Washington State Preview

With so much attention focused on the program for its off-court issues, and with the game not being televised, you could almost completely forget that UCLA plays Washington State tonight...

So, wait, there's a basketball game tonight?

With all of the off-court distractions, you wouldn't know. Plus, it's a bit fitting that right now, with the program under so much scrutiny because of the Sports Illustrated article, that the game isn't being televised.

If you actually are still paying attention to the season, UCLA does entertain Washington State tonight at the Sports Arena.

If, too, you're still engaged in whether UCLA can gain a better chance to win the Pac-12 Conference Tournament, and thus an NCAA Tournament berth, the game is significant.

The Pac-12 Tournament, luckily, is at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which dramatically helps the Bruins. If you weren't sure what kind of identity this team had this season, you can be sure that they aren't very good on the road and playing in Los Angeles makes them dramatically different team. Think about this (and Tracy Pierson wrote indirectly about this in his Arizona game review): the Bruins have been down by one point at the half on the road in Pac 12 Conference games four times this season (Stanford, OSU, UDub and Arizona) and have lost all four games, with two losses coming by two points, one by a single point and one by three.

There are multiple reasons for the losses and they aren't going away before the end of the conference season. The Bruins are a poor free-throw shooting team, they don't have a legitimate go-to player, they aren't particularly smart in terms of situational play with regard to time and score, and they tire at the end of games. Those issues are team-wide issues and don't even get into use of personnel issues or the issues that individual players continue to show in critical situations.

The "good" news is that this team has one issue that seems to disappear when the Bruins are playing in Los Angeles -- that of confidence. In the losses to Arizona and UDub, the Bruins looked like a team that hoped it could win, not one that knew it could. There wasn't as much of that against Stanford (the Bruins simply shot poorly), but UCLA clearly looked like a team that knew it was better than both Arizona and Stanford in UCLA's wins over both in L.A.

UCLA is trying to gain the coveted #4 seed in the tournament (that's what we've lowered ourselves to -- that a #4 seed is a coveted one), which would give them a bye for the first round of the tournament and preclude them from playing four games in four nights to win the conference tournament instead of three. The best the Bruins could hope for is the #6 seed, and that's, actually, probably the most advantageous anyway. Follow me here: The Bruins don't want to be the #5 seed because all that does is give UCLA a third game against USC instead of playing an almost as bad Utah if the Bruins were #6. UCLA would still have to win four games in four days to win the tournament title. Assuming the Bruins knock off Utah, then they'll face Arizona in the second round (quarterfinal) and UCLA matches up well with the Wildcats and the game won't be in the McKale Center. Win that game and the Bruins would then face Washington, assuming the Huskies get through their first game against either Wazzu or Oregon State (the Beavers would have to finish a game ahead of the Cougars to get the #7 seed because of Wazzu's regular season sweep). If UCLA faces the Huskies, it proved in Seattle it could at least compete with them. Anyway, win that game and, voila, the Bruins are in the title game (where they would hopefully not have to face Cal, who is a bad match-up for the Bruins).

This scenario took a bit of a hit on Sunday when Cal was knocked off at Colorado. If UCLA wants to get this sort of draw then the Bruins will have to help out and Cal will need to do its part by beating Stanford this weekend. Washington is going to beat USC, which means in order for UCLA to push Cal to the #1 seed the Bruins will have to beat Washington on Saturday and have Cal beat Stanford at Maples. Heck, if Cal loses to Stanford then there's a good chance the Bears could drop to the 3 seed because they'll lose the tie-breaker to Arizona.

It's kind of a mess going into this last weekend. The Bruins and Bears can make things simple by winning their respective games this weekend.

There you have it: looking at it the way I laid it out one can make an argument that the Bruins are actually better off being the #6 than being the #4. It allows UCLA a cupcake opener (thus possibly negating the extra game and day issue) and it means that there are two games for another team to knock off the Bears before the Bruins would have to face them instead of one.

However, to secure this seed the Bruins have to win one of this weekend's games at "home" against the Washington schools, and perhaps both. The Bruins were given a gift on Saturday when Stanford fell at Utah (the Utes are a vastly better team in Salt Lake City than on the road) and allowed the Bruins to remain one game ahead of the Cardinal. Stanford closes at home against Cal. Hopefully for the Bruins, the Bears will need that game for the regular season title. If the Cardinal beat the Bears in Maples Pavilion, then UCLA will have to beat both the Cougars and the Huskies as the Cardinal will own the tiebreaker by virtue of a win over Cal.

So, first things, first: the Bruins need to beat Washington State Thursday night at the Sports Arena.

These two teams met on February 4th in Pullman where the Bruins came away with a three-point victory. It shouldn't have been that close, but UCLA's free-throw shooting woes were apparent at the end of that game. There were several keys to that game's competitiveness, namely Wazzu's Brock Motum (6'10" 245 lbs.) had a monster first half, UCLA coach Ben Howland's switch to a zone in the second half (which negated Motum), and the inspired play of UCLA's Josh Smith, who had 19 points and 5 boards.

The weaknesses of most of the Pac-12 competition this season have screamed for the Bruins to run zone and Wazzu is no exception. They had several players shoot incredibly well in the first half in that first meeting, including Motum (who was 2-4 from behind the arc), senior Abe Lodwick (6'7" 215 lbs.), who had 11 points and 7 rebounds, and junior Mike Ladd (6'5" 195 lbs.), who had 10. When the Bruins went to the 2-3 zone it essentially snuffed out Motum's scoring chances and Lodwick and Ladd went dry from the outside (though they did get some good looks).

Going to a zone, at least some of the time, would allow UCLA to rest a bit on defense, and if the Bruins need to win four games in four days then any extra rest they get is nothing but a positive. Further, it would allow the Bruins to control the penetration of probably the only decent athletes on the Cougar roster, junior point guard Reggie Moore (6'1" 178 lbs.), as well as senior two-guard Marcus Capers (6'4" 179 lbs.). Capers is not a good outside shooter and will become a non-factor if UCLA eliminates his ability to get close to the rim while Moore, who is talented, gets very frustrated and tends to try and do too much because he isn't getting consistently good looks for his shots. It's not that he's selfish, but he needs to get some good looks or he becomes almost a detriment to what the Cougars are trying to do on offense.

The only other Cougar who gets significant court time is freshman DeVonte Lacy (6'3" 206 lbs.), but he is a not a scorer (putting up a goose egg in 21 minutes when UCLA traveled to the Paloose). However, he is shooting better recently (averaging over 35% from the floor overall and from the three-point line) and is up to 9.2 PPG. Still, if Washington State coach Ken Bone has to rely on Lacy to score a lot for Wazzu to win on Thursday then advantage Bruins.

Speaking of Bone, he is a solid strategist when it comes to attacking an opposition's defense (although the Bruin zone in Pullman appeared to catch him completely off guard) and he was able to utilize some things to exploit UCLA's man defense in the first meeting. However, Bone is not a defensive genius and Wazzu had trouble eliminating the things that UCLA does well on offense. This is one of the few Pac 12 teams that probably won't scheme a defense that can truly get UCLA out of its offensive rhythm.

UCLA has many advantages in this game; the home court, the fact that Wazzu is a good match-up for them, and the fact that UCLA will have had a full five days to prep for the Cougars. Still, any prediction based on Howland changing his tactics, even slightly, has to be predicated by an "if" because of Howland's now obvious stubborn streak. If he insists on having the Bruins play exclusively in man defense throughout this game then it's going to be a lot closer than it should be or needs to be. In fact, if he insists on no zone then UCLA may lose.

That probably won't happen, as Wazzu, like every other team in the conference not named Cal, is much worse on the road than they are at home.

Hopefully Howland will rest some of the starters as the Washington game on Saturday will be big (even if UCLA loses on Thursday because if Stanford loses to Cal then UCLA can still secure the #6 seed with a win over UDub) even with a Thursday win because a lot will ride on what Stanford does at home against Cal.

The Bruins, however, need to worry about taking care of business on Thursday.

Then they will be one step closer to that coveted #6 seed (sarcasm intended).

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