There, my job is done.
Okay, maybe not, but anyone watching the Bruins last Saturday in their victory over Stanford and Thursday night's loss at Arizona know that this team's level of success will be dictated solely by effort.
The game on Saturday against ASU is a huge game for the Bruins in terms of their NCAA Tournament hopes. In fact, every game the Bruins "should" win is now a must-win game for the Bruins if they hope to be dancing in March. It's not that the Arizona loss was a bad loss; it isn't, it's that the Bruins don't have any "good" wins outside of BYU (although that is a very good win). For UCLA to have any shot at the NCAA's they have to beat the Sun Devils.
ASU is coming off a very difficult loss to USC on Thursday, 63-61. ASU shot the ball well from the field, but were outrebounded badly by the Trojans and they shot a poor 12-25 from the free throw line. ASU is arguably the worst team in the Pac-10, sitting at 1-7 in the conference, and one good thing for the Bruins is that the fans in Tempe are staying away from Sun Devil games because the team is so poor. On Thursday against the Trojans the announced attendance was more than 3,000 people sort of capacity and that's in an arena that seats only 10,700. It isn't exactly a hostile environment that UCLA is walking into on Saturday.
That's probably a good thing because there is a very real chance that UCLA will be terribly flat out of the gate on Saturday. The good news for the Bruins is, as I already stated, that ASU just isn't very good. While it's not as if ASU is completely devoid of talent, they are pretty short of it.
The best player for Coach Herb Sendek is senior guard Ty Abbott (6'3" 205 lbs.), who averages 13.9 PPG. Abbott can get to the rim, but that is not his game. He is the team's leading three-point threat, shooting over 40% from beyond the arc for the season. He is also the one player that can get hot and go off for 20 points in a given game. UCLA's Malcolm Lee, one of the few Bruins who played adequate defense against Arizona, will be assigned to stop Abbott. This is the key match-up because if Lee can slow or shut down Abbott then I just don't see where ASU's scoring is going to come from. Abbott is pretty good about taking care of the ball (49 assists against 39 turnovers), but his free throw shooting is mediocre (65%), especially for such a good outside shooter.
Senior Jamelle McMillan (6'2" 180 lbs.) runs the point for Sendek. He leads the team with 66 assists against only 24 turnovers. He also has 24 steals on the year. He isn't scoring like the Sun Devils had hopes, averaging only 5.9 PPG and his shooting has been horrible; 34% from the field and 30% from behind the three-point line. Honestly, if Sendek had some talent in the backcourt then McMillan wouldn't be playing. The obvious way to defend him is to play off him and challenge him to shoot from outside.
Sophomore guard Trent Lockett (6'4" 210 lbs.) is probably the best athlete on the team. He has been solid this season averaging 13.7 PPG and 5.6 RPG, both good for second on the squad. He is the one real threat to dribble penetrate and that's a worry because UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt was beaten soundly by his man often on Thursday in Tucson. Malcolm Lee and Tyler Lamb could probably both do a better-than-average defensive job on Lockett if they are given the chance.
Senior Rihards Kuksiks (6'6" 206 lbs.) is ostensibly the small forward on the squad. That's to be taken in the spirit of relativity as Sendek will employ mostly zone defenses. Kuksiks' production has taken a nose dive since his sophomore year, with him only averaging 9.4 PPG this season. His shooting from deep is still pretty good, (just under 40%), but he tends to see defenses running at him in waves knowing that he is offensively the biggest threat ASU has…if he gets going. He looks like his legs are tired and when Sendek has gone to a man defense he has been nothing short of liability. He's not even rebounding well (2.5 RPG) and Sendek has gotten to the point where if Kuksiks' shot isn't falling early on then Kuksiks sees a lot of bench time. However, if he shoots like he did against USC (22 points) then Kuksiks gets 36 well-deserved minutes. This is one player that Tyler Honeycutt should be able to guard because Kuksiks is strictly an outside shooter. Honeycutt won't have to worry about Kuksiks dribbling around him much. This, of course, assumes that Coach Ben Howland will go ‘small' from time to time.
The final starter and Sendek's ‘post' player is freshman Kyle Cain (6'7" 210 lbs.). Cain is the team's leading rebounder at 6.1 RPG and generally puts up a strong defensive effort but is clearly overmatched in the paint, both in size and experience. Cain's two primary back-ups, sophomore Ruslan Pateev (7' 249 lbs.) and freshman Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 243 lbs.) together average only about the same minutes as Cain gets on his own. It speaks volumes about the Sun Devils' lack of talent that two seven-footers can't see the floor ahead of a skinny 6'7 frosh for time in the post.
The two other players who get time are sophomore wing Carrick Felix (6'6" 196 lbs.) and freshman wing Keala King (6'4" 201 lbs.). King is the better athlete while Felix plays more to Sendek's offensive system. King, who is a very good athlete, has been stuck in a bit of a mental funk the past several weeks and didn't appear ready to come out of it against USC. Felix is clearly the better shooter as King is 0-12 on ‘3's this season.
Style-wise, the Sun Devils offer up an unusual opponent. Sendek likes to slow things down and this year has been no exception. Generally Sendek likes his kids to get deep into the shot clock before getting a high percentage shot. He feels this tires the opposition and it ‘shortens' the game, and this year that has to be something the Sun Devils do in order to stay competitive. The only time that Sendek is fine with ASU shooting early in the shot clock is when they have an open lay-up…and against UCLA they may get just that.
This is a big-time ‘trap' game for the Bruins as they are coming off an emotional loss to Arizona and they clearly have focus issues. When that happens a team needs to lean on the things it knows it has an advantage in against a given opponent. In this case that means pounding the ball inside early and often. It doesn't matter if it's Josh Smith or Anthony Stover, the Bruins need to feed the post. They have such an enormous advantage against the Sun Devils down low that they simply have to look to the post on every possession.
Personally, after Thursday's defensive debacle and knowing these Bruins can play defense like they did against Stanford I'd like to see Howland bench guys who don't play defense. It won't happen. I want to see him go to a zone occasionally. That won't happen, either. I would love to see a line-up on the floor of Stover, Lamb, Lee, Anderson and Jones, with maybe Lane for one of the guards, just to see the Bruins play defense, but that won't happen, either.
It's a shame, really. The Bruins are capable of playing the kind of defense that Howland's Bruin reputation has been built on. They proved it against Stanford and in the second half of the Oregon game, (both of which, I will point out, after Howland went to a ‘small' line-up). The shame is that Tracy Pierson is right on point when he said early in the season that the Bruins can win games against many of their lesser talented conference brethren without playing defense because the Bruins simply have the talent advantage, or in this case the size advantage.
Arizona State 62