The Bruins have lost three of their last four games and are on the precipice of a tailspin. Because of Oregon's losses in the Bay Area last weekend, UCLA is surprisingly still in the realistic hunt for the Pac 12 regular season title. However, a loss to the Huskies would erase any doubt that this Bruin team will not win the conference. More than that, this game gives the Bruins a bit of an opportunity to get their "mojo" back after the loss to the Trojans. Make no mistake, the Bruins have to sweep the Washington schools this weekend or they may not only be seeing their conference title aspirations slipping away but also a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Lorenzo Romar's Huskies sit in a more precarious position than the Bruins in that they really need to go on a run to even be in NCAA Tourney conversation. The reality is that even should UDub go 8-1 in the second half of the conference schedule, the Huskies probably need to win the Pac 12 Tournament in Las Vegas to make the Big Dance. In order to so that the Huskies must position themselves for as good a regular season finish in the conference as possible. Since starting the conference slate undefeated the Huskies have lost four of five games and are slipping further into the middle of the Pac 12 standings. They've already lost to two of the top four teams in the conference (Arizona and Oregon while defeating Arizona State) and now face the Bruins.
If the last two games against Arizona State and USC have shown Coach Ben Howland anything, it's how to attack the Bruins and how to defend the Bruins all based on the point guard position. Even though both the Sun Devils and the Trojans had low post players who played well against the Bruins, the reality is that ASU's point guard Jahii Carson and USC's point man Jio Fontan both got the best of UCLA's Larry Drew II. To illustrate the point, the Trojans had a double-digit lead on the Bruins when Fontan picked up his fourth foul last Wednesday night. When he reentered the game the Bruins had cut the lead to four and absolutely had the momentum.
ASU and USC both showed that to beat UCLA they had to play off Drew when the Bruins had the ball and they had to attack him through dribble drives when they had the ball. UDub's point guard, senior Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 195") has the capacity to treat Drew much as Carson and Fontan did. Although he has yet to live up to the considerable hype he had coming out of high school, he is quick enough and talented enough to exploit Drew. However, he is not nearly as quick as either Carson or Fontan (even with Fontan recovering from last season's ACL tear), although he is considerably taller. There are two other major differences between Gaddy and the two aforementioned guards that play into Drew's (and Norman Powell's) favor; Gaddy is much more careless with the ball and he is nowhere the shooter this season that Carson and Fontan have been. Of the two sets of statistics, the more significant is the fact that Gaddy doesn't take care of the ball very well. In the Arizona State game Carson didn't shoot well but his passing was consistent and led to a lot of easy looks for the Sun Devils. Fontan shot better than Carson and his passing was, for the most part, solid. Gaddy is apt to shoot poorly and pass the ball to the wrong colored jersey. It wouldn't be a shock if Gaddy had a hot shooting night but it would be surprising if he was able to shoot well and keep his turnovers down.
The Bruins will also be facing another long big man in UDub senior Aziz N'Daiye (7'0" 260 lbs.). He is much more of a force on the defensive end (30 blocked shots; over 9 RPG) than he is on the offensive end, but he has improved that part of his game enough to be averaging over 10 PPG. Like ASU's Jordan Bachynski, most of N'Daiye's shots come around the rim, which would explain his better than 60% shooting percentage from the floor. While the fact that he can dunk may not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that N'Daiye used to miss far more from in close than he made. He is, however, still a very poor free throw shooter, averaging 46% from the charity stripe for the year. A big difference between N'Daiye and what USC's Dwayne Dedmon had to offer was Dedmon's ability to hit the mid-range jumper. N'Daiye is not a good jump shooter and it would behoove UCLA's posts to play off him and invite N'Daiye to shoot from 10-12 feet.
While Gaddy and N'Daiye present a challenge, the Huskies' best player is junior C.J. Wilcox (6'5" 195 lbs.). He leads the team in scoring at 18.2 PPG and leading perimeter shooter, hitting 45% of his shots and over 40% from beyond the arc. He has a quick trigger and the ability to create his own shot from nothing, although his are more of the acrobatic jump shot variety rather than getting into the lane and scoring. UCLA is going to be at a real disadvantage here as neither Jordan Adams nor Shabazz Muhammad has proven to be even average defenders. Now the two young Bruins are going to face arguably the best pure offensive player in the conference. Chances are the Bruins won't be able to shut down Wilcox, but they certainly need to keep him from going off for 30.
The third wing in the starting line-up is senior Scott Suggs (6'6" 195 lbs.) who is second on the team in scoring at 12.2 PPG. The thing about Suggs is that he's a high volume shooter for those points, shooting less than 40% from the floor. His saving grace has been his 40-45 shooting from the free throw line. He has also been less than stellar on the defensive end and is only pulling down 2.2 RPG.
The final starter has been sophomore forward Desmond Simmons (6'7" 220 lbs.). Simmons is a defensive and rebounding force, averaging over 7 RPG, good for second on the team, grabbing 21 steals and is a good athlete, but the Bruins can't sleep on him when the Huskies are on offense. He may only be shooting 35% from the floor, but he's at 39% from the three-point line. Kyle Anderson will be on him for much of the game and it is imperative that the Bruin frosh at least make the rebounding battle with Simmons a wash. The problem is that Romar hasn't started Simmons the past two games, but rather sophomore Shawn Kemp Jr. (6'9" 255 lbs.). Kemp responded with a solid game against Arizona and a huge offensive game against Arizona State. If Romar does indeed use Kemp along with N'Daiye then UCLA is going to have some defensive issues because although Anderson has the length to stay with Kemp, he doesn't exactly have the bulk to stay with him. Perhaps this would call for Travis Wear to start on Kemp and have Anderson on N'Daiye.
The backcourt depth is provided by freshman Andrew Andrews (6'2" 195 lbs.), a solid point guard who is averaging 8.5 PPG. Like Gaddy, he isn't a great shooter but he makes more concerted drives to the hoop than Gaddy does. As a result Andrews is less apt to involve his teammates in the flow of the offense.
Frontcourt depth comes from freshman Jernard Jarreau (6'10" 220 lbs.). He is basically there to offer a breather to the other posts. Still, he is more athletic than either of the Bruin Wear brothers. However, he is the kind of player that UCLA's Tony Parker could look good against right now.
While ASU and USC have shown the rest of the Pac 12 the basic blueprint for attacking the Bruins on both ends of the floor, the one thing to take into account for this game is the "Romar Factor". The Washington headman isn't exactly known for teaching his kids fundamentals on either end of the floor. He is more of an emotional leader, trying to fire his kids up to get them to play harder, but not necessarily smarter. His adjustments aren't subtle. For instance, last season in Seattle, when the Bruins were primed to finally beat the Huskies in Seattle, Romar picked up a technical foul and switched his charges to a zone defense. The result was to fire up his players and confuse the Bruins when they had the ball. However, Romar like to play man defense and he likes to pressure the ball. That should allow Drew to run the Bruin offense closer to where he's comfortable. In fact, if there's a blueprint for the Bruins on how to beat the Huskies it's the win the Bruins had at Arizona. That doesn't mean that UDub and Zona are similar teams, but rather that UCLA can offensively attack the Huskies in much the same way they attacked the Wildcats.
However, when the Huskies have the ball they will try and set ball screens, especially when both Kemp and N'Daiye are in the game. The Bruins have struggled with the pick and role, but when they did, against both ASU and USC, it was because there was a lack of effort and the opponent was pretty efficient at it. Arizona State had a poor defensive game against the Huskies. Arizona did not. The thing they had in common was forcing UDub into turnovers, especially off poor passes in the two-man game. Washington had 31 combined turnovers against the Arizona schools, and that was at home. Heck, the Huskies shot 53% from the floor against ASU and hit 21-22 free throws and only won by four. That's because they gave up over 60% shooting by the Sun Devils and, more importantly, because of turnovers. They even killed ASU on the boards, 36-20 and, again, only won by four.
I wrote in the USC preview that I felt I had a pretty good handle on how this UCLA team would handle the ASU loss, at least emotionally. After the loss to the Trojans and the way in which the Trojans dominated for long stretches, that assumption is now out the window. There's really no telling how these Bruins will respond, with a week between games to let the taste of the Southern Cal loss linger. However, and this is key, USC is probably a better team than the Huskies, or at the very least a tougher match-up for the Bruins. UCLA lives off turnovers and the Huskies turn it over a great deal (289 on the season). The Bruins also live off getting up the floor quickly on missed shots. Washington isn't a great shooting team by any stretch, but neither was USC. The Trojans made a point of getting three and four players back after every shot so as to negate the Bruins' early offense. Romar likes his guys to hit the offensive boards and I just don't think he has it in him to make the adjustments necessary to essentially slow the game down. Even then, UDub is only an average rebounding team, averaging 35 RPG, although they do have over 280 offensive boards.
Washington has been strange this season in that they've won on the road and lost at home. There really is little rhyme or reason to their record. However, there is still something to be said for Howland's ability to prep for a Thursday game of a two game set (throw out the USC game because Howland seems like he has often had trouble with the Trojans regardless of their talent level). The main issue, though, is that UCLA, as Tracy Pierson has pointed out all year, has had to outscore teams to win. There may not be a better team to play in the Pac 12 to do that than the Huskies. I quoted the stats from the Arizona State/UDub game earlier. Just to reiterate those points, they lost to Oregon by 5 despite shooting 52% from the floor and going 8-12 from behind the arc. They also had 21 turnovers. To make the Bruins pay for their lackadaisical defense, teams have to take care of the ball. The one thing the Bruins have done pretty well this season is force TOs. UDub sometimes goes color blind when it comes to recognizing the right jersey to pass the ball.
While Romar has the blueprint, the guess is that he isn't going to read it.