The Bruins come into the game with the second seed in the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament locked up. In fact, this game is probably important for the Bruins for two reasons: first, it would give the Bruins their first road sweep of the season after Thursday's win at Washington; and second, it would ensure that UCLA didn't suffer a devastating loss (according to the RPI) with regard to its seeding in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Neither of those factors will probably motivate the Bruins, especially based on the way the team has played over the course of the season.
Now add to all of that the fact that UCLA will be facing one of the worst teams in all of major Division 1 college basketball. Coach Ken Bone, who is in his fifth season in Pullman, is the epitome of a coach who is a proverbial dead man walking. Bone probably has two games left in his Washington State career, and his team is playing like it really doesn't care. The latest setback, which happened on Thursday, was a home loss to USC. Both teams are 2-15 in the Pac-12 and were vying for the crown of the worst BCS conference team in the country. Wazzu, with that loss, probably has a better case right now – or worse, depending on your perspective.
Bone and the Cougars have been the victim of some poor recruiting and some poor luck with the recruits that were high level players. Remember, Bone inherited Xavier Thames, but then chose then-freshman Reggie Moore to play over him. Thames transferred to San Diego State and became a star while Moore left school after being suspended for smoking marijuana on numerous occasions. Bone is a bit of an enigmatic personality and that isn't an endearing quality when the difficulties in luring talent to Pullman are inherent with the WSU job.
As a result, Wazzu is seriously lacking in talent. It is safe to say that this is the least physically talented team in the Pac-12, and perhaps in any of the Big 6 conferences (is it Big 7 now that the Big East and AAC have split?) around the country. The Cougars honestly start only two players who should be getting serious minutes at a Division 1 school, but they are both merely solid to good players.
The "name" player for Bone this season has been junior guard DaVonte Lacy (6'4" 215 lbs.). Lacy is averaging 19.6 PPG, good for second in the conference, and he's done it primarily as a shooter. 177 of his 280 shot attempts have come from behind the arc. His scoring average is so high because he is hitting over 40% of his three-pointers. He's also the second-leading rebounder on a poor rebounding team, at 4.1 RPG. He also leads the team in free throw attempts, which is odd for a player whose primary shot selection comes from outside the paint. In many ways Lacy is very similar to Oregon State's Roberto Nelson, but Lacy generally plays smarter than Nelson though he doesn't have Nelson's range.
The next-most talented player is senior post D.J. Shelton (6'10" 250 lbs.), who Bone has played out of position this year as a face-up four. Still, Shelton, who has attempted far too many outside shots for someone with his skill set, is averaging 9.9 PPG and 9.4 RPG. He is a physically strong player who, if left alone, could cause havoc with UCLA's three primary post defenders. However, if Bone insists on continuing to use Shelton outside, then he will be much less of a match-up issue for UCLA's Travis Wear, David Wear or Tony Parker. Heck, it may even keep Parker out of foul trouble.
There is some potential on the Wazzu roster, starting with freshmen Que Johnson (6'5" 205 lbs.) and Ike Iroegbu (6'2" 190 lbs.). Johnson is a redshirt and as such has been able to meet some of his potential this season. He is coming off a 13-point performance against the Trojans. He is a decent long-range shooter, at 34% from behind the arc, but a poor overall shooter, at 39% from the field overall.
Iroegbu will be the point guard in the future but simply isn't ready for that kind of responsibility yet. He does play the point when he comes in, but it's clear he's been on information overload at times and Bone has clearly tried to simplify things for the young guard. Iroegbu's shooting has been an issue from both short and long range, and it is that as much as anything else that has kept him rooted to the bench as a sub on a team with no real starting point guard.
Sophomore Junior Longrus (6'7" 240 lbs.) and junior Royce Woolridge (6'3" 180 lbs.) both have some upside, although Woolridge's age means he's quickly running out of time to use the "potential" label. Longrus, Bruin fans may remember, was a very good athlete in high school, and potentially on the fringe of getting a UCLA offer. His rawness, especially on the offensive end, is still prevalent, but he has more athleticism than anyone else on the Wazzu roster. That alone speaks volumes about what has gone wrong with Bone's program. Longrus is the best prospect to sign with Wazzu in the past three seasons and he is nailed to the bench.
Woolridge is the defacto point guard and is playing because, at this point, Bone really has no other option. Woolridge plays hard on defense and will try and see the floor, but much of the rest of his game has suffered. He is a horrendous shooter this season, averaging less than 40% from the field and less than 19% from the three-point line. Still, it's not as if the Cougar offense will get disrupted much if Woolridge is heavily guarded, which is why it may make more sense to UCLA's Coach Steve Alford to have Norman Powell guard Lacy instead of Woolridge.
In terms of real Division 1 talent, that's pretty much it. Bone will mix and match players and defenses to disguise those players (to put it in perspective, Bryce Alford would star on this Wazzu team because he'd score; It doesn't mean the team would win, just that he would score), and hope that the other team is off offensively.
Bone's offense is predicated on the three-point shot. Washington State has attempted 666 shots from behind the arc this season, or 23 threes attempted per game. The Cougars attempted 35 treys against the Trojans. The problem is that they only connected on 10. UCLA should obviously not zone the Cougars and be active on defense.
The Cougars are both a poor rebounding and ball-security team. They average almost 2 RPG less than their opposition and they've turned over the ball 17 more times than their opponents. Neither statistic looks terrible in a vacuum, but when the Wazzu non-conference schedule is taken into consideration, then that statistic is pretty conspicuous.
So many indicators aren't good for the Bruins: It's a big-time trap game; UCLA has a propensity to come out in zombie-like fashion in the second game of a road trip; they have a propensity to play down to their competition at times, and every time the Bruins have approached a milestone-like game, like sweeping a conference road trip, they have failed to get over the hump. This is why it's completely understandable many Bruin fans view this game with trepidation.
However, it cannot be overstated just how bad the Wazzou talent level is, or how the mood around the program has become one of: "let's get the season over."
UCLA really could sleepwalk through this game and win. The Cougars are not only bad but a really great match-up for the Bruins. They don't have the capability of taking advantage of UCLA's primary weaknesses (interior defense/rebounding) and their weaknesses (primarily WSU's proclivity for turnovers) has been a recipe this season for a UCLA blowout. More than likely, The Bruins won't play great, suffering from the second-road-game-of-the-weekend hangover like they did against Utah, Oregon State and Stanford. But Washington State simply isn't good enough to take advantage of it.
UCLA should finally get its first road sweep of the season - on the final weekend of the regular season.
Then UCLA, which already has the second seed in the Pac-12 Tournament sewn up, can sit back Wednesday for the first round in Las Vegas with a bye, and wait to see whether they get the No. 7 or No. 10 seed Thursday.
UCLA 78 Washington State 65