The Bruins are on the second leg of a road trip that started in New York City last Saturday, where the Bruins lost a very winnable game to St. John's, 66-63. That game may or may not have represented where these Bruins are going. It wasn't difficult to see that UCLA looked listless against St. John's, devoid of energy and perhaps even a will to win. The key question is whether or not the lack of energy represented what many have feared that UCLA would eventually do: collectively give up on the season.
Honestly, if these Bruins gave up, collectively or individually, it would be a real shame. Because of UCLA's relatively poor season, the game against the Johnnies meant very little. The team still has something to play for, namely a realistic shot at a top-four seed in the Pac 12 Conference Tournament. I know what you're thinking: how realistic can it be for this team to actually make a run through the conference tourney and gain the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament? With the conference tourney being played in Los Angeles, where the Bruins have been a different team (except against California), anything can happen. Getting a top-four seed and avoiding having to play four games in four days would enhance the prospects of that happening. Because of conference results from this past weekend, the Bruins have a realistic chance to do just that, but they have to win their final four regular season games starting with the game in Tempe.
Luckily for the Bruins, they'll be facing one of the worst teams in the Pac 12 and a squad that is a very good match-up for the Bruins in Arizona State.
The Sun Devils are having one of their worst seasons in many years. They are 8-19 overall and 4-11 in the conference. The record doesn't tell the story of how ASU has been playing lately. The Sun Devils have lost five of their past six, three in a row, and the losses haven't been competitive. This past weekend ASU dropped both games in Washington and they were alarmingly one-sided. Although the Sun Devils lost by single digits in Seattle, they were down by 18 at the half against Washington and the Huskies coasted to the victory. On Saturday Washington State led ASU 36-8 at the half. That's not a misprint. The Sun Devils are playing with less energy and desire than the Bruins and if they are to pick up a conference win this weekend, they certainly will look to the Saturday game against USC as the better and easier opportunity for that victory.
Sun Devil head coach Herb Sendek has been mixing and matching his starting line-up since about the time of the first game against UCLA (which the Bruins won by 17) after Sendek suspended several players. The experimentation hasn't really helped, mostly because Sendek is getting poor play from the point guard position. Junior Trent Lockett (6'4" 210 lbs.) has played many minutes at the spot but he's not a natural point guard. Lockett having to play the point shows the lack of depth on the Sun Devil squad. He leads the team in scoring at 13.9 PPG and is the consummate team player, but he's wearing down. A lot of the wear and tear has come from the fact that Lockett has had to face double teams almost every time he's touched the ball because opposing coaches know the Sun Devils lack depth.
Since returning from suspension, junior Chris Colvin (6', 200 lbs.) has been starting at the point. He can make the spectacular pass but is also a turnover machine (having 80 assists and 80 TOs on the season). Worse for the Sun Devils is that Colvin is a poor shooter, averaging only 36% from the floor. He actually shoots with more confidence from behind the arc so the Bruins may actually be better off having him put the ball on the floor. Whichever Bruin is assigned to Colvin should be able to stay with him as he doesn't have explosive athleticism.
The second-leading scorer on the team is junior Carrick Felix (6'6" 195 lbs.), who is known as a shooter. However, as Sendek has tinkered with his line-up he has pulled Felix from the starting line-up. It might have something to do with the fact that Felix is at best a mediocre defender and he doesn't rebound well (as opposed to Lockett, who leads the team with 5.9 RPG). To top it off, Felix has been shooting poorly -- only 32% from three and 42% overall. He isn't a threat to drive much as he isn't a great athlete. He is someone that either of the Wears could guard successfully for most of the game.
Sendek has rotated sophomore Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 243 lbs.) and junior Ruslan Pateev (7' 249 lbs.) in the post. Pateev started the first time the Sun Devils played the Bruins but Bachynski has been starting as of recently. They are almost identical in terms of statistical numbers, with Pateev averaging slightly more time on the floor and Bachynski scoring and rebounding a bit better. The key similarity to both of them is that neither is athletic but they work hard. In the first meeting of these teams both players got loose for some early buckets as the Bruins started that game lazily. However, once the Bruins raised their intensity, both ASU big men became non-factors, with Pateev fouling out trying to guard UCLA's Josh Smith.
The real inside presence for the Sun Devils is provided by sophomore Kyle Cain (6'7" 210 lbs.), who was suspended for the first meeting in Los Angeles. He is almost strictly an inside, back-to-the basket player. He averages 8.6 PPG and 5.8 RPG and is a pretty good free-throw shooter. His suspension really hurt the Sun Devils in L.A. as he can use his athleticism to hurt the Wear twins when the Sun Devils have the ball. He is a bit temperamental and can be mentally taken out of the game for stretches by opponents who play hard, which is one thing that the Wears do.
The final two players who get significant court time are both outside shooting specialists, sophomore Chance Creekmur (6'5" 217 lbs.) and freshman Jonathan Grilling (6'7" 200 lbs.). Neither one of them is very athletic nor do they rebound well for their size, especially Grilling, who averages 1.6 RPG. Grilling had a career game against the Bruins in L.A., scoring 17 points, mainly because the Bruins didn't get out to challenge him when he got the ball with his feet set. The way to guard both of these players is to essentially overplay the closeouts and force them to put the ball on the floor. To illustrate their collective reliance on their three-point shooting, the two have combined for 199 three-point attempts out of 238 total shots.
Sendek will invariably throw his signature match-up zone at the Bruins and UCLA has had a tendency to struggle against zones, specifically because the Bruins aren't patient enough to work the ball inside. This is especially true when Smith is in the game. UCLA started out very slowly against ASU in Los Angeles because the Bruins were settling for outside jumpers relatively early in the shot clock. Smith ended up beating the Sun Devils inside (18 points) but the game was only 33-30 at the half.
More importantly will be the mentality of the Bruins and whether or not they care anymore. I am going to go out on a limb and predict that they do. What fans saw in Madison Square Garden was more the result of fatigue, coupled with a cross-country trip in a game the kids knew didn't mean anything one way or another. The Bruins looked tired. That's the fault of Howland shortening his bench, and if Howland continues with the 7-man rotation, fatigue is destined to be a factor in every remaining game.
The game won't be played at a fast tempo and that will favor the Bruins. Further, even though it's a home game for the Sun Devils, they've only been getting around 5,000 people for their home games. That means that Wells Fargo Arena has been only about half full and the Bruins are very used to playing in that kind of atmosphere this season.
Arizona State has its own issues regarding effort. Even if UCLA came with little intensity there is a good chance it would be more than what the Sun Devils offer. ASU has clearly mailed in the past few games and, with USC on tap two days later, the Sun Devils may save what little they have in the tank for that game.
Howland recently hasn't shown a tendency to play his bench when the Bruins have gotten leads or to rest the starters. It makes complete sense to do it against ASU Thursday, however, especially with the game on Saturday in Tucson against Arizona looming large. But at this point it appears that Howland has shortened the bench for the remainder of the season. He didn't use it against USC, a team comparably bad to ASU, but perhaps Howland will recognize the need to keep the Wears and his guards fresher for Saturday. If the Bruins win in Tempe then the game in Tucson becomes huge for UCLA's chances at passing Arizona in the standings in the battle for one of the Pac 12's top four seeds for the conference tournament.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. One game at a time...
Arizona State 56