The game represents what could be a seminal moment in UCLA's season. With the close loss to the Wildcats, the Bruins could realistically find themselves being unable to muster the necessary mental energy it will take to beat the Sun Devils. Further, ASU is a bad match-up for UCLA because of the unique defensive patterns employed by Sun Devil head coach Herb Sendek. Finally, and most importantly, UCLA doesn't have an answer for arguably the best player in the Pac 12, sophomore point guard Jahii Carson (5'10" 180 lbs.), or, for that matter, senior post Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 248 lbs.).
The Arizona game was clearly an emotional one for the Bruins. The crowd, which was truly sold out for the first time this season, helped to ramp up the intensity of the game. The loss was deflating, although it could be argued that either outcome would have left UCLA without much in the proverbial tank with which to draw on for Sunday's game. Now Bruin Coach Steve Alford will be tested for the first time in his short tenure in Westwood to rally the team to give another fighting effort against the Sun Devils. The good news for the Bruins is that this game will be on a Sunday, thus giving UCLA one more day to shake off the disappointment of Thursday's loss. Still, it's an absolute toss-up as to how UCLA will respond since there is no past experience to draw from.
Sendek is well known in the basketball world for being an excellent teacher of fundamentals and an even better tactician. He is a brilliant game planner and is generally a good adjuster during games. He found the success he had against UCLA and Ben Howland was due to his ability to both out-plan Howland and get his Sun Devils more focused than Howland was able to manage with the Bruins. Then there was always Sendek's uncanny ability to design a specific gimmick defense to thwart the Bruins. Certainly UCLA has run ASU off the floor in many of the games that Sendek has been in charge, but that was because of Sendek's failings as a recruiter not as an Xs-and-Os coach. UCLA is liable to face a mix of man and zone, but when the Bruins face a zone they may very well see a diamond-and-one, a triangle-and-two, or some other funky zone. Part of this will be to throw the Bruins out of any rhythm, but part will be the result of Sendek's six-man rotation. The Bruins showed some patience on Thursday as they quickly stormed back from a 13-point deficit, even taking the lead with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game. That patience needs to be shown for something like 30 minutes in order for UCLA to be successful.
ASU is coming off a dismantling of USC on Thursday. The Sun Devils only won by 19, but the game was over by the half as ASU held a commanding lead. Certainly the performance should make UCLA wary as ASU was able to essentially do what the Bruins did to the Trojans. The guess is that the Sun Devils will be highly motivated, especially after how the Bruins knocked out the Sun Devils from last year's Pac-12 Conference Tournament quarterfinals. That loss certainly cemented ASU's missing the NCAA Tournament.
Sendek has two players who Howland couldn't really find an answer for in Bachynski and Carson. It remains to be seen if Alford's version of the Bruins has an answer either.
Bachynski looked like an All-American last season in the three games against UCLA. While Bachynski isn't a great athlete, he is agile enough and smart. For instance, he is the best shot-blocker in the Pac 12. Much of that is the result of understanding timing and positioning. This isn't to say that the Canadian can't find himself in foul trouble; he can, but when he plays within himself he is the best center in the conference. The Bruins are going to have trouble generating any offense in the paint while Bachynski is in the game. Further, while Tony Parker has looked much better over the past two weeks and, ad Tracy Pierson pointed out, he is the one Bruin post player who will get physical on the block, it would be a stretch to think he could significantly slow down Bachynski. Last season Sendek had ASU feed Bachynski a steady diet of post-entry passes and he scored almost at will against the Bruin interior defenders. Bachynski is shooting 60% from the floor, averages 12.7 PPG and a whopping 9.3 RPG. Perhaps most impressively he has 74 blocks on the season going into the USC game, which is good for an average of about 5 BPG. That's highly impressive. The best the Bruins can probably hope for is that Bachynski gets into early foul trouble, which is a realistic possibility.
As good as Bachynski has been against the Bruins in the past, the reality is that someone has to get him the ball, and ASU has the best point guard in the conference and one of the best in the nation in Carson. He is very quick, plays very smart the majority of the time and is a match-up nightmare for most teams, but particularly for the Bruins. That's because UCLA's best on-ball defender, and also one of its two best athletes, Norman Powell, will probably struggle to stay in front of Carson. If Powell struggles against Carson then the expectation is that the rest of the UCLA defenders will be set up to fail while trying to guard Carson. Carson's all-around game makes him a bear to handle for the opposition. He is shooting 48% from the floor, 51% from behind the arc, almost 80% from the free throw line and has 74 assists. The one area Carson could improve in is turnovers. He has 50, although quite a few of those are because many of his teammates can't handle his passes. Because UCLA doesn't have anyone that can simply hang with Carson on a consistent basis, expect Alford to reduce Powell's minutes and go with Bryce Alford and/or Zach Lavine more in the backcourt. The best way to attack Carson's offensive game is to get physical with him. It is the one way to throw him off his game. It remains to be seen if UCLA can do that.
After Bachynski and Carson, the revelation of the season for the Sun Devils has been senior Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall (6'4" 215 lbs.). Marshall has certainly mitigated the loss of former Sun Devil Carrick Felix, who graduated. He is averaging 15.4 PPG, shooting 49% from the field and 45% from behind the arc. He takes about half his shots from the three-point line and gets to the foul line a fair amount each game, having 47 free throw attempts on the season. The one area in which he struggles is rebounding, where is averaging 2.7 RPG, far fewer than Felix's totals. Tracy Pierson wrote in his Arizona review of the defensive struggles of both Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, and one of them will be assigned Marshall for much of the game. Marshall has shown his ability to score, having led the Sun Devils in that category in four games already this season. If Adams and Anderson play lazy or matador defense on Sunday then Marshall will score in the 20s and UCLA will struggle to win.
The final two starters are junior forward Jonathan Gilling (6'7" 219 lbs.) and senior wing Shaquille McKissic (6'5" 200 lbs.). Gilling is a very good, although streaky, shooter. Last year at Pauley Pavilion he opened the game hitting several three-pointers, giving ASU an early lead, and then he disappeared. He averages 42% from behind the arc, where he is attempting most of his shots, but only 3.7 RPG, 41% from the field overall and, for such a good outside shooter, he is remarkably poor at the free throw line, hitting less than 50%. Most importantly he isn't a good athlete. If Sendek goes small and Alford does the same, Gilling is one player the Bruins can simply shut down when playing man defense.
McKissic has also been a diamond in the rough for Sendek this season. He isn't shooting well and is averaging 8.2 PPG and 4.9 RPG. He is more of a slasher-type player, but his true worth to the Sun Devils is his ability to play defense and do the unsung things to help the team win. If the Bruins do a poor job of guarding him, he will make them pay; he has led the Sun Devils in scoring in 2 games this season. If Adams and Anderson guards Marshal, the other will be guarding McKissic, and his ability to move without the ball may make either Bruin sophomore look bad.
The only other player that sees double-digit minutes is freshman Egor Koulechov (6'5" 205 lbs.), who has started 7 games this season. He is supposed to be a shooter, but he lost his starting spot to McKissic as his three-point shooting has stayed below 30%. However, if the Bruins leave him open then he'll make them pay.
The critical team piece of this game, beyond the intensity-level question for the Bruins, is going to be UCLA's defense. Unlike Arizona, ASU will hit open threes consistently if the Bruins play zone. Conversely, if UCLA plays man defense as it has for much of the season then Carson and Bachynski will overwhelm them. If UCLA plays the good defense like they did for much of the final minutes of the Arizona game then all bets are off.
This is where Bachynski's availability really comes to the fore; if he gets in foul trouble and sits for any length of time then ASU will really struggle. Sendek really has no one else of size that he trusts to play anywhere close to significant minutes. In fact, if Bachynski is out for any length of time, expect ASU's line-up on the floor to go 6'7", 6'5", 6'5", 6'4" and 5'10". This is one of the reasons why ASU struggles on the glass in spite of their own cupcake schedule. ASU is averaging virtually the same rebounds per game as its opposition. Further, ASU is also turning over the ball at a substantial rate, at 11 TPG. Keep in mind that those numbers include games against the likes of Grambling and Idaho State.
UCLA needs to maintain its composure on the offensive end. The Sun Devil zone defenses are going to force UCLA to work for good shots. If UCLA insists on playing one-on-one ball then that will play into ASU's hands. If, however, UCLA, and particularly Anderson, take its time and works for good shots, then UCLA's overall height and athletic advantage, in spite of the presence of Bachynski in the middle, will see UCLA shooting much better than it did against Arizona. ASU is another good field goal percentage defensive team, allowing only 39% from the floor and less than 30% from behind the arc. Those statistics could be a bit misleading, since in games against better competition, Creighton and Washington for instance, ASU allowed over 50% from the floor and those games were over early as the Sun Devils lost both games by more than 20, including the UDub loss in Tempe.
Still, in spite of all written before, the key to the game will be UCLA's ability or inability to get up for this game. A poster on BRO theorized that this game, while not the marquee match-up of Arizona, is vitally important, as UCLA will be on the road next week and a loss to ASU could see UCLA realistically staring at a 1-4 conference start. At that point the season could unravel quickly. However, a win on Sunday could see the Bruins gain confidence and realistically go to Colorado and Utah and win one if not both games. If that happens then UCLA should be in the Pac 12 race until March.
Being the cynic that I am, I can't believe that UCLA will have learned its defensive lessons until I actually see it for the majority of a game. Further, this team has yet to prove that it can quickly bounce back after a difficult close loss. Truth be told, they haven't shown they can't do it, either, but again, being the cynic…
This game is a hard one to predict. While I predicted the Arizona game to be 79-71 for Arizona (and it turned out to be 79-75), I felt pretty good about that call. This one is just too hard to figure.
Being a BRO homer, let's assume UCLA can play just enough defense and rebound well enough to do what is necessary to win. Further, Sendek's short bench has hurt the Sun Devils this season and there'll be moments on Sunday where that may prove true.
Arizona State 73