While we can debate whether we should have a higher standard for success for the UCLA program than #23 in the AP and a sub-30 RPI, the reality is that this is where the current version of the Bruins find themselves going into this week's final weekend of Pac-12 play when the Bruins go to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Washington schools. The importance of both games cannot be understated: win both games and UCLA will be looking at the Pac-12 Tournament next week with a realistic chance of garnering a three seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. For those of you on BRO who think that UCLA has no shot at a three seed (admittedly, the Bruins would have to win their next five games), then you don't understand the fluidity of the college basketball landscape caused by the mediocre level of play throughout the nation.
However, before we can talk of highly protected seeds and trips to San Jose, the reality is that UCLA has to win at Washington State and Washington, with Wazzu up first on Wednesday night.
UCLA enters the Palouse with a record of 22-7 (12-4 in the Pac-12), tying the Bruins for first place in the conference Oregon (who, by the way, will have to play on the road at Colorado this week). Washington State comes into the game with a record of 11-18 and 2-14 in the Pac 12, good for last place in the conference, having dropped nine in a row. In spite of the perceived heat on UCLA's head coach Ben Howland, the reality is that Wazzu's Ken Bone will more than likely be one of the first conference coaches to lose his job at the conclusion of the season. The Pac-12 Network will televise the game at 6:30 PM PT.
Even though Washington State is one of the worst teams in the conference, it does have some talent (which will probably be a contributing factor in firing Bone). Senior Brock Motum (6'10" 245 lbs.) is the best inside/outside post player in the conference, the kind of player that has given the Bruins trouble this season. He has the ability to set solid ball screens, which troubles the Bruins, and then slip for a pick and roll pass or pop to the arc for an open three-pointer. At 17.9 PPG and a little over 6.2 RPG, Motum is a handful. The Bruins, though, did a very good job of limiting him when they beat the Cougs easily at Pauley a few weeks ago, but he still finished with 17 points. Granted his shooting was off (6-15) and many of his points were scored after the game was essentially decided, but the key against Motum that game was UCLA's ability to keep him off the boards. He only had 4 rebounds. Which brings me to UCLA's offense. The ability of the Wear brothers to pull opposing posts out of the paint can't be overstated. Even though Bone played primarily a zone defense in that first match-up, Motum was often the one who had to step out of his usual defensive area to account for the Wears, and that took him away from the defensive glass.
Sophomore point guard Royce Woolridge (6'3" 175) had a solid game against the Bruins in the first meeting. He finished with 16 points and hit some outside shots. He was 6-of-10 from the floor. However, he struggled with running the Wazzu offense, committing 4 of the squad's 19 turnovers on the game. This was against his only having 2 assists. As has been the case over the past few weeks, UCLA's Larry Drew II and his ability to adequately defend Woolridge will go a long way in determining whether or not this is an easier game for the Bruins.
The Cougars have other scoring options in senior Mike Ladd (6'5" 195 lbs.) and sophomore DaVonte Lacy (6'3" 206 lbs.). They can both get to the hoop and shoot the long ball. Ladd is only hitting at 32% from behind the arc, but he's at almost 45% from the floor. Lacy is much more accurate from behind the arc at 38%. However, his 41% overall shooting belies his inefficiency on two-point shots. Part of the reason that the Bruins beat Wazzu soundly in February was because these two, who average over 20 PPG between them, only scored 15 in that game and many came after the outcome had been decided. Neither are great athletes, although Lacy is physically strong, and UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams had little trouble guarding them.
One of Bone's biggest headaches has been scoring off the bench. He really doesn't have someone who can reliably come off the pine and score 8-10 points in a given game. True freshman Junior Longrus (6'7" 232 lbs.) and sophomore Dexter Kernich-Drew (6'6" 182 lbs.) are the only double-digit minute players off the bench and Longrus' minutes have been dropping precipitously as the season has progressed. He is a nice athlete but hasn't developed any semblance of a reliable offensive game. Kernich-Drew is primarily (although not totally) a three-point shooter. However, he's only averaging 33% from three.
The fact of the matter is that the entirety of the Cougar squad is not a good shooting one. They are under 43% for the season as a team from the field. They only shot 34% at Pauley. Further, this is not a good free throw shooting team, in fact, after Motum and Woolridge, it's a pretty poor team from the charity stripe.
The reality, too, is that this game will be completely decided by the intensity UCLA brings to the game. Wazzu almost (some say should have) beat Oregon two weeks ago, and that the Cougs can be dangerous. However, they simply don't have the talent to match up with UCLA if the Bruins decide to show up with a purpose. Remember that Oregon was still without Dominic Artis when they played Washington State and his absence has been clearly felt by the Ducks.
This is a definite trap game for the Bruins. Howland has obviously told the team how important this game and the Washington games are for UCLA's Pac-12 title hopes, especially in light of Oregon's trip to Colorado.
So, does that mean this game is a foregone conclusion as a Bruin victory? Not necessarily. First, Bone will more than likely employ the 2-3 zone again in the hopes that UCLA has an off shooting night, which the Bruins have shown they can have. Further, Wazzu should be fired up. It hasn't been a good season in the Palouse and this is the last real opportunity the Cougars could have for a highlight. Motum is a handful and he more than likely won't allow himself to be taken out of the game early as he was at Pauley Pavilion.
Wazzu also looks to have an advantage on the boards (who doesn't against the Bruins, right?) as they outrebounded UCLA by 9 at Pauley. That may have been an aberration, though, as UCLA shot 62% from the floor for the game and forced those 19 turnovers.
This game will go a long way as an indication of truly what this Bruin team is made of. UCLA really does control its own destiny, and can really put itself in a great position for the NCAA Tournament, but two wins in the state of Washington are critical. The Bruins need to win these last two regular-season games and go to at least the Pac 12 Tournament title game.
It helps that Jordan Adams seems like he really is out of his funk, and that the team is getting healthier. Drew is starting to play his best basketball…ever, and that Kyle Anderson is now showing why people were comparing him to a young Magic Johnson (even if that was pretty big hyperbole).
Finally, UCLA shot over 60% against Washington State and the Cougar zone really applied no pressure and was fairly lazy at taking away the middle of the offense (at the free throw line). There is no reason UCLA shouldn't flourish against it again.
The road to an NCAA #3 seed starts in Pullman.
Washington State 67