While UCLA has looked pretty good in recent weeks when the games are in Los Angeles, the Bruins have not carried that kind of play on the road. UCLA has had two conference road trips so far this season and are 0-4 in those games. Certainly UCLA was in a position to win three of those four road games, but the one blowout loss, to California, doesn't bode well for the Bruins as the Bears most closely resemble the Huskies of Washington, whom the Bruins will face in the first game of the road trip on Thursday night.
It would be helpful for the Bruins if they were going to face a Huskies squad that was looking ahead or simply not as ready to play as they should be, but that most certainly won't be the case. Washington will not be looking ahead to the USC game when the Thursday game against the Bruins is clearly the tougher of the two for the Huskies. Having the game shown on ESPN in primetime will ensure that the Huskies are ready to play. So, how do Howland and the team deal with what will almost certainly be Washington's ‘A' game? The odds are against the Bruins (remember that Howland has won only once in Seattle and that was in his first season in Westwood) but it's not as if the Huskies are unbeatable. The crowd will absolutely be tough, but if the Bruins can play decently on defense then they may have enough firepower on offense to outscore the Huskies. The game will come down to whether UCLA can get some stops on the defensive end.
Washington is not without its holes. As is typical for a Lorenzo Romar-coached team, the Huskies don't play great team defense. Heck, they may not even play mediocre team defense. They also don't take particularly good care of the ball. But they are very athletic, perhaps the most individually athletic team the Bruins have faced this season, and while they don't have any big non-conference victories, they have played both Duke and Marquette very closely away from Seattle. That's because both the Blue Devils and the Golden Eagles play heavy ball-pressure, man-to-man defense that Washington can exploit because they tend to spread the floor and use their athleticism to force the opposing defense to help. In the two Pac-12 Conference losses that the Huskies have suffered, at Colorado and at home to Cal, both the Buffs and the Bears reigned in their man defenses to protect the lane and force Washington to shoot from the outside. It will be of particular interest to see how Howland chooses to defend the Huskies when he employs a man defense that will allow itself to get spread out and he doesn't have the athletes to stay with the Huskies when if they decide to drive against that defense.
The fact that UDub will have a significant athletic advantage is a given. It all starts in the backcourt where, outside of Norman Powell, the Bruins suffer athletically compared to the Husky guards. Junior point guard Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 185 lbs.) starts alongside sophomore Terrence Ross (6'6" 195 lbs.) and true freshman Tony Wroten (6'5" 205 lbs.).
Gaddy is certainly a good point guard for Romar and the Huskies, but he is nowhere near the player most experts thought he'd be coming out of high school. He leads the team in assists and is second on the team in turnovers. His handle is good and his decision-making is improving. The area where he continues to struggle is his shooting. He averages 8.3 PPG but that's because he's shooting 42% from the floor and 32% from beyond the arc. To top it off, he's only a 67% foul shooter and most teams need their point guard to shoot much better than that from the charity stripe. Gaddy can also be rattled. If there is a weak link in the Husky starting backcourt (and this isn't saying there is) then many people think it's Gaddy. If nothing else UCLA's Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson stands a good chance of staying with him if Howland sticks strictly with the man-to-man defense.
Ross is arguably the best player in the Pac-12. He is more of a three-point shooter in terms of his volume of shots than, say, a Wroten, but he is pretty good at it (38%) and he tends to be a streaky shooter who is better at home. He's not a soft player, certainly not on the defensive end where he averages 6.6 RPG, good for second on the team, but he definitely doesn't get to the free-throw line much (only 58 free throw attempts on the season) and is more of a catch-and-shoot player than what Romar would like him to be. However, he is 6'6" and, outside of Tyler Lamb, will be considerably bigger than any Bruin wing.
Finally, there's Wroten. He's been hyped by many pundits as the best player in the conference this season (Jared Cunningham wins that title), and he's certainly been the most productive freshman in the conference. He leads the team in scoring at 17.4 PPG, gets to the free-throw line quite a bit and is able to run the point with Gaddy on the bench. However, Wroten has some real holes in his game. He's been to the free-throw line 159 times but only hit 55%. He has only been successful when able to consistently slash to the hoop as his three-point shooting percentage is abysmal (23%). He has pretty poor shot selection and will drive with nowhere to go, and he can be a chemistry killer for the Huskies. He rebounds pretty well (4.6 RPG) but he can be taken out of his rhythm by an athletic guard who can stay with him…like Norman Powell. Overall, while on one hand many believe this Husky team would be nowhere without Wroten, many others think his me-first play is what's also limiting the Huskies.
If the Huskies only had those three guards that provided real challenges to the Bruins then perhaps UCLA would have better than a puncher's chance of corralling UDub's guards. However, those three aren't the only weapons in Romar's backcourt arsenal. Sophomore C.J. Wilcox (6'5" 185 lbs.) will be the first guard/player off the bench for the Huskies. He is arguably the best outside shooter in the Pac 12 and he absolutely buried the Bruins last season in Washington's 7-point win. He's hurt right now, with a stress fracture that is actually affecting his hip. He is supposed to play but if it hasn't loosed up for him then he may sit. If Wilcox plays he commands the attention of the Bruin defense and allows his teammates to have wider and more inviting driving lanes. If he doesn't play then the odds for a Bruin upset become far greater.
Romar's frontcourt is athletic and they know their roles. Essentially, all three post players who receive big minutes for the Huskies are asked to just play defense and rebound. If they score, then that's icing on the proverbial cake. Junior Aziz N'Diaye (7' 260 lbs.) and freshman Desmond Simmons (6'7" 220 lbs.) are the starters. N'Diaye is clearly the five in the starting line-up and doesn't need to be closely guarded anywhere beyond five feet. Simmons is a bit of an outside threat, certainly more so than N'Diaye, but he doesn't play starters minutes.
N'Diaye is a difference-maker in that he alters or blocks a fair amount of the opposition's shot attempts. UCLA faced someone like this last week at Oregon when the Bruins played against Tony Woods, and the Bruins didn't have success at either end of the floor against Woods…except for when Anthony Stover was on the floor. Josh Smith has the ability to negate what N'Diaye does best but the Bruin post has essentially played the entire season in a daze and it doesn't appear that will change. That leaves Stover to pick up minutes, but it remains to be seen if Howland will in fact play him a significant amount of time. At his point in the season Howland usually has his rotation set in concrete in his mind.
If the Bruins do get N'Diaye in early foul trouble, that could be a difference-maker in and of itself. Without the shot blocker behind them, the UDub guards can't take as many chances defensively going for steals. Further, Simmons isn't nearly the defender that N'Diaye is and will struggle to play against UCLA's precise sets.
The main sub off the Washington bench is senior Darnell Gant (6'8" 230 lbs.). Gant would normally start but he's the only real option that Romar has that can play either the four or five spot. Thus, he comes off the bench for the player (N'Diaye or Simmons) that isn't playing well or is in foul trouble. Romar's bench is, in fact, only two players deep, and that's counting Wilcox.
The question is, how does UCLA win the game? Or rather, can they win the game? The answer is, of course the Bruins can win the game, but it's going to take a lot of things to fall into place.
The first is Howland and his game plan. It was mentioned yesterday that UCLA hasn't practiced the zone defense in more than a month. A zone may be precisely what hurts Washington. Outside of Wilcox, the Huskies aren't a particularly good outside shooting team. Mixing in some zone, especially when Wilcox isn't in the game, could be the kind of decision that confuses Washington on just enough possessions to win. It'd be great if saying publicly that UCLA hasn't practiced a zone in a month was just a tactical ploy to catch the Huskies off guard.
How about Howland's use of personnel? Last Saturday the Bruins had Oregon beat…if Howland had left Stover in the game. Oregon and Washington play very similar styles and have similar personnel with similar skill sets (although Washington's players are more athletic overall). The same type of approach that got UCLA it's 13-point lead in Eugene would help in Seattle in terms of personnel.
Rebounding will be a key. Washington is a monster on the boards. They average over 40 RPG (although some of that is because of the increased possession totals during a game as UDub wants to push tempo and some of it is because UDub gets a great deal of offensive boards). The Huskies have five players who average 4.5 RPG or better.
UCLA will have to hit its free throws. The fact that UCLA wasn't up at Oregon at the half by more than 20 was attributable to all the missed free throws in the first half.
The Bruins have been able to get stops when they need them at home but not on the road. That has to change. UCLA has to have moments in the game where they force UDub into several empty possessions in a row. That's where Stover and perhaps mixing defense for effect come in.
Finally, UCLA has got to hope that they can wear down a thin Huskies squad a bit, whether through being physical or through foul trouble. With Romar having a short bench, any foul or health issues are going to do nothing but help the Bruins.
The crowd will certainly be good for a few points for Washington, as will the officials, who always seemingly give Washington about 10 extra free throws when the Huskies are in Seattle.
The player decisions that Howland makes in this game are going to be critical. If he decides to play Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones together for extended periods then the Bruins will be in trouble. Neither has the length or athleticism to effectively guard one of UDub's guards for multiple possessions. That would mean that Howland would have to rely quite a bit on Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb, or both, who have the length or quickness to nullify Ross and Wroten. It would be particularly interesting to see if Howland would ever release Powell to take on Wroten as a defensive assignment for much of the game.
Can the Bruins win? Yes, but too much has to go right for that to happen. Plus, Seattle has been a house of horrors in terms of wins and losses for the Bruins during the Howland years.
However, there was a girls' high school game in Minnesota last night where the visitors hadn't beaten the home team in many years. The home team was #2 in the state and had a 19 point lead over the visitors with roughly 8 minutes to go in the game. The visitors hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer, culminating a comeback, 1-point win.
Just trying to instill a bit of hope…