Even though it's only the second game of the conference schedule for both teams, it really is a pivotal game, perhaps more so for the Bruins than for the Huskies. Washington is the preseason conference favorite and is coming off a hard-fought overtime victory over USC on Wednesday night. The Bruins, who are coming off an easier than it looked 80-71 win over visiting Washington State (I know the Bruins were behind by double digits in the first half and faced an eight-point halftime deficit, but the Bruins hammered the Cougars in the second half), will be trying to make a statement that they, too, are going to have a say in the conference race. The game may be more important to the Bruins because they get this one at home and if they can't hold serve against the Huskies then the Bruins will probably need some help in catching UDub because of the difficulties the Bruins have had when they've travelled to Seattle.
The game itself can be broken down into three parts: the Bruin defense against Washington's frenetic, face-paced offense, the Bruin offense against UDub's pressure man and occasional zone defense and the coaching match-up.
Although UCLA's offensive execution in the second half against Wazzu was excellent, the key to the victory really was the defense. In the first half the Bruins simply couldn't stop the Cougars, whether it was a slipped screen for a layup or a drive into the paint and dish. Bluntly put, the Bruins had poor defensive rotation in the first half. The second half was about as different from the first as a team can get on the defensive end. For long stretches it truly appeared that the only way Wazzu could score was off lucky shots or questionable officiating. The point is, the Bruins got stops against the Cougars and did it by physically dominating the Cougars and by disciplined defensive rotation.
It was probably a good thing that the Bruins saw a great deal of dribble penetration on Wednesday night because they're going to get a healthy dose of it against UDub. You might say that Coach Lorenzo Romar's offense is a combination of a motion with downscreens and a lot of dribble-drive motion. But the reality is that on many possessions the Huskies simply improvise what they're doing. In some ways that can be a good thing, as a disciplined and focused defensive team will really shut down the Huskies when they fall into "street ball," as they are apt to do. On the other hand, for a team playing without energy and focus, trying to guard the Huskies can be a nightmare as they will be able to get into the lane seemingly at will and the rotation won't be there to cut them off at the pass. The one constant for Washington when they have the ball will be their desire to penetrate to create shots, either for themselves or for their teammates.
For both good and bad, the engine that runs the Husky offense is junior guard Isaiah Thomas (5'9" 185 lbs.). The good: he leads the Huskies in scoring at 15.3 PPG (one of three Huskies in double figures) and is second on the team in assists at 3.8 APG. The bad: he leads the Huskies in turnovers with 28 on the season and he more than any of his teammates is liable to shoot the Huskies out of a game as he is to get them started on a scoring run. You just never know which one you're going to get with him from game to game. He does bring to the floor the most dreaded of match-up issues for the Bruins, that of quickness. Thomas is flat-out quicker than anyone on UCLA's roster and he may be among the quickest guards in the nation. UCLA has traditionally struggled to contain small, quick guards since Ben Howland has been the coach, and Thomas has had big games against the Bruins in the past. The obvious defensive strategy here would be to have whoever is guarding Thomas to sag off him a bit but he is a good enough three-point shooter that, if he gets hot, can kill a team from deep. Malcolm Lee is the obvious choice to guard Thomas because Lee's length should bother Thomas to an extent, and quite frankly Lee has been very good defensively the last few weeks. However, the Bruins will probably be mixing and matching their defensive assignments all game with respect to the UDub guards. This will be a huge challenge for Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson to keep Thomas out of the lane.
The other starting guard is sophomore Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 195 lbs.), who been much better so far this season than his first in Seattle, looking more settled and confident. Both Gaddy and Thomas handle the point guard duties for Romar so it's not surprising that Gaddy is second on the Huskies in assists at 3.9 APG. In many ways he is more dangerous than Thomas because Gaddy simply has a better skill set than Thomas, but Gaddy still hasn't been aggressive enough offensively for Romar's liking. Gaddy is shooting at a higher percentage from the field than Thomas and at a higher percentage from beyond the arc. He's also turned the ball over far fewer times (15) than Thomas, but Gaddy is only scoring 9 PPG. Granted, Thomas has the ball in his hands much more often than does Gaddy but Gaddy doesn't play out of control like Thomas often can. If there's one stat that sums up Gaddy it's that he's only been to the free throw line 11 times this season. Almost half of Gaddy's shots have come from outside the three-point arc. For UCLA, putting one of the other guards other than Lee on Gaddy may seem unusual as Gaddy's size might seem to dictate a match-up with Lee, but with Gaddy's reluctance to take his man off the dribble and Lee's length, plus the fact that at 6'3" it's not as if Gaddy is Derrick Rose, it makes more sense to put one of the other guards on him if I'm Howland. Again, I hedge my bet on this match-up because you can count on Howland mixing and matching his defensive match-ups in the backcourt.
Senior Venoy Overton (6'0" 185 lbs.) doesn't start but is essentially a sixth starter. He is exactly the same kind of player that Thomas is but he has more assists (4.2 APG) and fewer turnovers than does Thomas. Don't be surprised to see all three guards on the floor for the Huskies so as to take advantage of their quickness over a Bruin team that Romar knows has a pretty big advantage in the paint. There's nothing that Romar can do to offset the Bruin size in the paint so utilizing the quickness that the Huskies have in abundance and that the Bruins lack seems like the smart play.
To counter this, Howland may have to go small himself. The Bruins play a pretty traditional line-up of two posts, two wings and a point guard, with Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson being the two posts that start, Tyler Honeycutt and Lee on the wing with Jones at the point. If UDub does go small then there is some question as to which player Honeycutt will guard. Don't be surprised to see Howland move Honeycutt to the four with either Anderson or Tyler Lamb coming in to replace him at the three. This will allow the Bruins to defend like-for-like in terms of positions and still allow Smith or Nelson to be on the court (and stay out of foul trouble).
The Bruins can force Romar to be more traditional in his own line-up selections by what they do when they are on the offensive end of the floor. Washington likes to run a pressure man-to-man defense with a lot of ball denial. In this way the Huskies resemble both Kansas and Villanova, two team that UCLA lost to earlier this season and that forced the Bruins into turnovers. The difference is that UDub is not nearly as disciplined on defense as either of those two teams. If the Bruins can score at will on the Huskies and limit the inevitable turnovers that will happen (simply because of the style of UDub's defense), then that may force Romar into only having two of his guards on the floor at the same time. Against USC on Wednesday the Huskies actually switched to an active 2-3 zone because USC was easily scoring against their man defense and because USC is not a good outside shooting team. The switch worked (and the Huskies only played zone in spurts) as the Huskies rallied from a terrible start (they were down 16-4 to open the game) to win.
With the Bruins having dissected the zone of Washington State on Wednesday before the Cougars went to a man defense, then Romar may be less apt to go to a zone, except for the reason that Tracy Pierson made in his Wazzu review -- the fact that the Bruins don't do well with teams that switch defenses. However, keep in mind that UCLA is longer than UDub essentially across the board and, regardless of what kind of defense that UDub plays, the Bruins should be able to see over them even if Washington is generally quicker.
The two key players to the UDub defense are seniors Matthew Bryan-Amaning (6'9" 240 lbs.) and Justin Holiday (6'6" 185 lbs.). Both players are the most disciplined on the Husky roster and generally remain focused enough to bail out their more celebrated guards when they tend to make defensive mistakes. Bryan-Amaning is the second-leading scorer on the Huskies at 14.3 PPG and the team's leading rebounder at 6.7 RPG. He is athletic and has certainly worked on his game. He is the one physical player that Romar has at his disposal that gets a lot of minutes. He does a good job of holding down the fort in the paint. He is athletic and strong and will probably be matched up on Nelson or Brendan Lane when the Huskies are in a man defense. He will be a difficult match-up for either Bruin, but Howland has luxury of having two capable players at the four, while Romar is more reluctant to pull Bryan-Amaning off the floor in tight situations because his main understudy, junior Darnell Gant (6'8" 225 lbs.), just isn't the kind of physical force necessary for a squad that is already lacking in physicality.
Holiday is probably the one Husky that has gotten the most out of his ability over his four years in Seattle. He doesn't do anything "great," but he does a great many things well. He is arguably UDub's best outside shooter (49% on threes), is a pretty good passer and doesn't turn over the ball. He can score when needed (12.5 PPG) and rebounds well for his position (third on the team at 6.2 RPG). His defense has been very good this year and he leads the team with 24 steals on the season. He will more than likely be matched on Honeycutt and the Bruins need to screen well to get Honeycutt the ball in a position to score. The screening by the Bruins will be key as Holiday is slight and he can be worn down. Further, Honeycutt is bigger and roughly as quick as Holiday. Don't be surprised to see Honeycutt held in check during the first part of the game, but, if the Bruins play physically, then see Honeycutt explode in the second half, much like he did against Wazzu.
Roomar's wildcard is sophomore post Aziz N'Diaye (7' 260 lbs.). N'Diaye is a blocking machine who would be averaging almost 3 BPG if he played more than 16 MPG. He also rebounds well at 6.3 RPG. He is, however, also a foul machine, having 76 total fouls, good for second on the team, in only 16 MPG. He fouled out of the USC game, the latest disqualification he's had this season (that was his third DQ of the year). Perhaps the biggest thing with N'Diaye, besides the fact that he is undisciplined, thus the foul issue, is that he is a typical shot blocker, i.e., he likes to swat at balls, not be bodied. As with all shot-blockers, the Bruins should try and get into his body when they shoot. That's where Smith comes in and if the Bruin frosh can keep his focus he could force N'Diaye to the bench early and often.
Romar's bench is a bit depleted with freshman guard C.J. Wilcox (6'5" 190 lbs.) out with a leg injury. Romar's bench will then essentially be Gant, freshman guard Terrance Ross (6'6" 190 lbs.), who is talented but hasn't been shooting well, and junior Scott Suggs (6'6" 195 lbs.), who is probably the least athletic player in Romar's rotation. It should be noted that Ross is coming off a huge (18 points) game against the Trojans.
The coaching match-up is an intriguing one with the recruiter (Romar) going against the teacher (Howland). It has generally been thought that Romar was mediocre as a bench coach and that Howland should clearly have the advantage when dealing with Xs and Os, but Romar has grown a bit. His ability to recognize that a zone defense could really hurt USC is just an example of his thinking on the fly. The real problem for Romar has been when he's faced teams as athletic as his (Kentucky) or teams that play so disciplined that they don't give in to UDub's streetball style (Michigan State and Texas A&M). Romar simply hasn't showed that he has anything in his bag of coaching tricks to offset those things, especially the latter, over the course of his Seattle career. Howland, while doing a masterful job at adjusting what the Bruins were doing on both ends of the floor against Wazzu and a great job at managing Nelson and Smith who were both in foul trouble, really only needs his Bruins to play intensely and focused for 40 minutes. If he does that then there is a high likelihood that he will have outcoached Romar.
That's a lot of writing to essentially talk about a few simple keys to the game. Of course there is the ever-present issue of "which Bruin team will show up?" The one of the first half against Wazzu or the one from the second half. There is the question of whether UDub can consistently get into the lane and, if they can, will the Bruins provide help defense that will neutralize anything but a highly contested shot. Will the Bruins be mature enough to play through N'Diaye's blocks and the turnovers they may suffer against UDub's pressure defense?
There are a few other factors to ponder. This is Josh Smith's first game against his hometown school and he took a lot of flack from people in and around Seattle for not choosing to stay home for college. Will he play inspired ball and dominate the paint or will be become too emotional and get into foul trouble and become a non-factor? Finally, while both teams had competitive games less than 48 hours from tip off, the reality is that UCLA was able to take its collective foot off the gas against Wazzu, while Washington played a very tough and physical overtime game against the Trojans. Will that game haunt them against the Bruins?
There are a lot of questions to answer in this one for both squads and the sense is that both teams and their coaches know that this game is about as important as a game gets this early in the conference season. As with most games, some questions will be answered in the Bruins' favor while some will go the way of the Huskies. With that in mind, let's be aware of the final fact that may determine the outcome of this contest: this is a home game for the Bruins.
If the energy in the building is at least as good as it was on Wednesday night then that should help the Bruins to get over the hump to a very close victory…but I wouldn't bet my mortgage on it. It really could go either way. It's a 1:00 p.m. game so it's hard to predict how many Bruin fans will actually make the game, and how many will be home getting ready for New Year's Eve. It'd be nice if the Huskies, who lead the Pac-10 in assists, had only 7 assists to the 17 turnovers they had against USC. That would definitely help.
Happy New Year.