An NCAA record streak of 54 consecutive winning seasons held by UCLA is in serious jeopardy following home losses to San Diego, Northern Arizona, Michigan, USC and St. John's that has left the team 4-7. The Bruins are also facing a Sun Devils squad that beat them last year in Westwood for the first time in 15 years and is attempting to sweep a road trip to Los Angeles for the first time since 1980. Embattled UCLA head coach Steve Lavin has faced more speculation surrounding his job in the last week that at any other time in his tenure and it was widely reported, falsely, that he was considering resigning prior to the game with Arizona State.
Lavin's team features a three-time all-conference player, 6'7 senior Jason Kapono, one of the best pure shooters in the college ranks. Kapono is a streak shooter who is capable of going on unbelievable runs such as the one at Washington State several weeks ago when he went 9 of 10 shooting from three point range and totaled 44 points on only 19 field goal attempts. But the Bruin star is susceptible to being taken out of games early and has had several games this year in which he put up very poor shooting efforts. USC played a box and one defense on UCLA at the outset last week and completely denied him the basketball. The result was a 4-15 shooting night that resulted in 10 points. One of the main misconceptions about Kapono is that he's only a shooter. He's actually a good rebounder and isn't afraid to mix it up underneath. Kapono has also improved in the last year at taking the ball off the dribble and creating his own shot. But shooting the basketball is his truest gift and the Bruins have done a poor job at times getting their veteran wing enough open looks.
Lavin has juggled his lineup somewhat recently but the players most likely to surround Kapono as starters are 6' sophomore point guard Ryan Walcott, 6'6 sophomore combo guard Cedric Bozeman, 6'7 forward Andre Patterson and 6'10 junior T.J. Cummings. Walcott is a steady, unspectacular floor general who is relatively adept at protecting the basketball, running the break and hitting the open man. He's not much of a scoring threat, but does a lot of thing fairly well, and a reasonable comparison would actually be ASU backup point guard Kyle Dodd. Bozeman is the much-heralded McDonalds All-American who spent a good deal of last year with a nagging injury. He's off to a so-so start this year and the deficiencies in his game are magnified by his lack of a true position on the court. He isn't really a point guard or a shooting guard and finding a niche has been problematic. The best part of his game is his ability to take the ball to bucket off the dribble and he's also good at posting up smaller defenders. But he isn't a good shooter and his lateral quickness is marginal.
In the frontcourt alongside Kapono are Patterson and Cummings. Patterson is back after missing the first portion of the season due to academics. He's an extremely gifted athlete, but still a little less refined than he'll need to be in order to get to the next level. Patterson is best and most comfortable around the basket and on the glass and most of his attempts from the floor come within 10 feet of the hoop as evidenced by his high field goal percentage. Cummings is a forward who is forced to play center due to the team's lack of a true experienced post player. He's much more comfortable hovering around the perimeter and never saw a shot he didn't like. In recent weeks however, he's realized the importance of his rebounding effort as it relates to the success of the team and he's picked it up a notch.
The 6th man for the Bruins, 6'7 sophomore Dijon Thompson, is a player who is arguably the Bruins' best and most versatile player on the team. He is the team's second-leading scorer and can provide an offensive spark off the bench at either wing position. Thompson can stroke the three point shot, rebound and defend as well. When teamed with Kapono they create tremendous match up problems with their size and versatility. The other role players that get significant floor time include 6'4 senior Ray Young, 6'2 Jon Crispin, 6'7 sophomore Josiah Johnson and 6'11 freshmen Michael Fey. Young and Crispin are scorers who like to shoot the basketball. Johnson and Fey are predominately used for defense and rebounding purposes though Johnson has a nice looking stroke for his size
The Bruins are a better-than-advertised rebounding team as they have numerous players capable of hitting the glass with a great deal of success including Cummings, Patterson, Kapono and Thompson. The main problem in this area is effort and consistency. As a team, they play an undefined brand of basketball. They like to run the break, get out in transition and create offensive opportunities off turnovers, but have a difficult time in a half-court ball possession game where running a consistently productive offensive system is key. Part of the problem is a lack of a go-to type player. Kapono is a great-shooter, but too often he doesn't get the looks he needs or deserves. The Bruins often run a motion offense that doesn't play to Kapono's strengths and without a true offensive post threat that becomes a major problem.
The biggest threat to ASU will come when the Bruins go big on the wing with Kapono and Thompson in the game simultaneously. Donnell Knight is the only true athletic wing on the team that has the size required to defend either of the players and he'll undoubtedly be assigned to Kapono in a man-to-man defensive scheme. This will leave either an undersized or un-athletic player on Thompson and that's a potentially devastating situation. Perhaps in this scenario the Devils will elect to run the 2-3 zone defense that has been relatively effective to date. The other thing that ASU will have to avoid is ball penetration by either Walcott or Bozeman. Anything that collapses a zone or draws help defense off UCLA's wings is bad news with a capable shooter like Kapono on the floor.
On offense the Devils will try to pound the ball into Diogu and get players like Cummings and Patterson in foul trouble. Diogu is averaging a lead-leading 8.5 foul shots per game and the Bruins have a very suspect and shallow front line. If the Bruins collapse on Ike, look for ASU to rotate the basketball to the weak side and allow players like Curtis Millage, Jamal Hill and Shaun Redhage open mid-range looks at the basket. ASU is the leading team in the conference in field-goal offense despite being the worst three point shooting team in the league and this is a direct product of the havoc and indecision Ike Diogu causes opposing defenses.
Steve Lavin held a team meeting for 90 minutes on Monday before practice and the Bruins might come out with renewed vigor on Thursday. However, with the Bruins the only thing certain is uncertainty. The first five to ten minutes of the game will be even more important than usual for the Devils. Keeping Kapono in check early is essential. If the Devils play the ball-control mid-tempo game that has allowed them to lead the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio, hit the defensive glass and knock down the open looks that are bound to come from running the offense properly they have an excellent chance at taking a game in Westwood for the second year in a row.
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