The Thursday game, at Washington (6:00 p.m. PST, ESPN2), represents the more difficult of the two games. Still, the Bruins have proved that they can't take anything for granted even though neither of the Washington schools have much to play for at this point in the season. The same questions that have dogged the Bruins for the majority of the season will continue to be asked this weekend, namely whether or not the Bruins will show the kind of effort or intensity that's necessary to be successful.
As mentioned, Thursday night's game is in Seattle against Lorenzo Romar's Huskies. UDub's Hec Edmonson Pavilion has been a difficult place for the Bruins over the past several years, in spite of UCLA's winning there last season. The venue tends to be loud and regardless of the talent level in a given year of the Huskies, they tend to play well, especially in bigger games, when at home.
Washington has had a difficult season. Even though the Huskies will finish the regular season with a winning record, they sit at 16-13 and were realistically eliminated from the NCAA Tournament conversation several weeks ago. This continues a downward trend for the Huskies that started last season. Much of this slide can be explained by the drop in talent in Seattle. This is not meant to disparage UDub's players, but the reality is that Romar is giving significant playing time to some players who wouldn't see the floor much on any other Pac- 12 team outside of USC and Washington State. There is also the perception that Romar is a mediocre technical and tactical coach. His teams have the reputation of being loose, undisciplined playground "ballers." This has been fine so long as there was significant talent in Seattle. This year, that isn't the case. As expected, UDub has lost to all the teams it should have in the non-conference portion of its schedule, and lost to one it wasn't supposed to when the Huskies lost at home to UC Irvine in November. UDub's best wins of the year were at Arizona State, which was a surprise, and home against Stanford. However, Washington has been competitive in many games. The Huskies simply couldn't close the deal. Even though I wrote that the talent was down in Seattle, that doesn't mean the Huskies don't have the talent to beat UCLA. They do.
Senior wing C.J. Wlicox (6'5" 195 lbs.) has been the offensive lynchpin for the Huskies this season. His game hasn't changed much in that he can be a dead-eye shooter, but is also prone to taking some very bad shots. However, of all of the players I've written that about this season, he is the best at doing the former and avoiding the latter. He is averaging 18.2 PPG and is hitting over 40% of his three-pointers. As has been his habit, he definitely floats around the perimeter and, as a result, other aspects of his game suffer, like rebounding.
Freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (6'3" 185 lbs.) has been a pleasant surprise for Romar. He was expected to come in and contribute, but his 13.4 PPG and his solid shooting has been an unexpected bonus. He is even hitting the glass to the tune of 4.4 RPG. However, he is the point guard and while he has 120 assists on the season and his job is to protect each possession. That's why his 80 turnovers is a concern.
Sophomore Andrew Andrews (6'2" 195 lbs.) has been even more of a surprise than Williams-Goss. He is averaging 12.2 PPG and 4 RPG. He also has done yeoman's work as Williams-Goss' back-up at the point. However, in spite of his improved play this season, Andrews is a horrible shooter, hitting only 37% from the field overall and 27% from behind the arc. With Wilcox's ability to shoot quickly and accurately demanding UCLA's defenders give him little space, and Williams-Goss' ability to get into the paint, the one tactic that UCLA Coach Steve Alford can employ is having defenders sag off Andrews.
Washington's front line is active and more athletic than UCLA's, but coming off what the Bruins saw against the Oregon schools, let alone Stanford and Arizona, Washington's forwards shouldn't give Travis Wear, David Wear or Tony Parker real pause. The one possible exception is senior Perris Blackwell (6'9" 275 lbs.), who has the real size to push UCLA's posts out of the way. He's averaging 10.5 PPG and a team-leading 6.7 RPG. He is a mediocre free throw shooter, which has certainly lowered his potential scoring, but he is a load. The thing with Blackwell: he doesn't always use his size in the best ways. He is the best interior defender on the squad, but that's not saying a great deal on a team that allows a pretty high shooting percentage (48% from the field per game).
While Blackwell plays quite a bit, he didn't start against Washington State. It didn't seem to bother him as Romar looks for more of a spark. Romar has also started juniors Shawn Kemp Jr. (6'9" 250 lbs.) and Desmond Simmons (6'7" 225 lbs.), but both have been less than effective. If there has been another starter outside of the aforementioned players, its fellow junior Mike Anderson (6'4" 195 lbs.), who has the ability to slash to the basket and get to the foul line. When he is in the game, however, the Huskies are very small, generally going 6'9", 6'5", 6'4", 6'3" and 6'2", and the 6'5" player (Wilcox) isn't a great rebounder.
That line-up may provide a bit of a mismatch where the Huskies can find an advantage. If Alford matches up Norman Powell on Williams-Goss, Jordan Adams on Andrews, Kyle Anderson or the Wear brothers on the remaining three, then outside of Powell, the other Bruins stand little chance of keeping their respective counterparts out of the lane. That probably means Washington will score. However, this Washington team doesn't shoot the ball all that well. They are averaging less than 45% from the field and 35% from behind the arc.
The Bruins will be facing one of the worst defensive teams in the conference. Besides the 48% shooting that UDub allows, the Huskies also allow 74.4 PPG, which is exactly their scoring average as well. Further, the Huskies are allowing their opponents 50 more free throw attempts on the season than they have. It's pretty safe to say UCLA will be able to score.
Washington is not a great rebounding team. The Huskies do average 2 more RPG than their opposition, but that's more a product of some of the low-major competition they faced in the non-conference season. The Bruins, who have been beaten on the boards in many games this year, should be able to hang with Washington on the glass and, if the Bruins bring that mystical intensity and focus, they can dominate the glass and the game.
That's because the key statistic coming into the game is the difference in turnovers. UCLA is averaging right around 10 TOs per game…UDub is averaging 12 TOs per game in conference, but against the schools that are striving to realistically obtain an NCAA Tournament bid, UDub is averaging over 15 turnovers per game. UCLA thrives on TOs. In fact, if the game becomes a track meet, with many uncontested and breakaway baskets, expect UCLA to run Washington out of the gym. However, that shouldn't happen. Washington has been much better at home than on the road, and of its home losses, Washington's only lost twice at home by double-digits, to UConn and to California.
UCLA generally has played with much more focus and desire in the first game of a conference road swing. In fact, the Bruins are undefeated on the road so far this conference season in the first game of a road trip (regardless of whether the game is on a Wednesday or a Thursday). The bet here is that the Bruins will be ready for the Huskies because it is the Thursday game and because the Bruins certainly recognize that Washington State, Saturday's opponent, rivals USC as one of the worst teams in major college basketball.
Just like Oregon State is a bad match-up for the Bruins, it appears that UCLA is a tough match-up for the Huskies. Certainly the home crowd (and possible intervention by Pac 12 officiating) will make the game close, but unless UCLA lacks effort like it did in the Stanford game two weekends ago or the first half of the OSU game last Sunday, the Bruins should wrap up the second seed in the upcoming Pac- 12 Tournament.