Steve Alford (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Washington State Preview

Jan. 3 -- UCLA will try to avoid getting swept on the road tonight against Washington State...

Not for the first time this season, the UCLA men’s basketball team finds itself facing a must-win game when the Bruins travel to Pullman to take on Washington State Sunday night (6:30 PM PS, Pac 12 network). UCLA has put itself in this position because of a poor effort on Friday night when the Bruins lost in double-overtime to the Washington Huskies in Seattle. The outcome on Friday was decided by the lack of focus and intensity that UCLA showed, especially on the offensive end of the floor. The question now facing the Bruins is whether they can come back in less than 48 hours with a renewed effort in order to fend off what would be a disastrous loss in terms of Pac 12 Conference placement and, more importantly, in terms of an NCAA Tournament bid.

I wrote in the Washington preview that the outcome of the game in Seattle was going to be determined by the effort level brought to the game by the Bruins. As has been the case since Coach Steve Alford arrived in Westwood, the Bruins came out unfocused, although there were clearly mitigating circumstances that were not of Alford’s doing. First, it was apparent throughout the game that Alford was coaching with a sense of urgency. Viewers of the game could clearly hear the UCLA coach throughout the contest getting on his charges to increase their focus, especially on the offensive end. I, for one, have not heard Alford’s voice that loudly and clearly over a television broadcast in the past two-plus seasons. Second, the officiating was about as poor as it’s ever been in a Pac 12 game and it directly led to UCLA not being able to extend its lead near the end of the first half. That was because Alford was forced to go deep into the bench after Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden picked up 3 fouls before halftime.

Still, the coach is responsible for getting his team ready for a conference road game and, quite frankly, UCLA needs to be able to win games like the one on Friday night regardless of the incompetent officiating. That’s what good teams do and what good coaches get their teams to do. However, there is a sense that Alford understands this more than ever before in his UCLA tenure and is attempting to rectify both situations. The Wazzu game on Sunday will go a long way to showing whether or not Alford has this team’s attention enough to have learned a lesson when losing in Seattle. If he can’t and UCLA loses on Sunday, then Alford will be left trying to pull another rabbit out of his hat, a la last season, just to make the Big Dance. That’s certainly not to imply that a nice run by the Bruins cannot happen, but a loss on Sunday to the Cougars would essentially make a “run” necessary to ensure an NCAA bid and would undo most if not all of the good will the Bruins built up by beating Gonzaga and Kentucky.

The good news for the Bruins is that while Washington has athletes to take advantage of the Bruins if UCLA wasn’t focused (and really, it was the only way that Washington could have won the game), Wazzu really doesn’t. There is no defensive presence like Washington’s Malik Dime on the Cougar roster, nor are there players that will cause size issues at the guard position like Washington has on its roster. That doesn’t mean that Wazzu lacks talent. Head Coach Ernie Kent, in his second season on the Palouse, has already proven to be a major upgrade over his predecessor, Ken Bone. Although Kent’s teams at Oregon had a reputation for running an offensive system similar to Washington’s, i.e. out of control, etc., Kent’s offense in Pullman has actually been more efficient. The team takes good shots and hits them at a high clip (49% from the floor and 37% from beyond the arc). He has the team generally playing decent defense, although his roster is handicapped by a general lack of athleticism.

Kent’s all-junior starting line-up is really centered around two players, Josh Hawkinson (6’10” 232 lbs.) and Ike Iroegbu (6’2” 195 lbs.). Both are solid players, but like Wazzu’s record, their success can be a bit deceiving.

Hawkinson is the latest in a long line of talented big men who can stretch the floor for Wazzu. While he models his game after Aron Baynes and Brock Motum, he isn’t as talented as either, although he is capable of beating his man on a consistent basis. He leads the team in scoring at 16.7 PPG and rebounding at 10.8 RPG. He does have the ability to stretch the floor, although he doesn’t take many three-point shots. Still, he’s hit 50% of his three-point attempts. Because Kent starts two “bigs” chances are that Tony Parker will start on Hawkinson, but Jonah Bolden should see some time guarding him. Hawkinson’s game is similar to Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, although Hawkinson doesn’t have near Wilter’s athletic ability.

Iroegbu is a good point guard who would probably start for most teams in the conference. He isn’t spectacular, but he doesn’t do things to hurt the Cougars. He averages 13.7 PPG and leads the team with 53 assists. He is limited athletically but he’s not unathletic. His most dangerous weapon is his long distance shooting. He is averaging 53% from beyond the arc and it’s not as if he’s only taken a few shots. Whoever is guarding him really has to pay attention to where Iroegbu is off the ball as he is sneaky and finds ways to get open. It is important that the players assigned to guard Iroegbu don’t leave him to give help because if they do then the junior will punish the Bruins.

Kent’s second post player is Valentine Izundu (6’10 235 lbs.), who is strictly an inside player, but, more importantly, is a defensive presence. His game is much like Washington’s Dime, only Izundu isn’t quite as athletic and springy as the Husky post. Still, he does have 38 blocked shots and can alter the game in the paint. He really struggled with the size and strength of USC’s Nikola Jovanovic on Friday night. Thomas Welsh was solid against Washington, although he was limited by foul trouble. He’ll need his mid-range game to click and the toughness he displayed against the Huskies to mitigate Izundu’s influence.

The other two starters are Que Johnson (6’5” 208 lbs.) and Charles Callison (6’ 183 lbs.). Johnson is much more of an offensive force, averaging 10.4 PPG and shooting better than 40% from the three-point line. Callison is probably the best on-ball defender on the squad and will probably be assigned to guard Bryce Alford when Wazzu goes to a man-to-man defense.

Kent has 11 players who average more than 11 MPG, including the starters, but beyond the starting five, the only players who are getting close to 20 MPG are junior Renard Suggs (6’2” 188 lbs.) and senior Junior Longrus (6’7” 240 lbs.). Suggs is strictly a shooting guard and when he’s in the game for Iroegbu, Callison slides over to the point. His shooting has been poor this season but he seems to still be getting acclimated to the Division I game after two years at a junior college.

Longrus was an intriguing prospect coming out of high school but his game has never panned out. He is athletic and has length but his offensive game just never developed. In fact, based on his trajectory coming out of high school, Longrus’ career has been a disappointment. He is a former starter who works hard and provides leadership. He also has the ability to score 10-12 points in a given game if a team forgets about him.

Junior Conor Clifford (7’ 283 lbs.) provides depth in the frontcourt although his abilities are far less than Hawkinson’s on offense or Izundu’s on defense. He shoots the ball very well from in close (62%) but he is a defensive liability because of his lack of athleticism and his rebounding is suspect because of his limited lateral movement.

The Cougars are 8-5 on the season, which should be considered somewhat of a success because of the mess Kent inherited from Bone. The roster was depleted and recruiting was in the tank. It remains to be seen if Kent can turn things around on a consistent basis in Pullman, but he certainly isn’t in over his head as Bone clearly was during a tenure that probably lasted two years too long.

The 8-5 record is a bit deceiving, though, as Wazzu hasn’t beaten anyone of note. The Cougars’ best win is probably a neutral court victory over a very mediocre New Mexico team. Wazzu played Gonzaga close, although the Cougars generally do that because of the rivalry, and were boat-raced by both Oklahoma and this past Friday by USC. The 13-point loss to the Trojans was nowhere near as close as the final score. The game was essentially over at the half with USC up by 17.

The problem for the Cougars is that they struggle to defend and, outside of Hawkinson, they are a poor rebounding team. Statistically the Cougars have a solid defense, but those statistics were accumulated against a series of bad mid-major opponents. The Bruins shouldn’t shoot as poorly as they did against the Huskies and, more specifically, Bryce Alford shouldn’t go 5-21 from the floor. Bryce was bothered by Washington’s length and athleticism and the fact that the Huskies were clearly focused on stopping him. While Kent may have a similar gameplan to the Huskies, he doesn’t have players with the length and athleticism to bother Bryce the way Washington did, and if he moves, say, Johnson to guard the UCLA junior, then either Aaron Holiday or Isaac Hamilton will have a significant mismatch to exploit. UCLA’s focus and intensity should dictate the outcome. If UCLA comes out with a conscious effort to get the ball inside to the low post and the Bruins give a decent effort on the defensive end, then the Bruins should win this game relatively easily. Wazzu simply doesn’t have the talent or depth to play with the Bruins.

Of course, there’s no way to predict which Bruin team will show up or how much of an impact the officiating will have on the game.

If there was a silver lining to the Washington loss it’s that UCLA didn’t really lose the game on the defensive end, but rather the offensive end. The Bruin offense shouldn’t be that poor two games in a row. Further, the Bruins really didn’t match-up well with the Huskies because of Washington’s length and athleticism, certainly not if the Bruins were going to get into a pseudo-AAU game with Washington. Washington State simply doesn’t have that kind of across-the-board length and athleticism.

Kent is going to show the Bruins some man defenses and probably two types of zone defenses as well as some token pressure at times to try and use up some of the shot clock. The key for the Bruins will be taking care of the ball, which they didn’t do against the Huskies. If UCLA is patient and takes care of he ball then the Bruins should be able to get open looks on most possessions.

The Bruins should also be able to dominate the boards. USC killed the Cougars on the glass in the first half on Friday, and that, coupled with better than 50% shooting by the Trojans, doomed the Cougars early. UCLA is, on paper, a better rebounding team than the Trojans.

The reason this game looms large as a must-win game is not only because of the dissipation of any good will the Bruins gained with their non-conference wins, but because of what UCLA’s upcoming schedule looks like: the Bruins will come home from Washington to host Arizona on Thursday in a critical match-up and then face a well-coached ASU team. Then comes a game against the aforementioned Trojans that looks like it’s going to be a tough one.

The Bruins blew a chance at an easy victory on Friday but they get another chance, one they must take advantage of in order for things not to take a turn for the worse this early in the conference schedule. Coach Alford’s teams have struggled on the road in conference and struggled in the second game of a road weekend. Still, the Bruins had the appearance of a team coming off too long of a break on Friday rather than one that simply didn’t care.

Predictions are always guesswork, but the guess is that the Bruins will be better on the offensive end, especially Bryce and Tony Parker, and that they’ll play decently enough on the defensive end to not see the trip to the Pacific Northwest turn into a lost weekend.

Washington State 72

Bruin Report Online Top Stories