A week ago at this time the Bruins were reeling just a bit after dropping a 76-72 decision at California in a game in which the Bruins failed to get a single defensive stop in overtime. It's amazing what a little home cooking and two victories by a combined 50 points over the Arizona schools can do for perception. Now fans and many pundits are claiming that the great UCLA defensive team of Coach Ben Howland's Final Four years has returned and that the Bruins will now be a sleeper pick to get to another, and…you get the picture.
Hold on, folks: the Bruins aren't nearly as bad as many indicated after the California game and they aren't as good as they showed in the win over the Wildcats, at least not consistently. That's why UCLA's trip to the Pacific Northwest this week is so huge; it will help consolidate the hammering of Arizona, not only in the minds of national "experts" but, more importantly, perhaps in the minds of the Bruins themselves.
The first game of this important road trip takes place Thursday night on ESPN when the Bruins enter their own house of horrors, Hec Edmundson Pavilion, on the campus of the University of Washington. The Bruins showed a great deal of intensity, focus and, dare I say, maturity in their dismantling of the Cats. The real test of all of those qualities will be displaying them on the road and there has been no tougher venue for Howland since he's been at UCLA than Hec Ed. The Bruins have certainly improved since the beginning of the season and now, on national television, is the time to prove it. Will the Bruins show the intensity and focus necessary to win a road contest made more difficult by the fact that their opponent will be playing with their backs against the proverbial wall? (This question sounds familiar, doesn't it?)
The Huskies enter this contest trending in the opposite direction from the Bruins. They sit at 19-9 overall and 10-6 in the Pac-10 Conference and because of their lack of quality non-conference wins stand a legitimate chance to miss the NCAA Tournament. Seriously, the Huskies are probably a 50/50 proposition in terms of being invited to the Big Dance. True, they may be fine today, but what if they lose to the Bruins on Thursday? And, if that happened, imagine they then get swept at home, losing to USC on Saturday to finish the regular season on a three-game losing streak and having lost five of their last six with the one win coming against Seattle University. That would be a recipe for alphabet soup…as in N.I.T.
It is a bit of a head-scratcher that Washington is having so many difficulties this late in the season. There are more than a few theories for this, ranging from the loss of sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 195 lbs.) to a season-ending knee injury to the team just not shooting as well as Coach Lorenzo Romar probably thought it would.
Regardless of the reasons why, the fact is this is still a good, experienced, upper-classmen dominated team. The most important of them is arguably junior point guard Isaiah Thomas (5'9" 185 lbs.), who has simply been a dagger to the Bruins over the past two and a half seasons. Thomas scored 17 points in the first meeting with the Bruins at Pauley and he was very efficient in doing it: 5-of-9 from the floor, 1-of-2 from the three-point line and 6-of-7 from the free throw line. That was the "good" Thomas, one who could single-handedly carry his team in games when they needed some leadership. The "bad" Thomas, the one who could single-handedly shoot his team out of games, hasn't really shown himself too often this season. In Washington's 80-67 loss this past weekend to Wazzu, Thomas scored 21 points on 50% shooting and 3-of-8 from the three-point line. A couple of those threes were ill-timed and he was only 2-of-6 from the charity stripe but Thomas was not the reason Washington lost. Thomas has had some clunkers this year and that's why his shooting percentage sits at 46% from the field and 36% from behind the arc. The key to stopping UDub may very well be stopping Thomas. He will shoot threes from virtually anywhere on the floor but the strength of his game is his ability to use his quickness to either get to the rack or to feed his teammates in a shooting position as the opposition tries to help on him. The guess is that Howland will assign Malcolm Lee to Thomas and the way Lee's been playing on the defensive end of the floor it wouldn't be a surprise if Thomas were to have a poor shooting game. Further, the ability of this UCLA team to slide and help and block or alter shots is becoming a defensive strength. This is something the Bruins weren't very good at when Washington beat the Bruins by 11 at Pauley Pavilion.
The second upperclassman leading the Huskies is senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning (6'9" 240 lbs.), who scored 21 points and pulled down 7 boards at Pauley. While he is averaging 16.5 PPG and 8.3 RPG, Bryan-Amaning is one of the players who's not been playing well as of late, thus much of the criticism of Washington's recent swoon has been aimed at him. It's not as if pundits and fans are viciously going after Bryan-Amaning, but Husky fans and reporters in the Pacific Northwest are pointing to the fact that when Bryan-Amaning has a poor game then the team gets beat, usually badly. On Sunday night Bryan-Amaning had 14 points and 10 rebounds but he was only 3-of-11 from the floor. A bad shooting night for Bryan-Amaning meant Wazzu won the game, or at least that's the corollary. Reeves Nelson will have his hands full with the Washington big man, but it's probably good that Nelson played straight up on Arizona's Derrick Williams last Saturday to further give the UCLA sophomore confidence in his man defense. Williams and Bryan-Amaning aren't similar in their games, however; look for Bryan-Amaning to try and back down Nelson with his superior size, while MBA is not the outside threat that Williams is, nor does he possess Williams' quickness. There will be times when Josh Smith will be on Bryan-Amaning and it will be interesting to see what the Washington senior does to try and score on the Bruin post.
The wing forward, and in my estimation the most important player on the Washington roster, is senior Justin Holiday (6'6" 185 lbs.). He is the team's leader and glue guy and does many things well, some even great, depending on the game. He can be a fantastic three-point shooter and has hit several big ones against the Bruins over the years. He is a good rebounder, plays good defense (he leads the team with 35 steals) and takes care of the ball. However, it is Holiday that has been sagging lately. His shooting percentage has been down a bit, and his turnovers are up, while his defense especially is off. He allowed Wazzu's Klay Thompson to get to the line 14 times on Sunday and the week before he was clearly outplayed by the Arizona combination of Solomon Hill, Jamelle Horne and Kevin Parrom. If Tyler Honeycutt can play defense and attack the basket on offense as he did against Zona, and Tyler Lamb plays solid minutes then UCLA can offset completely what Holiday brings to the court. The key is Honeycutt and his game. Holiday will probably be motivated to bring his best since there is some history with UCLA and Howland. If the Bruins (Honeycutt) can bring the same intensity then talent will trump experience.
The center spot will be manned by sophomore Aziz N'Daiye (7' 260 lbs.), who has been a walking foul all season. While he's gotten better, he has still fouled out of four contests and averages 3 fouls per game. That's a lot of hacking. Still, N'Daiye has value on the defensive end of the floor with both his rebounding a shot-blocking ability. It will be interesting to see him take on both Smith and Anthony Stover in the paint. Smith outweighs N'Daiye by 70 or so pounds. If N'Daiye does get in foul trouble or is otherwise ineffective then Romar will look to junior Darnell Gant (6'8" 240 lbs.), a poor man's version of Bryan-Amaning with more shooting range but less of everything else. Most Bruin fans probably remember it was Gant that hit the decisive three-pointer against the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion.
Thomas' running mates in the backcourt have been reduced to senior Venoy Overton (6' 180 lbs.) and freshmen C.J. Wilcox (6'5" 195 lbs.) and Terrence Ross (6'6" 190 lbs.) because of not only Gaddy's injury but also the recent injury to junior Scott Suggs (6'6" 195 lbs.) that has kept Suggs out of the last three games. Suggs is supposed to return on Thursday but even if he can go it's the kind of injury that will mean that Suggs is not likely to be 100%. As it is, Venoy is a poor man's Thomas in that he has the ability to get very hot from the floor but can be incredibly out of control. Ross and Wilcox are similar in that they are both primarily shooters who will occasionally take the ball into the pain and to the rack. Wilcox is the better defender of the two, although Ross clearly has the bigger upside and the better statistics. The key will be for UCLA's bench guards, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb, to outplay their UDub counterparts by simply doing what they do well. In Anderson's case that means running the offense well and being solid on defense and in Lamb's case playing lock-down defense.
Tactically, the game is going to come down to some basic but significant keys. The first has to do with defense, especially on the part of the Bruins. UCLA proved this past weekend, and to a certain extent for the last 30 minutes of their win over Arizona State, that the team can truly play some high-level defense. UCLA will have to do three things defensively to ensure success in this game. The first is to limit UDub's dribble penetration, especially on the part of Thomas and Overton. It can't be stressed enough how key this is because if either of the diminutive Huskies get into the paint then they become a threat not only to score but to kick the ball out to open shooters, and even though Washington's outside shooting has been suspect the past few weeks, the Bruins probably don't want to see if the Huskies indeed stay cold. The second thing that the Bruins must do is be sure to rotate when UDub does indeed penetrate. That means not only will the UCLA bigs have to cover over, but also that the secondary rotation, that from the weakside wing, also covers down to the spot vacated by the helping post player. Proper rotation just killed Arizona and for the most part ASU. Finally, the Bruins must get back in transition. One of the things that has hurt Washington in its losses to Wazzu (twice), the Oregon schools and Arizona was their inability to get out into the open floor. This probably means that the Bruins must continue to limit their turnovers as they have the past two games as that then eliminates the primary feeder of other teams' fast-break opportunities. But it also means that after shots, made or not, that the Bruins hustle down court.
Washington needs to do a better job of limiting UCLA's ability to penetrate. Interestingly, though, UCLA's way of getting into the paint is to have the ball dumped into the post, especially to Smith and then have the other Bruins cut through the gaps looking for passes back out of the post to give the wings easy lay-up opportunities. Washington has been giving up entirely too many easy looks at the basket through ball penetration into the paint. To win the game the Huskies will have to correct this in a hurry because they will be facing arguably the two best defensive teams in the Pac-10 this weekend.
On offense, the Huskies need to do a better job of shot selection. That comment speaks for itself. Throughout the game against Washington State, UDub continually shot itself in the foot by taking off-balance jumpers from all over the gym early in the shot clock that resulted in easy rebounds for the Cougars.
This game, however, will be about more than tactics and strategy. It will be about emotion. UCLA is surging at just the right time while the Huskies are essentially falling apart. It may not be that apparent to the casual observer, but Washington is indeed flirting with missing the Big Dance. This is an opportunity for the Bruins to put a serious stamp on the conference and send an emphatic message that Washington will be playing for scraps in the future. You'll have to trust me that this was postulated before Aaron Michiel made the point in his excellent BRO piece, but in many ways this game is so much bigger than simply for this season. Let's face it: the Bruins haven't exactly been successful in Seattle. This would be a way to start to turn that around and allow the Bruins to stay in the running for the conference regular-season title.
One has to wonder after last weekend if Reeves Nelson has again gone to Howland and insisted that he be the one to guard the opposition's best post player. Obviously, in this case, that would mean Bryan-Amaning. Since Nelson seems to respond to Internet writers, part of me wants to assert that Nelson still hasn't proven himself defensively yet, just to get him fired up to play even remotely close to the way he did defending Arizona's Derrick Williams. But something tells me that this week Nelson will need no such motivation.
This is also a homecoming game for Josh Smith. He was a man among hobbits last weekend against the Wildcats and while the defense of the Huskies should be better against him (they have more length) it still will be difficult to stop the young Bruin if he gets into a groove.
So, the key questions are:
1) Will the Bruins be intense and focused (and will the Huskies also be able to answer that question)?
2) Will Nelson bring his best effort again on the defensive end?
3) Will Smith step up to the challenge that the crowd is sure to present him, as well as what Washington will throw at him, as he returns home to face the school he spurned in order to go to UCLA?
4) Will the Bruins be efficient against the Husky defenses, both zone and man?
5) Will the Bruins limit transition opportunities?
So many questions that only the game will answer. This game is much harder to pick right now than I ever thought it would be until about 10 days ago. The only way to predict it is to look at trends, and the Bruins are clearly trending up while the Huskies are trending in the wrong direction.
Will the Bruins be playing on Saturday for at least a share of the Pac-10 title?
Don't be surprised if this game goes to overtime.