After all of the “big” games that the UCLA men’s basketball team has played this season, the Bruins have now truly entered must-win territory when it comes to their getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament in less than three weeks time. True, the Bruins dropped both games in the desert last weekend, but the reality is that short of having upset Arizona last Saturday, the Bruins were always going to be in the position of having to sweep their final three home games in order to have a realistic shot at making the Big Dance.
The Bruins start this critical three-game stretch on Wednesday night when the Bruins host the Washington Huskies at Pauley Pavilion (8 PM; ESPN 2).
While the Bruins have clearly had trouble winning nationally televised games this season, the reality is that this game could be the easiest of the three remaining games. Washington is in free-fall since losing starting center and defensive intimidator Robert Upshaw to dismissal. Since Upshaw was thrown off the team, the Huskies are 1-6 with their only win coming last weekend in a nail-biter against fellow conference doormat Washington State.
The Huskies started the season 11-0 and were ranked in both polls. However, a closer look at that early season schedule saw Washington beat a series of Montana State and Nicholls State lookalikes. True, the Huskies beat San Diego State, and that’s better than any non-conference win on UCLA’s resume, but there was always the sense that things weren’t as good as they seemed. The undefeated start was derailed at home by Stony Brook (a small Division I low-major school on Eastern Long Island in New York). The Huskies would go on to lose three more on the trot before seemingly righting the ship with a three-game winning streak.
As an aside, when looking at UCLA’s chances for an NCAA Tournament berth, one only need to look at Washington’s loss to Stony Brook as a reason why the proverbial “bubble” is so soft. That is a bad loss and many if not most of the teams on the “bubble” have at least one of those. UCLA does not.
Things have gotten so bad for the Huskies in terms of their play that fans have started asking reporters and bloggers if head coach Lorenzo Romar’s job is in jeopardy. The quick answer to that question is “no,” but that could change quickly if next year resembles this one.
One of the problems for Romar is his inability to be strategically, let alone tactically, creative. He isn’t known as a great Xs-and-Os coach, and isn’t known for superior game preparation. He is known as a very good recruiter and a good motivator. That ability to motivate may come in handy this Wednesday in Pauley because the Huskies really don’t have anything left to play for this season. UDub will only make the NCAAs if it wins the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. Its RPI is so low that an NIT bid is out of the question should the Huskies not win the Tournament. Romar does have the ability to get his team up for games that he perceives are big ones, despite the lack of postseason possibilities, and Romar will always think of the UCLA game as a big game.
Still, this is one of the games where UCLA fans should expect Bruin head coach Steve Alford to have a sideline advantage when taking on the Huskies. If nothing else, Alford should be greatly motivated over the course of the next several games because getting a bid to the NCAAs would relieve a great deal of immediate pressure on him in terms of his job security.
The problem for Romar is, despite all his supposed recruiting prowess, his team just isn’t that talented without Upshaw.
Romar has a decent backcourt, starting with sophomore lead guard Nigel Williams-Goss (6’3” 190 lbs.). He is the team’s leading scorer at 15.2 PPG and leads the team in assists with 151. The problem is, much as it is for many point guards without a good feel for the game, he also has 75 turnovers on the season. In fact, the Huskies barely have more assists on the season than turnovers. If there is an offense outside of UCLA’s that is predicated on one-on-one plays, it’s Washington’s, and Williams-Goss is the poster child for the system. He does play physical and rebounds well for his size. The thing about Williams-Goss is that he isn’t necessarily the engine that drives the team. If he has a poor game there is every possibility that one of the other backcourt players, specifically junior Andrew Andrews (6’2” 195 lbs.) or senior Mike Anderson (6’4” 205 lbs.) will have a very good game.
Andrews is particularly dangerous because of his ability to hit the three. Although he hasn’t been shooting that well this season overall, at 39%, his three-point shooting is solid at 35%. That number is even more important because he takes a lot of shots. Normally the argument could be made that Andrews can shoot his team out of games, but only if the opposition treats the missed shot like a turnover and scores off of it. UCLA has shown a propensity for essentially giving an opponent’s turnovers right back to them because of poor shot selection. Regardless, because of his ability to get hot from behind the arc and because Washington really doesn’t rely on a true point guard, the argument can be made that shutting down Andrews should be UCLA’s first defensive priority. Certainly Alford can choose to focus on Williams-Goss and it wouldn’t be a bad decision. However, Norman Powell can only guard one of the two Washington scorers and that means that Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton would be forced to guard the other. Coach Alford has to decide which scenario will have the least negative defensive impact.
The thing about guarding Williams-Goss is that he gets into the paint, an d is much better at it than Andrews. His shooting from distance is really bad, below 29%. If Powell isn’t guarding Williams-Goss then Alford would be smart to get Bryce or Hamilton to take away the drive and almost invite the Husky sophomore to shoot from long range.
If Alford chooses to place Powell on Williams-Goss then whomever among Bryce and Hamilton gets Andrews won’t be able to provide much help.
Andrews and Williams-Goss combined to score 55 of Washington’s 87 points in this past weekend’s win at Wazzu.
Anderson is really the other player that can score, although not in bunches like his backcourt mates. He’s a steadier player than his teammates, and Romar clearly knows what he’ll get out of Anderson. He is not a huge scorer overall, averaging 8 PPG, but that has gone up a bit since Upshaw was dismissed. Anderson is now the team’s leading rebounder, which is saying something about Washington’s frontcourt, because Anderson is only 6’4” and not exactly built like Charles Barkley. Anderson is a better overall shooter than either Williams-Goss or Andrews, hitting almost 47% from the field and almost 40% from behind the arc. The thing is, though, that with Andrews and Williams-Goss dominating shots so much for UDub, Anderson is left with scraps.
Sophomore Darin Johnson (6’5” 200 lbs.) provides depth for the guards and wings, but the reality is that Williams-Goss, Andrews and even Anderson will play well over 30 minutes each on Wednesday. Johnson is a serious downgrade on the offensive end, shooting less than 30% on the season and less than 20% from behind the arc.
While UCLA shouldn’t be scared of UDub’s backcourt, the Washington frontcourt is downright terrible with Upshaw gone. Romar essentially has a three-player rotation for two positions and one of those three players is playing out of position.
Senior Shawn Kemp Jr. (6’9” 255 lbs.) provides bulk but little consistency. Junior Jernard Jarreau (6’10” 240 lbs.) provides some athleticism but little else. Freshman Donovan Dorsey (6’7” 215 lbs.) is often asked to play in the low post when he is clearly a wing. Heck, Romar has even tried junior Gilles Dierickx (7’0” 230 lbs.) but he quickly proved to be a player who gets minutes only in an emergency.
Kemp has the most experience but he just isn’t bringing much outside of his physical size to the table. He only pulls down 3.8 RPG, which is really bad for a player of his size. He does shoot 60% from the floor, but he rarely sees the ball because the offense is designed around the guards (sound familiar?). Although he’s coming off a poor weekend, UCLA’s Tony Parker is better than Kemp by a long way. With Kemp’s propensity for fouls it wouldn’t be beyond reason to think that Parker might have a huge bounce-back game.
Jarreau is a very poor man’s version of Upshaw. Like many “bigs” recruited by Romar, he’s a bit of a project. Although he has demonstrated range out to the arc, he isn’t quick enough to effectively take on UCLA’s Kevon Looney, who will be far and away the most talented player on the floor Wednesday night.
Neither of Romar’s starting forwards are shot-blockers or great rebounders, and both of these areas were dominated by Upshaw. Romar’s entire season planning revolved around Upshaw, saw when he was let go by Romar, the Washington head man clearly had to know that the remainder of the year was going to be rough.
About the only chance that Washington has is that UCLA plays like it often has on the road; selfishly. Further, the Huskies have to hope that UCLA misses more shots than normal, especially at home. Finally, Washington has to hope that UCLA turns the ball over. Washington had a good game in that regard at Wazzu, and that probably won the Huskies the game as they only had 3 turnovers compared to 12 for the Cougars. Remember, the Huskies only won by 3. Wazzu outrebounded the Huskies by 4.
Knowing its NCAA life is literally one poor performance from vanishing, the Bruins should be motivated for this game. It will be interesting to see if fans show up to Pauley in any sort of numbers considering the middling season the Bruins are having. There is every reason to believe that Pauley will be only about half full for this weekend’s games. That really speaks to the state of the program more than anything. The USC game should have a higher attendance figure simply because it USC. However, when Alford superiors in the athletic department are analyzing the season, the lack of attendance at the newly remodeled Pauley will definitely be something Alford has to address. Should his Bruins not make the Big Dance, then that will only massively intensify the pressure.
However, before traveling down that road, let’s see what the Bruins can do in their last three games. Should they win those three, starting with Washington on Wednesday, then there’s still a chance to go dancing.
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