Washington State Preview

Feb. 28 -- Among the three teams UCLA plays to end the regular season, Washington State is the best, but it's not saying much...

The UCLA men’s basketball team continues its quest for an NCAA Tournament berth on Sunday night when the Bruins host the Washington State Cougars at Pauley Pavilion (6 PM; Fox Sports 1).

UCLA continues to sit in a group of roughly 8-10 teams that are fighting to remain on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Winning against Washington this past Wednesday, on Sunday against Wazzu and next week against USC will not necessarily push the Bruins into the Big Dance, but a loss to any would destroy all at-large hopes for the Bruins.

The Cougars are in their first season under former Oregon head coach Ernie Kent. While some have argued that Kent’s arrival has coincided with better play by Wazzu, the reality is that the play and recruiting by the Cougars the past few years could not have been worse than it was under former coach Ken Bone. Much like UCLA has improved this season because the Bruins simply couldn’t have played worse, Wazzu looks better because Wazzu had turned into one of the worst programs in the country in terms of on-court product. If that means Kent should get some credit, then so be it. Kent’s past history has shown that he has consistently been a poor man’s Lorenzo Romar, in that Kent had a decent eye for undervalued talent, could get athletic players to come to Eugene but then was a mediocre teacher of the game and a poor game tactician. While he seems to have grown a bit in the tactical area, the general consensus of his coaching chops is that Kent is, at best, pretty average. That means that UCLA’s Steve Alford shouldn’t be outmaneuvered by Kent during the game.

Kent has done some things well, namely recognize who his best players are and making sure that the vast majority of his offense runs through them. More specifically, the Cougars really only have three players who would be able to be contributing at a significant level on any other Pac 12 rosters.

The Wazzu offense most often runs through senior guard DaVonte Lacy (6’4” 210 lbs.). Lacy leads the Cougars in all the most significant offensive categories, including scoring, shot attempts and three-point shot attempts. However, his shooting percentages are low, barely over 40% from the field and just over 30% from beyond the arc. Lacy isn’t the most athletic player but his ability to score on both the drive and on jumpers should mean that Norman Powell is assigned to guard him when UCLA is in man defense.

Over the past decade it seems as if Wazzu has had a big, skilled, low-post player who has the ability to hit long-range jumpers and this year’s Cougar team is no exception. Junior center Josh Hawkinson (6’10” 245 lbs.) has proven to be very effective as an inside-out player. While Hawkinson isn’t as skilled as former Cougar posts Aron Baynes and Brock Motum, his game is very much in the same mold. The one thing Hawkinson excels at is free throw shooting where he is hitting 85% and has developed an understanding of how to consistently get to the line.

Because Kent essentially runs two low-post players at the same time, this may be one of the few times that UCLA coach Alford might be able to deploy both Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh at the same time. Both have the capability of guarding Hawkinson. As it is, look for Kevon Looney and Gyorgy Golomon to have a defensive go at the Cougar junior.

The third player that Kent counts on is sophomore point guard Ike Iroegbu (6’2” 190 lbs.). Ironically, Iroegbu isn’t a true point guard, being more of a scoring lead guard, but he has suppressed his natural tendency of looking to shoot first for the betterment of the team. His overall offensive averages are still on the low end this season, but he’s had some bigger offensive games of late and certainly is capable of scoring in double-digits. Iroegbu may be the toughest individual match-up that UCLA faces on Sunday because Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have yet to show the consistent defensive intensity or form necessary to continually stay with Iroegbu.

The biggest reason that Iroegbu has started to put up better offensive numbers is because Kent has now become comfortable using freshman guard Ny Redding (6’2” 180 lbs.) for long stretches of games. Redding is the runaway leader in assists on the squad with 98, and he plays decent man-to-man defense. He also allows Iroegbu to move to his more natural shooting guard position on offense. However, Redding’s offensive game is of such little threat that Bryce Alford should be able to handle him.

Although Redding plays starter’s minutes, he doesn’t start. That honor goes to senior wing Dexter Kernich-Drew (6’7” 190 lbs.). He is the lone, true deep-shooting threat on the team. He has taken most of his shots this season from beyond the three-point line and is hitting 44%. To compare, he is shooting barely 40% overall. The key to making Kernich-Drew a non-factor is to force him to put the ball on the floor. There will be numerous sets called for him on offense, and the Bruins simply need to fight through or over the top of screens, thus forcing him to curl and put the ball on the floor. If the Bruins, specifically Isaac Hamilton, get lazy and go under screens, then Kernich-Drew will flair off screens, set his feet and hit shots that will make this a game when it probably shouldn’t be one.

The final starter will be senior Jordan Railey (7’0” 245 lbs.), who, unlike Hawkinson, is a low-post space eater. Railey is strictly a back-to-the-basket player who shoots the ball fairly well but is probably the last offensive option on the floor for the Cougars, unless Redding is playing. He isn’t terribly athletic and will struggle to guard either Parker or Welsh. He is a decent shot blocker but has trouble on the glass.

The final player in the rotation is senior forward Junior (Richard) Longrus (6’7” 240 lbs.). Frankly, Longrus has had a very disappointing career to date. He was considered a recruit with very good upside and even some recruiting analysts felt Ben Howland should have offered him a scholarship to UCLA just on athleticism alone. However, like some players who have upside, Longrus never turned his potential into reality. Kent, who values athleticism above all else, obviously has recognized this, too; Longrus was a starter at the beginning of the season, but once Kent realized his limitation based on the very raw quality of his game, especially on offense, Kent began bringing him off the bench for Kernich-Drew, who is as unathletic as Longrus is athletic. For a coach like Kent, that is really saying something.

Wazzu has had several issues that continue to plague them this season. The first and most significant is Wazzu’s inability to control the glass. Hawkinson pulls down 10.7 RPG, but after that the Cougar rebounding has been disastrous. Railey is the second-leading rebounder at 3.2 RPG, but one else on the roster averages even 3 RPG. UCLA should dominate the boards.

The second issue hurting Wazzu has been turnovers. Iroegbu is playing out of position at the point and tends to not have the nuanced decision-making necessary to continually make assists and not have passes become turnovers. Redding is simply too inexperienced to be counted on to have a 2- or even 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. In general, this is not a good passing team, but it’s because of skill limitations and not basketball IQ. This is a relatively smart team, especially compared to the Washington squad UCLA just dismantled on Wednesday.

Finally, this is not a good shooting Wazzu squad and they don’t offset that by getting up and down the floor. Kent has instituted more of a defensive presence in this team than it ever had under Bone so Wazzu has actually been able to outscore certain teams this season and do so by merely getting into the 80s in points.

Finally, Wazzu is simply horrible away from Beasley Coliseum. The Cougs are 2-9 on the road this year and that includes this week’s win against USC. Quite frankly, with the way UCLA plays at home and the way Wazzu plays on the road, we should see a final score similar to the Washington game from this past Wednesday.

Washington State is the one team of the final three that could realistically beat the Bruins – but only if UCLA decides to play as if they’re on the road. However, much like the rest of the Pac-12, the Bruins seem to be much more successful at home regardless of circumstances.

What will be interesting to see is if the same cratering of attendance that has been a hallmark of this year’s UCLA season continues on Sunday, and then later for the final home game against USC. We saw that UCLA sent out notes urging ticket holders not going to the game to give their tickets to someone who would use them. If you’re looking for an indication as to the state of the UCLA basketball program, there you go.

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