help, he simply kicks it out to one of the shooters for an open three or, occasionally, dumps it down to the opposite low post. The three-point shooters for the Sun Devils will bury many of the shots that Arizona missed on Thursday because they take those shots within the scheme of the offense and not as a consequence of a one-on-one movement. Expect Norman Powell to play a lot on Saturday because either Drew will not be able to guard Carson or he'll get in foul trouble, or both. If the Bruins have to give help then the best help would be from the player already on the low block. However, that could also lead to foul issues and the Bruins can't afford that right now, which leads me to the second reason that the Bruins may struggle to win in Tempe.
Travis Wear apparently failed a concussion test during the game on Thursday. That makes the win in Tucson that much more remarkable (considering how Wear had been playing as of late). Without him the Bruins are left with really two true forwards. Tony Parker did a nice job in his 10 minutes of action (did I mention the and-one?) but the reality is, with the assumption that Wear won't play, that UCLA is very thin in the paint. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Howland should have more information on Travis Wear's availability in a conference call Friday afternoon].
Reason #3 for concern is the mental and physical toll that Thursday night took on the Bruins. Yeah, yeah, I know, that four ASU starters played more than 40 minutes (and Gordon never came off the floor), but they are all healthy. And let's face it -- teams get up for playing UCLA much more than getting up for USC. That's why the transitive property of sports simply doesn't work as an accurate predictor of outcomes based on common opponents. ASU should be mentally ready to go, (although with both the Sun Devils and the Bruins looking to run then ASU should begin to look tired roughly when some of the Bruins do), whereas you absolutely have to question whether the Bruins will be mentally up for the game.
Finally, Howland is notorious for better preparing his squad for Thursday games. While the complete inverse is not true with regard to Saturday games, it is without question that the Bruins are nowhere near as good under Howland on Saturdays as they are on Thursdays.
If Travis Wear can play, even a bit, that would go a long way to helping the Bruin cause. However, there's that gnawing feeling about this game being much closer than it should be because of Carson. See, UCLA didn't play great defense against the Wildcats on Thursday. The Bruins did some things well, namely contest shots in the interior and rebound, but they left a lot of open shooters at the three-point line. Arizona just missed (5-24 from behind the arc) its shots. Maybe that was because the Wildcats were tired from the pounding of being contested on the inside…whatever the reason, you can bet the mortgage that if ASU's shooters are left that open they'll shoot better than Arizona.
This is another test for the Bruins, this one of resiliency. This is just as big of a test as Thursday's game was, in some ways bigger. Will the Bruins be able to shake off the self-satisfaction of the Arizona victory and bring the effort to Tucson they displayed Thursday night?
ASU's defense is pretty darn good, allowing only 39% shooting from the field. But the Sun Devil defense is predicated on pressuring the ball and funneling opponents toward the middle where Bachynski can clean it up. The Sun Devils, though, haven't really seen UCLA's kind of offense yet this season and there is some question how the ASU defense will hold up with Bachynski being pulled out of the paint frequently.
This is going to be close. In fact, don't be surprised if the final score is correct but the teams are reversed.
Arizona State 77