The Bruins now find themselves moving on to the 9th level of Hell for the program, at least since Howland took over. In layman's terms, that means a trip to Seattle for a game against the Washington Huskies, where UCLA hasn't won since Coolidge was President. Okay, obviously that's an exaggeration, but the Bruins haven't won at Hec Ed Pavilion in a very long time. Of course, that means in this crazy season that the Bruins will probably win fairly handily on Saturday.
If there was any sliver of a silver lining this week it was provided by Stanford and Colorado, who beat California and Oregon respectively, meaning that a win by UCLA on Saturday clinches at least a share of the Pac 12 regular season title.
UCLA (22-8; 12-5 Pac 12) and Lorenzo Romar's Huskies (17-13; 9-8 Pac 12) are considered a marquee match-up by the national media, thus the fact that the game will be televised nationally at 11 AM PT on CBS. The game is important for the Huskies, too; with a win, UDub could find itself with a 6-seed for the Pac-12 Tournament, while a loss could see the Huskies fall as far down the conference pecking order as a 10 seed, depending on the rest of this weekend's conference results.
This is one of those times when, as I am writing, I am thinking whether or not it is even prudent to get into individual match-ups and tendencies going into the game. You see, as many of you already know, the outcome of almost all of UCLA's games this season have come down to whether or not the Bruins bring intensity and focus to the game. The Bruins obviously mailed it in on Wednesday night. They sort of did when they first faced the Huskies several weeks ago in Los Angeles, when a Larry Drew II jumper at the buzzer prevented an overtime finish. That two-point victory likely won't be duplicated if UCLA brings the same lack of shooting on the offensive end that they brought in the game at Pauley. That contest saw the Bruins shoot only 33% from the floor. The only reason UCLA won was because Washington shot 42% from the field, including 2-19 from behind the arc. The real difference in the game, including Washington's plus-10 rebounding advantage, was the 19 turnovers the Huskies committed, compared to only 10 for the Bruins.
Assuming Washington wins the battle of the boards again (And let's face it, who hasn't been able to dominate the Bruins on the glass?), the game may very well come down to a combination of UCLA's offensive effectiveness and the turnover margin. The Bruins shot only 39% from the floor in their loss on Wednesday in the Palouse and committed 12 turnovers. Even though the Bruins forced Wazzu into 16 turnovers, the plus-4 margin was fool's gold. That's because many of UCLA's turnovers were in the first half when the game clearly got away from the Bruins. That compounded the fact that UCLA couldn't convert many of Washington State's turnovers into points because of its poor shooting performance. That can't be duplicated in either facet if the Bruins are to be victorious on Saturday.
There are some things, though, that appear to favor the Bruins in these areas going into the game. Washington State, despite missing two starters, had a clear and well-executed game plan that included getting back defensively to prevent UCLA from scoring in its early offense, and they varied the defenses to throw off the Bruins' offensive timing. In particular, the Cougars threw some halfcourt and zone traps at the Bruins that UCLA's players appeared unprepared to handle. Wazzu ran these different defenses with discipline, which Washington typically cannot duplicate.
Romar's teams traditionally have relied on athleticism and a fairly chaotic and frenetic pace to try and force teams to play at a faster tempo. Generally, the Huskies have not played a disciplined defensive style, often leaving men open because of the chances they collectively take going after the ball. For example, even though several teams had focused their defensive game plans on playing off Drew leading up to the first game between these two teams, Romar had both senior point guard Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 195 lbs.) and freshman Andrew Andrews (6'2" 195 lbs.) body up to Drew. This allowed the UCLA senior to operate both his game and the UCLA offense in more of a comfort zone. Even though UCLA shot poorly in that game, they were able to continually get good looks at the basket.
UCLA's defensive effort in the Wazzu game was among the worst of the Howland era, lacking both intensity and cohesion. UCLA consistently allowed the Cougars easy and close looks at the hoop. Much of this happened because of Washington State's patient offense, which focused on getting slips and backdoor cuts. They constantly ran their offense deep into the shot clock, working in a disciplined (there's that word again) manner. Washington generally doesn't run its offense this way, often looking for early shots and looking for more one-on-one action against the opposition. This should help the Bruins in two ways. First, it doesn't attack one of the key weaknesses the Bruins displayed on Wednesday, namely defensive rotation. Second, when the Huskies shoot early in the clock they often don't have offensive balance, making defensive rebounding a bit easier.
That's pretty much it in terms of big picture analysis. I would expect the Huskies to shoot better than they did in L.A., particularly from behind the arc. Specifically I don't expect UDub's leading scorer, junior C.J. Wilcox (6'5" 195 lbs.), to go 0-6 from the three-point line. Also, senior wing Scott Suggs (6'6" 195 lbs.) had a miserable shooting night, going 1-7 from the field and 0-3 from behind the arc. That means UCLA's offense must get some easy point to match what will undoubtedly be a more efficient offensive performance from the Huskies.
At this point it might be prudent to look at how this game might affect the conference race and seeding going into the conference tournament. As I wrote above, UCLA remarkably still has a legitimate shot at the conference regular season crown. Win the game and UCLA is no worse than tied for the title. In terms of conference seeding, UCLA knows that it will be no worse than the 3-seed going to Las Vegas. The team UCLA is competing with for conference honors, Oregon, probably won't lose its finale at Utah (although in this conference everything has proved possible) so the reality is that UCLA is, at best, looking at the 2-seed if it wins. The third team in the top-of-the-conference seeding mix is California. The Bears are done with their regular season schedule and are waiting on the outcome of UCLA's and Oregon's respective games. Should the Bruins lose then UCLA will more than likely drop to the 3-seed. There is a weird scenario that would see UCLA and Oregon both lose and Arizona beat Arizona State, which would result in the Bruins being the 2-seed thanks to the season sweep of the Wildcats. Regardless, UCLA has assured itself of not having to play on Wednesday night in the opening round of the conference tournament.
As we've pointed out all year, though, UCLA's success or failure has depended on the respective match-ups, and it probably will in the conference tournament, too. Obviously Arizona State is a tough match-up for the Bruins, as is Cal. The Bruins seem to match-up well with Stanford and to a certain degree, USC. If UCLA wins on Saturday then the argument can be made that the Bruins match-up well with the Huskies. Finally, UCLA has Arizona's number, too.
Best-case scenario would have the Bruins winning and Utah shocking Oregon. That would leave the Bruins getting the first round bye and waiting on the winner of Washington and Stanford. Should UCLA get past that match-up then it would be looking at either Arizona or Colorado (probably). UCLA is 3-0 on the season against those two. That means UCLA wouldn't have to face Arizona State, Oregon or Cal until the conference final and then that would mean only having to play one of them. That's significant because those three teams represent the three most difficult match-ups for the Bruins. In this scenario that would mean that those three would have beaten up on each other before presumably having to face UCLA.
However, there are so many permutations to this that watching the scoreboard this weekend may prove to be an exercise in frustration. Honestly, there will be games where Bruin fans simply will be confused as to whom to root for, depending on how those outcomes will affect the Bruins.
There is one final match-up that is critical, the coaching match-up. Romar isn't a gifted tactical coach but he is very good at getting his kids to play with fire and passion in games like this. Howland's downfall has been his preparation. He gets so focused on breaking down a team's videotaped tendencies that when an opponent throws something new at the Bruins, Howland is slow to adjust, if he adjusts at all. The Wazzu game on Wednesday is an example of this. If Romar doesn't hit the Bruins with something unusual then the Bruins will at least be prepared for what they see out of the Huskies. How they execute against even the known quantity remains to be seen.
UCLA still has a shot at being placed in San Jose for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but at this point it appears that the Bruins will have to win their last four games (including the three in Vegas) for that to happen. They have no margin for error, and the 3-seed that was a possibility going into Wednesday night's game is gone. However, the Bruins need to take care of business in Seattle to sustain the outside hope of San Jose.
This preview started with describing Seattle as a house of horrors for the Bruins. Howland's most talented team, the one with Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, et al, couldn't win in Seattle. This version of UCLA, as David Woods pointed out in his Washington State review, has a tendency to play poorly when the spotlight isn't on it. Conversely, the Bruins have played well (at least offensively) when their proverbial backs have been up against the wall, or the spotlight has been clearly on them. This game actually represents both.
This is completely a gut feeling, but this is precisely the kind of game that UCLA has stepped up and won this season, in spite of the fact that there are pieces of evidence and logic that would tell me otherwise.