Every remaining game of the season is critical for UCLA now, and Wednesday the Bruins travel to the desert to face the Arizona State Sun Devils (7 PM; ESPN 2).
The UCLA men’s basketball team secured a needed home sweep of the Oregon schools last weekend, which helped greatly in terms of its NCAA Tournament resume. It creates a situation for Wednesday that, if the Bruins win, then they should have the luxury of not having any pressure to win when they play at Arizona on Saturday, which, coincidentally, will be the site of this weekend’s ESPN College Gameday broadcast.
The key for the Bruins Wednesday will be motivating themselves to play with focus against a significantly less talented team, one that has virtually nothing to play for at this point in the season. The danger is that this game is on the road and, like most other Pac 12 schools have been this season, UCLA hasn’t been very good on the road, while Arizona State is good at home in Wells Fargo Arena. Just ask Arizona…
It is surprising in many college basketball circles that the head coach of the Sun Devils, Herb Sendek, is still employed with the school. There is perhaps no coach in the conference that has arguably gotten less out of more over a longer period than Sendek. Yet, he still is considered one of the best game preparation coaches in the conference, and that is generally true. He seems to do his best coaching, though, when he has a less talented roster. That would make this season’s current 13-12 mark a success considering the talent on ASU’s roster. There isn’t a single player on ASU that would start for UCLA. In fact, outside of freshman point guard Tra Holder (6’1” 180 lbs.) and senior wing Shaquielle McKissic (6’5” 200 lbs.) (Pictured above), there’s probably not another player that would get significant playing time at the expense of a current Bruin. Still, when on their home court, the Sun Devils are certainly better than their individual parts.
McKissic is probably the most complete player on the roster, but that’s not saying much. He is a decent shooter, hitting about 45% from the floor and 35% from behind the arc. He rebounds decently at 4.3 RPG and he passes well without turning the ball over. His defense is solid, although not spectacular. McKissic will play hard, though, and that’s something the Bruins haven’t been able to say about themselves game-in and game-out, especially defensively.
Holder’s game has really started to come around in the past month. In the win over the Wildcats two weekends ago, while he didn’t put up the monster numbers of Zona’s T.J. McConnell, he had a better than average game and he was one of the reasons ASU won. Still, Holder’s game is pretty one-dimensional in that he is solid at getting into the paint but a poor jump shooter, especially from behind the arc, where he’s at 28%.
The third perimeter starter is junior college transfer Gerry Blakes (6’4” 195 lbs.). In doing these analyses, most of the time I list the leading scorer as one of the first two players profiled, but Blakes is only the leading scorer for the Sun Devils because he is one of the highest volume shooters in the conference. Colorado’s Askia Booker would probably be in awe of Blakes’ ability to never see a shot he didn’t think he could hit. He is under 42% from the field on the year and under 32% from behind the arc. He also leads the team in turnovers -- and he’s not the point guard.
If UCLA coach Steve Alford decides to go with a man defense, then he almost certainly will put Norman Powell on McKissic. Alford has inexplicably had Powell guarding less dangerous players for large chunks of conference games, and last Saturday was no exception. However, when Alford decided to put Powell on Oregon’s Joseph Young, Powell pretty much shut down Oregon’s best player. For Wednesday, it actually makes positional sense, let alone ability sense, to have Powell guard McKissic, put Isaac Hamilton on Blakes and have Bryce Alford take Holder. Again, that’s if UCLA goes with a man defense. Certainly ASU is not a good outside shooting team and Alford should consider a zone defense at times, depending on ASU’s personnel.
Once of the players who will need to be guarded closely, both because of his outside shooting ability and his inability to effectively put the ball on the floor, is senior forward Jonathan Gilling (6’8” 220 lbs.). Gilling has not changed as a player at all in his time in Tempe. He is more soft than not, certainly not playing physically in relation to his size, he barely puts the ball on the floor and he is a poor defender. He can, however, be lights-out as a jump shooter, so UCLA cannot allow Gilling to get going.
There are two other players who are putting up better than 40% shooting numbers from behind the arc, senior Bo Barnes (6’4” 190 lbs.), who is shooting 40% from the three-point line, and freshman Kodi Justice (6’5” 180 lbs.). Barnes will play a lot of minutes, Justice will not. Barnes hit some huge shots in the upset win over Arizona. Justice didn’t play. UCLA needs to be aware of where Gilling and Barnes are at all times. In fact, that would be the time to play man defense because neither Gilling nor Barnes is going to beat even Bryce off the dribble.
The talent gap in the frontcourt is even more pronounced for UCLA than anything in the backcourt. At this point, UCLA’s Kevon Looney and Tony Parker are playing like the best frontcourt pairing in the conference, despite the fact that the Bruins have under-utilized them. ASU is both too small and too slow to hang with either UCLA big man. Throw in Thomas Welsh and UCLA’s advantage is pretty drastic on the low post.
ASU and Sendek will try and counter with sophomore Savon Goodman (6’6” 215 lbs.), a workhorse of a player and probably ASU’s best interior defender. He is also the team’s leading rebounder at 6.8 RPG. He is undersized for a power forward but that is his true position. He doesn’t have a good outside shot, but he is very comfortable with his back to the basket. However, he will be facing the best power forward he’s faced this season in Looney, both in terms of length and athleticism.
The other low post starter is junior Eric Jacobson (6’10” 255 lbs.), who is the definition of a plodder. He is not athletic at all and, although he is slightly taller than UCLA’s Parker, he gives away some weight and a great deal of athleticism. Like his teammates, though, he will work hard. It was his ability to push around Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski and hold him to 2 points in the upset win, that almost forced Arizona to become offensively one-dimensional.
Junior Willie Atwood (6’8” 210 lbs.) will provide some length off the bench, as well as some shooting.
The frontcourt match-up depends so much on Jacobson. UCLA should insist that every possession goes through the post to attempt to get Jacobson into foul trouble. If it doesn’t, Steve Alford will have failed at coaching in this game.
Sendek has a history of designing defenses that confuse opponents. The guess is that he is going to mix ¾-court token pressure with halfcourt traps falling into zone defenses and man defenses. The Bruins have to be ready for any wrinkle. Admittedly, except for two lazy passes, the Bruins, especially Bryce, did a great job of being calm against Oregon’s pressure last Saturday, being able to easily break Oregon’s token traps.
The focus, though, for the Bruins, will have to come at the defensive end. ASU is still a slowdown team that looks to burn much of the shot clock. The Sun Devils aren’t the stall team of a decade ago, but they can still have that tendency. They had a stretch of five games in a row this season where they scored in the 40s or 50s. However, when they are on, they have the ability to blow out teams.
UCLA needs to be able to close out better than it has yet this season. This is the kind of game where the Bruins need to open up quickly and get ASU back on its heels. UCLA should be able to outrebound the Sun Devils, but, more importantly, the Sun Devils have been pretty bad at taking care of the ball, especially in conference play and compared to their Pac-12 brethren. UCLA needs to hold ASU to one-shot possessions as much as possible and turn the inevitable lazy turnovers into points. One of the reasons that ASU was able to upset Arizona was that the Wildcats turned over the ball about as much as the Sun Devils did, nullifying what should have been an advantage for the Wildcats.
Then there is the “X” factor -- Norman Powell. It’s starting to look like there is no one in the conference that can guard the UCLA senior one-on-one when he wants to get to the basket, and his behind-the-back, through-the-legs drive on Saturday was arguably the offensive play in college basketball this season up to this point. UCLA will have the three most talented players on the floor; it’s only a matter of using them properly.
The Sun Devils will be fired up, surely, to take on a traditional conference rival, at least in their eyes, so UCLA should get ASU’s best shot. However, the Sun Devils also have their “win of the year” from when they beat in-state rival, Arizona.
This game will come down to how focused the Bruins are on both ends of the floor, but especially on defense. Also, UCLA cannot allow the game to turn into a green-light fest if things go badly in the beginning.
This game will be closer than it should be, and I may regret this, but with the Bruins certainly knowing what’s on the line with this game, and to make sure that the Arizona game doesn’t become a must-win, they should be ready to play, and their talent advantage will carry them…barely.
Arizona State 61
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