We are at the point in the 2012-2013 season when saying a particular game is huge is a massive understatement. The Bruins are essentially tied for first place in the conference and because of the logjam at the top of the conference (six teams within 2 games of first place), every game is huge from here on out. Further, the Bruins have a real opportunity to not only solidify their NCAA Tournament resume, but move into protected seed status.
Coach Herb Sendek's Sun Devils are in a more desperate situation. After losing at home to Washington last weekend, ASU is now accepted to be on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble. The Sun Devils have three games left and two of those games, against the Bruins on Wednesday and at Arizona next week, give the Sun Devils the opportunity to put themselves back in the NCAA conversation.
Yeah, this game is huge.
I am sure all Bruin fans, as well as the players and Coach Ben Howland, clearly remember the butt whoopin' ASU put on the Bruins last month in Tempe. The Sun Devils dominated every aspect of the game, from offense to defense to rebounding to coaching. It was easily UCLA's worst competitive loss of the season. The 28-point spread honestly doesn't show just how badly the Bruins were dominated.
There really were two aspects to the first game between these two teams that led to the blowout and both had to do with one player, UCLA's Larry Drew II. Sendek clearly created a game plan that focused on attacking the perceived weak spots in the Bruin line-up, namely Drew's shooting and his on-ball defense. For the first time this season, ASU presented the Bruins with a defense that played well off Drew in the half court. This took away Drew's ability to get into the paint and thus caused the UCLA offense to go pear-shaped. Essentially the Sun Devils gave Drew the opportunity to take wide-open jumpers as if stating, "We don't think you can beat us." The plan worked to perfection as the Bruin offense and Drew looked as disjointed as they have all season.
Drew was attacked defensively by freshman point guard Jahii Carson (5'10" 175 lbs.) who, even though he didn't shoot well that game, was able to drive and dish to wide-open shooters who simply didn't miss much. Drew spent much of the game going underneath ball screens and giving Carson the room he needed to attack. Drew wasn't helped by what was probably the laziest team defense the Bruins showed this season, but Drew individually failed on defense.
Obviously the use of a solid post player helps the ball screen offense and Arizona State has one in junior Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 250 lbs.), who proved in the first match-up between these teams that he was too much to handle for any of the Bruin posts. Nothing has changed in that aspect. Bachynski is the same player he was back in January. The Sun Devils also have a similar match-up nightmare for the Bruins in back-up post Ruslan Pateev (7'0" 255 lbs.). Both players simply destroyed UCLA inside. However, the Bruins have faced better posts in Washington State's Brock Motum and Stanford's Dwight Powell and the Bruins were able to handle them. The difference, as I have been writing about for several weeks now, is the point guard play. If the Bruins can stop or slow Carson then they will go a long way to neutralizing either Sun Devil inside player.
Once Howland tried to make a semblance of an adjustment in the game in Tempe, namely taking away some of the inside passing, Carson simply passed outside to one of three teammates who could hit the outside jumper, senior Carrick Felix (6'6" 197 lbs.), junior Evan Gordon (6'1" 187 lbs.) and sophomore Jonathan Gilling (6'7" 215 lbs.). Felix is clearly the most dangerous of the three as he is second on the Sun Devils in scoring (14.3 PPG) and leads the team with over 8 RPG. He also had a huge game in Tempe, but he is just as average an athlete as he was in January.
Gordon, a transfer from Liberty University, started slowly this season but started lighting up things, especially from the arc, around the time of the first game with the Bruins. He is a dangerous outside shooting threat. He is a volume shooter, meaning he could get white hot from deep or shoot his team out of a game. He hasn't, however, done the latter in a few weeks. Gordon has actually been coming off the bench the past few games in favor of senior Chris Colvin (6'2" 185 lbs.), who is a better defender than Gordon. Sendek has made a conscious decision to play a stronger defensive player at the expense of offense because he knows he's getting enough from the other four starters.
While Gordon is a shooter first, he does have the ability to attack on the bounce. Gilling really doesn't. However, he leads the team in both three-point attempts and makes. By the way, he had a very good game against the Bruins last month (I sense a theme here).
Even with the more than likely unavailability of Travis Wear, Sendek has more of a depth issue than the Bruins. His bench right now is Gordon and Pateev, and while Gordon plays a lot, Pateev plays only a few minutes.
Okay, so the Sun Devils individually had very good to great games against the Bruins in Tempe. Conversely, the Bruins were coming off an emotionally draining victory over Arizona in Tucson and not surprisingly played arguably their worst game of the year. Are either likely to happen again? Probably not, but as usual, it comes down to match-ups.
Let's just assume that the Bachynski/Pateev combination is going to win the post battle. If David Wear and/or Tony Parker can play the two large ASU posts even to a draw, then UCLA wins. End of discussion.
The Drew/Carson (and let's throw Norman Powell in this mix) match-up is pretty straight forward, too. How the other match-ups shake out could determine the game. It will be interesting to see if Howland puts Muhammad on Felix or if it will be Anderson's job. Anderson has gotten much more sophisticated in his defense of opposing forwards lately, using his knowledge, guile and length to offset superior athletes or bigger forwards. In the case of Felix, while the ASU senior is undoubtedly stronger, Anderson has a very big length advantage on him. Muhammad would conceivably be just as strong and long as Felix and has been playing better defense as of late (no, that doesn't mean it's good, just better than before) and he would allow Anderson to overwhelm Gilling, which I think the Bruin frosh is capable of doing.
Shutting down Gordon will inevitably be the primary defensive responsibility of Adams. This match-up may be coming at a good time as Adams is definitely playing better the past two games on the offensive end, but he's really starting to do some nice things on the defensive end, despite his apparent lack of athleticism.
Simple fact: The Bruins did a horrible job at locating shooters in Tempe. That has got to change for the Bruins to be successful.
Much of this preview has been about how the Bruins might successfully defend the Sun Devil offense. I don't want to ignore the other end of the floor. The Bruins have now played two very efficient games in a row on the offensive end. I tend to throw out stats for the second half of a game like the USC game because it essentially ended as a competitive game by halftime because of UCLA's offense. The Bruins shot 35% from the field for the game in Tempe, including a woeful 29% in the second half. UCLA looked like it had tired legs as many of the Bruin shots hit the front end of the rim. If UCLA shot 50% for the game in Tempe, assuming they were all two-point shots, and everything else remains the same, then the Bruins would have won. How UCLA shoots will go a long way to dictating the other match-ups.
Finally, Tracy Pierson wrote in the USC game review that USC looked tight in the first half, as if the weight of being in a must-win situation had gotten to the Trojans. After the home loss to Washington last weekend, which wasn't that inexplicable considering that Sendek started Pateev and Colvin and played them for more minutes than normal because it was Senior Night in Tempe, Arizona State has the specter of failing in a must-win game again.
As per usual for this Bruin team, the reality is that much of the outcome of this game will come down to the effort the Bruins bring to the floor. Predicting the Bruins' degree of has been fairly futile at times, but I just can't see the Bruins coming out flat in this one, given UCLA's situation in the conference. They know how big the game is, both from a conference standpoint and in relation to UCLA's NCAA Tournament prospects. Further, UCLA has shown that they play with effort when it is universally questioned. See: Missouri, Arizona, Stanford, USC.
The Sun Devils are 4-3 on the road and they've beaten Colorado in Boulder. On closer inspection, though, ASU was facing a Buffs squad coming off a very emotional win over Arizona two days previous. Outside of that win, ASU has wins at Texas Tech, Washington State and Oregon State. The Red Raiders are one of the two worst teams, by a long shot, in the Big 12, while the Cougars and the Beavers occupy the 12th and 10th places in the conference respectively. ASU is nowhere near the team they are at home when the Sun Devils travel.
It is a huge game, moreso because a win by the Bruins sets up a monumental game on Saturday against the Wildcats.
Arizona State 67