Preview of Washington State

UCLA begins Pac-10 play Wednesday when it faces a surprising 10-2 Washington State team. Make no mistake, Wazzu is a challenge, closer to BYU and Kansas than it is to Montana State or Cal Poly, and the Cougars present some match-up issues for the Bruins...

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

At least that's how the saying goes and it seems to be a very appropriate one for the UCLA men's basketball team as it prepares to open its 2010-2011 Pac-10 Conference schedule at home on Wednesday night against the Cougars of Washington State.

In this case the sword is the three-point shot, which Wazzu uses to great effect and sometimes to its own detriment. In the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii last week the Cougars finished second, shooting well from behind the arc in first- and second-round wins over Mississippi State and Baylor. It's the championship game loss to Butler that may be the most telling memory as Wazzu shot horribly from long distance and were essentially blown out by Butler.

There it is: if the Cougs shoot well from behind the arc they almost always are successful, while if they shoot poorly then they almost always lose. They are 10-2 on the year and their three-point shooting in those two losses is a combined 10-40, or 25%, while in their ten wins the Cougars are 87-207, or 42%.

The key is for the Bruins Wednesday is to force Wazzu to shoot from distance like it has in its two losses while also making sure they attack Wazzu's inevitable zone defense. UCLA's offensive execution is relatively straight-forward, but the Bruin defense is not because no one, not even Coach Ben Howland, is sure which emotional version of the Bruins will show up for the game. Will it be the Bruins of the first 10-15 minutes of both the Montana State and Irvine games, or will it be the Bruins who struggled to hold onto victory in both contests? It is the same question that has followed the Bruins since day one this season: Which Bruin team will show up?

I am going to attempt to break down this game in a different fashion than I have in the past primarily because when I talk about individual match-ups it really only applies to when UCLA is on defense, and Wazzu will surely play almost all zone when they are on defense. So, first, I'll look at what UCLA has to do in their individual defensive match-ups and then I'll look at how UCLA will scheme against the Wazzu 2-3 zone.

While junior Klay Thompson (6'6" 202 lbs.) is clearly Wazzu's best player, they key match-up for the Bruin defense won't involve him. That "honor" will go to sophomore point guard Reggie Moore (6'1" 180 lbs.). Moore, who was out for a good portion of the Cougars' non-conference slate, is still looking rusty, but he presents UCLA's point guards, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, with a huge challenge. While Moore's numbers (8.1 PPG and 4 APG) aren't standout statistics by any means, his threat to the Bruins comes from his ability to penetrate and create for his teammates. Although the Bruins were able to sweep the Cougars last season Moore almost single-handedly won both games for the Cougars. He lit up UCLA's zone defense to the point where he was clearly the most dangerous Cougar against UCLA in 2009-2010. The one number that does statistically stick out regarding Moore is his three-point shooting. He is 8-14 on the season (57%) and is looking for a breakout game. He has the capability of doing that on Wednesday. His outside shooting means that Jones and Anderson have to do a good job of finding him and closing out on his outside shots. That means fighting through and going over screens, forcing Moore to curl and put the ball on the floor. That would push Moore into the paint where I've already said he has the capability of doing a lot of damage either by getting to the rack or passing out to an open teammate. This is where UCLA's help defense in the paint will be critical. The Bruins haven't played had good help defensive rotation for an entire game since defeating BYU more than a week ago. In fact, UCLA's poor interior post/wing rotation was bad enough against Montana State and Irvine as to allow both teams back into each game against the Bruins. While the on-ball defense of Jones and Anderson is critical in slowing down Moore, the real key may be what kind of rotational defense the Bruins play when help is necessary. If the weakside help and post rotations are as poor as they were in the Bruins' last two games then Howland will have to make an adjustment. That could mean going to a zone defense, which in Howland's world is improbable, or switching a combination on Malcolm Lee and Tyler Lamb onto Moore. If that happens then that will be an admission by Howland that Moore is getting into the lane far too often and the help defense just isn't there.

Thompson is Wazzu's best player and has been playing like an All-American up to this point in the season. He is averaging a team-leading 22.3 PPG and 4.3 APG. He is pulling down 4.2 RPG and has 8 blocks on the season. He is shooting 48% from the floor and 42% from beyond the arc, which are both pretty remarkable numbers when one considers that other teams have designed their defenses against Wazzu to limit his touches and have been running multiple players at him when he is shooting. Fouling him isn't much of an option as he's shooting 81% from the charity stripe. Guarding Thompson will presumable be primarily Tyler Honeycutt (assuming he plays), Lee and Lamb. Defending Thompson will be a matter of picking your poison. He is taking almost half of his shots from distance and even though he's shooting at a lesser clip than his overall shooting percentage, he is hitting enough threes to demoralize an opposition's defense. As with Moore, the Bruins may be better off forcing Thompson to put the ball on the floor and forcing him to deal with interior help. That means the Bruins have to be really good with their weakside wing rotation as Thompson is a good passer and will find the open man if his shot is taken away on a drive. Thompson's past history against the Bruins may be a good sign for UCLA in that Thompson didn't have good games either time he faced the Bruins last season. He tended to force shots and didn't make good decisions as to when to take certain shots. Thompson tends to play as if he knows he's Wazzu's best player and takes ill-advised shots because of that mentality when Wazzu's back is up against the wall. He did it against Butler on Saturday and missed shots at key times, allowing Butler to extend their lead and gain even more momentum. While he did score 31 points against Butler and shot 10-18 from the floor he did take some poor three-pointers that Butler turned into points early in the second half when the Bulldogs ran away from the Cougars. Again, Thompson showed this tendency last season against the Bruins and Howland will hope that he does the same thing on Wednesday. Thompson will get his points, that much is clear. The key will be for the Bruins to force his misses to come at critical junctures in the game and that UCLA turns those misses into points.

Coach Ken Bone's Cougars run a three-guard offense and the third guard after Moore and Thompson is junior Marcus Capers (6'4" 185 lbs.). Capers doesn't score much but he's the kind of player every team needs in order to be successful. He will score a bit (6.5 PPG) and he is capable of running the Cougar offense in small chunks but his real value comes from his hustle and defense. He's long and athletic enough to use that length to his advantage. He is especially tough in Bone's 2-3 zone defense because of his length. Offensively Capers is very protective of the ball, having 33 assists on the season to go with only 6 turnovers. He is also second on the squad with 5.5 RPG. Capers' one truly weak spot is his outside shooting. Capers is only shooting 25% on the year from behind the arc so the Bruins might try and leave Capers open in order to give help on Moore and Thompson. This would do two things for the Bruins; first, it would force one of Wazzu's worst shooters to have to go against history and make shots consistently from distance. Second, it would pull Capers away from the basket making it more difficult for him to rebound, especially on the weakside. If either Thompson or Moore is burning the Bruins then Howland does have the option of switching Lee onto either of them and then putting some combination of Jones/Anderson/Honeycutt on Capers. Having Lee on Thompson does make some sense because the Bruin junior is probably UCLA's best on-ball defender and has the length to bother Thompson while putting Honeycutt on Capers allows Honeycutt to do what he does well, which is help on defense. Honeycutt's weakside blocking ability was missed by the Bruins against Irvine last Thursday and his presence would have probably made a big difference in the second half when Irvine was getting into the lane at will.

A starter for much of the time that Moore was out and the first Cougar off the bench is junior college transfer junior Faisal Aden (6'4" 185 lbs.). Aden has been a real find for Bone as he's second on the team in scoring at 16.1 PPG. His statistics are similar to Thompson's and he might have close to Thompson's scoring average except that he hasn't taken as many shots as Thompson. Aden is in many ways a poor man's version of Thompson, having similar statistics in terms of shooting percentage and amount of shots that come from outside the arc as opposed to inside the arc. While he doesn't get to the free throw line as much as Thompson and doesn't shoot his free throws as well as Thompson, he is still hitting 73% of his charity shots. It appears that Aden's role will be to sub any of the three starting guards, and mostly for Thompson. Aden very commonly isn't on the floor at the same time as Thompson, maintaining a scoring punch on the floor when Thompson needs a breather. When Aden subs in for Capers, Wazzu then becomes very dangerous offensively. While Aden doesn't have Capers' length or his rebounding ability, he is no slouch in either departments. He is second on the team in steals with 19 and does average 3.6 RPG. He is, however, a huge upgrade over Capers on the offensive end and would force Howland to have to pick his poison in terms of who to defend between him, Thompson and Moore. In short, Howland can't simply move Lee to guard another man with Aden on the floor without there being a likelihood that Aden will score a bunch.

In the frontcourt the Bruins will have an advantage on both ends of the floor but its critical they make use of that advantage, especially so on the defensive end as the Bruins will more than likely be facing a zone defense. The primary Cougar post is junior DeAngelo Casto (6'8" 255 lbs.), who is a force on the boards (a team-leading 5.8 RPG) and on defense where he has 20 blocks. Casto is Bone's one unabashedly physical player. He is third on the team in scoring at 9.3 PPG but his scoring production has been much less than that when facing tough frontcourt defenses. For instance, against Butler he was only 3-9 from the floor for a total of 6 points against an active and physical Bulldog defense. Casto's biggest problem area has been his inability to stay out of foul trouble. While some of that can be attributed to the fact that he is often the last line of defense in the Cougar zone, the reality is that much of his foul issues come back to the fact that he just doesn't know how not to play with physicality. Generally he can bull his way around when he's in close to the basket, but now he has to face Josh Smith who is taller, longer, outweighs him by at least 70 pounds and is at least as strong as he is. Even when Smith is out of the game Casto will have to face the length of Anthony Stover or the fundamentally sound Brendan Lane. Casto is still pretty raw on the offensive end and this should be a match-up the Bruins can clearly win.

The other post starter will be junior Abe Lodwick (6'7" 208 lbs.), who has an inside/out game that will rely a great deal on three-pointers. However, Lodwick isn't shooting the ball well at all this season as he's 24% from behind the arc and only 30% overall from the field. Assuming Reeves Nelson starts and starts on Lodwick it would be good strategy for Nelson to play off him a bit, challenging the Cougar junior to beat him from the outside. Again, it would be a situation of seeing if a role-player can shoot the Bruins out of the game and, in Lodwick's case, much as it is in the case of Capers, it's probably a sound strategy to follow.

If Lodwick isn't doing the job then look for Bone to go to sophomore Brock Motum (6'10" 230 lbs.) and his match-up could be problematic for the Bruins. In many ways Motum, coupled with Casto up front, is very much like the line-up that Montana used to upset the Bruins several weeks ago. Motum is long enough to shoot over Nelson and he has been good enough from distance (5-10 on the year from three) to bring Nelson and Lane out of the paint, opening up the middle for Moore and Thompson. Lodwick and Motum play roughly the same amount of minutes with Motum being the better offensive player and Lodwick using his experience to be the better player on the defensive end. The Bruins have much less to worry about if Casto gets into foul trouble, forcing Bone to have to play both Motum and Lodwick on the low block at the same time.

The final player in Bone's rotation is freshman wing Patrick Simon (6'8" 214 lbs.). Simon is almost exclusively a three-point shooter, having attempted 39 of his 59 shots on the year from behind the arc. He isn't very physical but he has the ability to shoot well from the outside, which allows Bone to give anyone from Moore to Lodwick/Motum a bit of a breather. The Bruins will have to be aware when Simon is in the game or he will hit his outside shots.

UCLA certainly has a challenge in front of it when playing defense against the Cougars. However, the Bruins can help their defense if they execute against Wazzu's 2-3 zone defense. The key will be for the Bruins to get post touches on offense, especially when Smith is in the game, and to pass/dribble drive the inevitable seams in the zone with quick ball movement. Contrary to popular belief the Bruins will not be as handcuffed by the Wazzu zone as they were by Irvine because of the style differences between the Anteaters and the Cougars.

While it's true that UCLA has had trouble attacking zone defenses this season, the reality is that UCLA has become more adept at attacking a zone -- when the opposition has played primarily one type of zone. UCLA's offense, particularly in the second half against Irvine, looked lost because the Anteaters switched defenses constantly (playing four types of zone that I could see, as well as man), and changed the point of attack. The Bruin guards did a particularly poor job of recognizing what defense Irvine was in, thus causing confusion in multiple Bruin possessions. When UCLA, particularly Jones and Anderson, were able to recognize what zone Irvine was playing the Bruin generally got good looks at the basket.

Compounding the Bruin difficulties against the Irvine zones were the possessions where the Bruins did in fact get the ball inside only to see the ball stripped because the UCLA posts took too long to make a decision as to whether to go to the hoop or kick the ball back out. By putting the ball on the floor after waiting a second or two, Smith and the rest of the Bruin posts invited being stripped by the Irvine guards.

Wazzu should play two defenses in the game on Wednesday, a 2-3 zone and man. The Cougars have been much better at playing defense this season, having forced opponents into far more turnovers than they themselves have (204-143). They are also forcing opponents to shoot a paltry 37% from the field. However, the Cougars are getting out-rebounded by a pretty healthy margin, especially against top-notch competition. If they continue to get out-rebounded significantly and they can't hold their opponent to less than 45% from the floor then they'll lose handily. The key will be for the Bruins to get high-percentage shots and that means getting the ball into Smith. This will do a variety of things beyond the scoring of points. It will be produce momentum, the kind of which could force Wazzu's Thompson and others into taking poor shots in order to counter the Bruins. Getting the ball inside will also increase the likelihood of getting Casto into foul trouble, and that will help the Bruins immeasurably.

If Wazzu goes to a man defense then that means the Bruins have been successfully executing against the Wazzu zone. Bone wants to play a type of man defense that the Bruins play -- no switching and fighting through screens. The Cougars, however, haven't been good at it, and as a result Bone has them switching men on defense. Butler took advantage of this to exploit match-ups as the Cougars switched men. Imagine if the Cougars do play man and the Bruins find Moore or Capers trying to guard Smith. If hat happens and the Bruins don't recognize it then they deserve to lose. If Wazzu resorts to a switching man defense then more than likely they are desperate to find something that works against the Bruin offense.

The Bruins have already done a good job of shutting down a team (BYU) and player (Jimmer Fredette) that is eerily similar to the Cougars. The key to that victory for the Bruins was 40 minutes of intensity on both ends of the floor. Against BYU, Fredette scored his points but if you watched the game you saw that Fredette really didn't play well. That was in large part due to Lee's defense. While Thompson is taller and longer than Fredette it will be a similar match-up for the Bruins. Also, BYU played only a 2-3 zone and man defense, and the Bruins were able to successfully execute against both.

Chances are that UCLA will be able to execute against Wazzu's defense. The question is whether the Bruins will be able to be effectie on their own defensive end. They have to play good help defense or they will be run off the Pauley Pavilion floor. Conversely, if the Bruins play intensely on the defensive end for much of the game they could beat the Cougars convincingly.

Like UCLA, Wazzu doesn't have a senior on the roster. That means that leadership will come from players who, for the most part, still can't legally buy a beer. In many ways the two teams should negate each other in terms of experience.

Trying to answer which UCLA team will show up can be like trying to successfully pick lottery numbers. However, this is a big game for UCLA and they will undoubtedly know that. Pauley should have a better atmosphere in terms of size of the crowd and its noise level than at any time during the non-conference season. The Bruins have brought their A game, or as close to it as they can get, when playing in big games this season (Villanova, where they didn't quit even after getting down early, Kansas and BYU), and I'm guessing they will view this game the same way. It really is a pivotal game for the Bruins because they'll face Washington on Friday. Lose against Wazzu and the Bruins will be staring at a potential 0-2 start to the Pac-10 season. Beat the Cougars and the Bruins could carry the kind of momentum needed into Friday's game to get a 2-0 start on the conference slate.

Both the Cougars and Bruins have a lot of questions coming into the game that need to be answered to decide whether either will be successful on Wednesday night. Being at home, getting up for the game and seeing that the Bruins have already played a similar (and better) team in BYU, should be enough to get the Bruins over the top. But like the BYU game, this prediction comes with fingers crossed. Let's see if the Bruins can force the Cougars to die by the sword, err, the three-pointer.

Washington State 64

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