SG Bryce Alford (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. Washington Preview

Jan. 1 -- UCLA opens Pac-12 play tonight on the road against Washington...

After a 9-4 non-conference schedule through December, the UCLA men’s basketball team rings in the new year by beginning Pac 12 Conference play in Seattle on New Year’s Day against the 8-4 Washington Huskies (8 PM PST; Fox Sports 1). The Pac 12 appears to be one of the strongest conferences in America this season, and certainly one of the deepest in terms of quality competition. The race for the regular season conference title appears to be legitimately up for grabs and the school that wins the title needs to take advantage of the few clearly winnable non-conference road games. After watching the various Pac 12 teams play on multiple occasions this season, Washington appears to be one of the few Pac 12 teams with little chance at the conference championship. However, the Huskies do represent a dangerous opponent for any Pac 12 school that doesn’t take them seriously when making the trip to Seattle. That is precisely the danger that Coach Steve Alford’s Bruins face on Friday night: whether the Bruins will be engaged and fairly intense, especially on the defensive end, or whether the Bruins will produce a middling effort. How the Bruins respond to the intensity and focus questions should determine whether UCLA’s start to the conference portion of the schedule is a positive one or not, regardless of how the Huskies play.

This year’s version of the Huskies fit the reputation that the program has garnered in Coach Lorenzo Romar’s 14 seasons in charge in Seattle. It is a roster filled with athletic but raw players who tend to play at a faster but less disciplined pace. That has often led to Washington suffering head-scratching losses under Romar, and this year’s team is no exception. The Huskies have already lost at home to the Horizon League’s Oakland Grizzlies and the Gauchos of Cal-Santa Barbara of the Big West. Oakland is a solid mid-major who could cause some noise in March, but the Gauchos are pretty poor this season. Both losses fall in the category of ‘bad.’ To compound matters for Romar, the Huskies are young and inexperienced, but they do have one of the better, more experienced players in the conference.

Romar runs an eight-man rotation, but his key player is senior guard Andrew Andrews (6’2” 200 lbs.). Andrews leads the team in scoring at 19.7 PPG and is one of three players on the roster leading the team with 6.3 RPG. He isn’t a very good shooter, being the poster child for a “high volume shooter.” However, he’s hitting almost 40% of his three-point shots and can single-handedly shoot an opponent out of a game. However, Andrews often displays poor shot selection and while these shots sometimes go in, he is as liable to shoot the Huskies out of a game as he is to blow out an opponent. The key for the Bruins is to force Andrews to put the ball on the floor. Romar doesn’t employ a true point guard but rather has two or three players responsible for being the primary ball handler on a given possession. Andrews is one of those and he is clearly the first choice. Since he will have the ball in his hands throughout the game on a consistent basis and because UCLA wants him to have to shoot off the dribble, it makes perfect sense to have UCLA’s best on-ball defender on Andrews, and that would be Aaron Holiday. This assumes, though, that UCLA will be primarily in a man defense throughout the game.

After Andrews, Romar relies heavily on two freshmen, Dejounte Murray (6’4 170 lbs.) and Marquese Chriss (6’9” 225 lbs.). Murray is the second primary ball handler on the team and leads the team with 55 assists. He is also the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.6 PPG. He has struggled mightily at shooting from distance, though, and his 24% three-point shooting would indicate that UCLA is better off having Murray shoot from distance rather than slash to the hoop. Like many freshmen, Murray sometimes struggles to make good decisions and it shouldn’t be a surprise that he leads the team in turnovers.

Chriss is the most athletic frontcourt performer for the Huskies. His 12.4 PPG is good for third on the team and he is very good within about 7 feet of the basket. He has the ability to hit shots from distance, but like Murray, he struggles outside the arc. His rebounding has been disappointing and he has struggled against physical inside players. He has enough athleticism to cause UCLA’s post players problems, but if Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh are engaged, Chriss is more liable to get into early foul trouble trying to defend the UCLA big men.

Two other freshmen make up the remainder of the starting line-up (that’s four freshmen starting for those not keeping track), wing Matisse Thybulle (6’5” 195 lbs.) and forward Noah Dickerson (6’8” 235 lbs.). Thybulle is more of a true wing with the ability to slash and shoot from outside. In fact, at 39%, he is one of the better outside shooters on the team. He isn’t a great defender and is an average at best rebounder, but he has more talent than UCLA’s Noah Allen, although Allen is probably a better defender.

Dickerson is a true inside player who won’t be taking any three-pointers or even shots from outside 6 feet. He likes to bang and does hit the glass well. His 6.3 RPG is tied for the team lead but he plays roughly 10 MPG less than Andrews and has the same rebounding numbers. He doesn’t block many shots but doesn’t mind having to defend in the low post. Dickerson will more than likely be asked to guard Parker, if Washington is in a man-to-man defense.

Junior Malik Dime (6’9” 220 lbs.) is a defensive presence for the Huskies. He has 35 blocks on the season, averaging virtually 3 BPG. He also rebounds well, with his roughly 12 rebounds per 40 minutes being the best on the squad. He’s solid around the basket but is limited offensively. He should get plenty of minutes against UCLA’s big interior players.

Sophomore Donovan Dorsey (6’5” 210 lbs.) and freshman David Crisp (6’ 190 lbs.) are the designated shooters off the bench. Crisp is the more dangerous of the two but Dorsey is the more athletic all-around player. They are both more comfortable shooting with their feet set rather than off the dribble. Crisp’s short stature has been a defensive issue this season when Washington plays man defense because he is usually 3-4 inches shorter than the player he’s been assigned to guard.

If you’ve been following, that gives Washington 1 senior, 1 junior, 1 sophomore and 5 freshmen in its 8-man rotation. The sophomore, Dorsey, plays the least and if Romar shortens his bench that means he’ll probably be the one losing minutes. It also means that Romar’s frenetic style, one that lacks discipline on both ends of the floor, is liable to be even more hectic, disjointed and filled with questionable decision-making. Don’t get me wrong; as has been the case with almost every Romar-coached team the past 14 years, this squad has the ability to catch lightning in a bottle and beat a team it has no business beating. However, that’s only happened once this season, in the opener against a Texas squad that was still getting used to Shaka Smart’s system. When they met a second time in November, Texas won going away.

Although Washington lost its last game, against UCSB, many of the players felt their immaturity caught up with them, mainly looking past the then-3-7 Gauchos ahead to the UCLA game. The Huskies will respond one of two ways; they will either play a poor game, of which UCSB was a sign of things to come, or they will play inspired basketball making for a much more competitive match, one that the Bruins can easily lose.

The key for the game’s outcome is going to be the focus and intensity of the Bruins on both ends of the floor. Washington will likely throw a combination of man-to-man and a variety of zone defenses at the Bruins. UCLA must remain patient and run its sets regardless of the style of defense played by the Huskies. Washington tends to look very active on defense and the Huskies do have players with length, but the activity can’t mask the fact that the Huskies individually take too many chances and are often caught out of position with poor footwork. If UCLA values each possession then the Bruins should be able to score at will.

Oakland and UCSB were able to beat the Huskies because their zone defenses caused the Huskies many problems. However, the real culprit was the fact that Washington shot the ball poorly in both games. This is a game where if UCLA gives consistent effort, not the kind of crazy-good effort the Bruins showed against Kentucky, but just consistent effort regardless of whether the Bruins play man or zone, then they should be able to stifle the Huskies enough times for a relatively easy victory. Bruin coach Steve Alford could even try using Jonah Bolden along with Parker and Welsh at the same time in a 1-2-2 zone that could cause Washington some real issues because of Bolden’s length.

Again, though, it comes down to UCLA’s effort and intensity.

Hec Ed Pavilion is typically a tough place to play, but with the game taking place right in the middle of the holiday break, the crowd should be a bit more subdued than normal with the students away from campus.

Since the victory over Kentucky, the Bruins have pretty much held to expectation from game to game; they dropped off a bit in the LBSU win, but that was the game immediately following Kentucky and just before the trip to Gonzaga. The Bruins then ramped up the intensity for the Gonzaga game, but came down to Earth again against Louisiana-Lafayette, which was sandwiched between Gonzaga and North Carolina. After the loss to Carolina, the Bruins really laid a focus and intensity egg against a very poor McNeese State squad to close out the non-conference schedule.

The Bruins have had nine days off since their last contest and there is a worry that the Bruins could have accumulated a bit of holiday rust. However, if they hold to form, the Bruins should be ready for a better effort with increased intensity and focus against the Huskies. That will mean cutting down on turnovers, staying at least even on the glass and being smart on offense. The Bruins have shown they can do all three things in the same game this season, and have even done so on the road.

Still, Alford’s track record in Pac 12 road games is not a good one and there is some reasonable cynicism as to whether UCLA can muster the necessary toughness to win not only this game, but the game in the Palouse on Sunday.

As I wrote in several earlier previews this season, I’ll believe in the change of this program’s fortunes when I see it, and will assume that the Bruins will play on the road as the Bruin teams of Alford’s first two seasons in Los Angeles, at least until they don’t.

Washington 79

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