Arizona State Preview

UCLA faces last-place Arizona State Thursday, in a classic trap game -- caught between the deflating loss to Cal and perhaps the game of the season against Arizona Saturday...

It is the curious nature of UCLA's young basketball team that they can play continuously better over the course of several weeks and then lay an egg in a critical game.

That was the case this past Sunday as the Bruins lost a 76-72 decision at California in overtime in a game that the Bruins didn't need to lose. On top of the fact that UCLA's NCAA Tournament chances took a bit of a blow (just how big of a blow will depend on how the Bruins react to that loss), the Bruins also helped to make me look bad in terms of my game prediction. It seemed that everything I analyzed in Cal preview went horribly wrong -- from assuming that UCLA wouldn't play so poorly as they did in that game's first half to the way Jorge Gutierrez simply dominated them. What a bad game on the part of the Bruins and on me.

The good news is that the Bruins (and to an extent myself) have an opportunity to redeem themselves with this week's games against the Arizona schools. It all starts this Thursday night when the Bruins host Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion. The Sun Devils under Coach Herb Sendek are coming off an emotional victory at home over Washington State. It was the first victory in several weeks for the Sun Devils and leaves ASU at 10-16 overall and 2-12 in the Pac-10 Conference, good for last place.

What made ASU's victory on Saturday more improbable was that the Sun Devils were missing their second and third-leading scorers in seniors Ty Abbott (6'3" 205 lbs.) and Rihards Kuksiks (6'6" 206 lbs.). Both were out with injuries, Abbott a rotator cuff injury that he suffered against Arizona, and Kuksiks with a niggling ankle injury that has now caused him to miss two games. The availability of both remains in question going into Thursday's game. Abbott averages 13 PPG, although he only scored 8 when these teams met several weeks ago in Tempe. Kuksiks averages just under 10 PPG but he had 15 in the first meeting with the Bruins and is a deadly three-point threat when he gets going. Between them they have made 117 three-pointers on the season. It's a good bet that Wazzu simply hadn't scouted Abbott's and Kuksiks' replacements very well, although the Cougars had an idea that Kuksiks would be out since he had missed the previous game. Just to prove that Sendek does have some young talent on the roster, the replacements for his two seniors combined for 31 points in defeating a desperate Washington State team.

Without Abbott the Sun Devils certainly relied on senior guard Jamelle McMillan (6'2" 180 lbs.). McMillan has shot poorly this season, averaging only 40% from the floor, but as the team's point guard he is doing a great job taking care of the ball. He has 88 assists against only 33 turnovers. He also leads the team in steals with 36. He isn't the kind of guard that tries to get into the lane, thus he has only been to the free throw line 20 times this season. Rather, his job is to get the ball to his teammates in the best scoring position possible. The fact that ASU struggles to score is more due to Sendek's offense and McMillan's teammates' inability to make open shots; it certainly isn't because McMillan hasn't done his job. Still, it's a pretty safe bet that McMillan won't do to the Bruins what Cal's Gutierrez did to them on Sunday.

However, ASU does have a player who is capable of doing what Gutierrez did in terms of scoring if the Bruins, specifically Tyler Honeycutt, play defense the way they did for much of the game on Sunday. That player is sophomore wing Trent Lockett (6'4" 210 lbs.), who leads the team in scoring at 13.9 PPG. Because Sendek starts three guards there's a very good chance that Honeycutt will in fact start the game on Lockett. That should be a cause for concern for Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins, as Lockett likes to take the ball to the hoop. Lockett is much like Gutierrez in that he isn't a great outside shooter (7-21 on the year from distance), but is shooting 52% form the floor, which is very good for a wing. He also leads the team in free throw attempts with 120, which is about the same as the next three Sun Devils combined. Howland might be better off putting Malcolm Lee on Lockett and having Honeycutt take the third guard on the floor, whoever that may be at the time, and then having Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones take McMillan. Of course the best answer to dealing with ASU's three guards may be to simply go small and move Honeycutt to the ‘4' where he can't be torched by having his man blow by him.

If Abbott can't go then the third guard appears to be freshman Corey Hawkins (6'1" 196 lbs.). Hawkins is almost strictly a three-point shooter, but in reality he isn't a scorer, averaging 1.2 PPG on the season. He brings other things to the table, including defense and hustle. If Hawkins isn't giving Sendek what he feels the team needs then he will turn to another freshman, Keala King (6'4" 201 lbs.). King brings much more offense than Hawkins but he isn't as good on defense. Still, he scored 10 points against Wazzu as he became a real threat driving to the hoop. He is much like Lockett in that he is shooting poorly from deep (1-15 on the season) so he relies on his ability to drive. King would be averaging a few more PPG if he could make his free throws, shooting 48% from the charity stripe this year and that's with him going 5-6 against the Cougars. As with Lockett, Howland should avoid putting Honeycutt on King as much as possible.

In Kuksiks' absence, Sendek started yet another frosh, Chanse Creekmur (6'5" 216 lbs.), against Wazzu. Creekmur responded with 18 points on 5-8 shooting from beyond the arc. He only took one shot from inside the three-point line so it's pretty obvious that he is a mostly one-dimensional player, at least at this point. Wazzu made the mistake of playing zone much of the game against the Sun Devils and that allowed Creekmur open looks at the basket. To highlight Creekmur's reliance on outside shots, he's attempted 53 shots on the season with 45 of them coming from long range. He isn't much of a rebounder or passer but Sendek doesn't need him to do those things. Creekmur is precisely the kind of player that Howland can have Honeycutt guard without much concern.

If Kuksiks doesn't play and Creekmur again starts then Sendek will go to sophomore Carrick Felix (6'6" 196 lbs.). Felix has been a horrible shooter this year, averaging only 39% from the floor and 15% from behind the arc. He doesn't collect many boards and has an average amount of steals. He plays because he has some length for defense and he hustles, but mostly because Sendek feels he has no one else. That's why the emergence of Creekmur has been huge for the Sun Devils, especially if Kuksiks can play.

Arizona State is obviously vertically challenged and that is no more apparent than when looking at Sendek's starting "post" freshman Kyle Cain (6'7" 210 lbs.). Cain averages 5.8 PPG but his real value comes from his ability to rebound, where he leads the team at 5.7 RPG, and his defense in the post. He plays much bigger than he is, and will only get better. Still, he is undersized in both height and weight to deal with someone like UCLA's Reeves Nelson, let alone Josh Smith, even if ASU plays almost exclusively zone. In the first meeting against the Bruins, Sendek realized he needed more bulk in the paint and he gave a lot of minutes to freshman Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 243 lbs.). Bachynski shoots well from the floor (51% from the floor), but he is very slow defensively and thus his limited minutes (he averages barely 10 MPG on a squad where he is one of only two true post players). If Bachynski isn't on the floor then Sendek will turn to sophomore Ruslan Pateev (7' 249 lbs.). In short, Pateev is a poor man's Bachynski and as such only has been playing about 5 MPG, although he was playing more earlier in the year. The point is that the Bruins have a huge advantage in the post with Nelson, Smith, Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane.

From a strictly tactical standpoint the Bruins will almost certainly see several zone defenses from the Sun Devils. The Bruins were able to find the seams in those zones in the first half of when these two teams first met, leading 32-19 at the break. The Bruins lost focus in the second half and only scored 29, which was just enough to send the game to overtime where the Bruins prevailed by one. Therein lies the concern: the Bruins showed against Cal that the lack of intensity and focus could rear its ugly head at any time. Now, the Bruins will most surely be looking ahead to Saturday's game against Arizona and assuredly will have a hangover from the Cal loss. This is all added to the fact that UCLA, being a young and, let's face it, immature team, will more than likely not take ASU as seriously as they probably should. Add the intensity and focus question and there is the makings of a very close game.

The good news for the Bruins is that if there's one team in the conference that they can have this perfect storm of predicted issues and still win it's Arizona State.

Expect the Bruins to come out flat because of the issues mentioned. In fact, UCLA may find themselves down deep into the first half. However, UCLA simply has too much talent and the fact that the Bruins are playing at home should be too much to overcome for the Sun Devils. Even if Abbott and Kuksiks play and even if UCLA plays as poorly on defense as they did in the second half of the first ASU game, don't expect the Sun Devils to shoot as they did in the second half of that game when they hit 57% from the floor and 6-7 from behind the arc. Remember, ASU is almost as young as the Bruins and play many more freshmen. This is the first trip to Pauley for many of the Sun Devils and it will have at least a bit of an impact.

The Bruins will win; the only question is how comfortably.

And hopefully this redeems my prognosticating abilities, at least with regard to the win.

Arizona State 60

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