C Tony Parker (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Arizona State Preview

Jan. 9 -- UCLA will try to build on the big win over Arizona on Thursday against ASU later today...

After the dramatic, last-second victory over Arizona on Thursday night, the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team has a quick turnaround as the Bruins host the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion (2 PM PST, Pac 12 network). As critical as the victory over the Wildcats was in terms of UCLA’s season moving forward, the reality is that UCLA needed to sweep the weekend series against the Arizona schools, so the job is only half finished. The key for the game, as it appears it will be for all UCLA games going forward is whether UCLA will muster the sustained focus and intensity necessary to be successful. It’s one thing for the Bruins to be able to get themselves mentally ‘up’ for an opponent like Arizona, but quite another for the Bruins to show that same level of effort against a team like Arizona State, who certainly does not have the historical pedigree of the Wildcats.

Arizona State is a decent squad, one that is probably better than both Washington schools when accounting for all things such as preparation and coaching. ASU doesn’t have great talent, but first-year head coach Bobby Hurley has certainly shown that he can game plan, make in-game adjustments and motivate his players. Gone are the days of the slow-it-down offense of former coach Herb Sendek. Hurley has replaced that with a well-spaced motion offense that is reminiscent of Duke. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering that Hurley was the floor general on two of Mike Krzyzewki’s national title teams. Further, gone are the days of Sendek’s lane denial man defense that would pack it in against opponents and force shots from the outside and in its stead is a more aggressive ball denial man defense that seeks to create more turnovers. Quite frankly, this year’s version of ASU’s team looks much better than those of the past few years simply because the Sun Devils are achieving results with less talent than when Sendek was on the sidelines.

If UCLA head coach Steve Alford has watched tape then he realizes that ASU’s offense revolves around sophomore point guard Tra Holder (6’1” 180 lbs.). Even though he has been the focal point of opposing defenses he still manages to score 15.6 PPG, which leads the team, dish out 51 assists, which also leads the team, and he is a solid rebounder and good defender, leading the team in steals. He also leads the team in turnovers, but that’s to be expected for someone who has the ball in his hands as much as Holder. He isn’t great at anything on offense, but is solid at all things. Most importantly he simply finds ways to score. I wrote in the Arizona preview that Aaron Holiday should be used to guard Gabe York, and when he did the Arizona guard essentially disappeared on offense for long stretches. Holiday would be the best bet to slow down or even stifle Holder with Prince Ali and perhaps Isaac Hamilton providing covering relief. Really, if Holder is held down or has a difficult game then so do the Sun Devils.

Three of the other four starting spots are essentially set in stone with three seniors. The post is manned by Eric Jacobsen (6’10” 240 lbs.) who is a nice player but nothing like ASU has had in the low post the past few years. He shoots 58% from the floor with all of his shots coming within 12 feet, averages 5.6 RPG, good for fourth on the squad, and leads the team in blocks with 17. The biggest factor that Jacobson brings to the floor is his work ethic. He will always work hard so if UCLA’s Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh decide that they aren’t going to be as focused as they were on Thursday then Jacobson will make them pay in the form of offensive rebounds and physical defense.

A concern for the Bruins is going to be wing Willie Atwood (6’7” 215 lbs.) because his length and height is something UCLA really doesn’t have on its roster. Atwood is a solid inside-out player who is the team’s best three-point threat at 39%. He is also aggressive off the dribble where he has had moderate success. The Bruins will find it difficult to guard him because if Alford puts Isaac Hamilton on him, then the Bruins are giving up significant height and length. It was good to see Jonah Bolden on the floor with Welsh and Parker at the same time for extended minutes on Thursday because Bolden may be the one Bruin that creates a match-up problem for Atwood, who also rebounds at 5.8 RPG.

Gerry Blakes (6’4” 190 lbs.) mans the shooting guard spot and has attempted the most shots (one more than Holder) but he’s really struggled consistently in games. He is at 38% from the floor overall and 29% from behind the arc. Perhaps this is a good match-up for Bryce Alford considering his tendencies to go underneath screens. He averages 6.1 RPG so keeping him off the boards should be a priority.

The fifth starter is anyone’s guess. Junior Obinna Oleka (6’7” 225 lbs.) started the game against USC on Thursday night and he gives the Sun Devils a more athletic look, especially on offense. Fellow junior Savon Goodman (6’6” 220 lbs.) was starting at the beginning of the season but missed several games for personal reasons. There has been some suggestion that he is currently in Hurley’s doghouse, which would explain why the player who is the best low post player on the squad on both ends of the floor and who leads the team in rebounding at 7.1 RPG has been coming off the bench. However, if he plays starter’s minutes on Saturday then he will present a match-up issue. He is more athletic than any Bruin post outside of Bolden and he is consistently sneaky about getting inside for shots.

The two other players who will see significant time are junior guard Andre Spight (6’3” 168 lbs.) and sophomore wing Kodi Justice (6’5” 190 lbs.). Spight has started 8 games this season and has a similar game to Blakes. In fact, some would argue that Spight should be the starter even though his shooting is a bit worse than Blakes. It will be interesting to see if Hurley thinks he needs to match-up with the Bruins rather than the other way around, and if he starts Blakes, Spight and Holder in a three-man backcourt.

Justice is strictly a three-point specialist and is solid in that role. Like Atwood, he averages 39% from behind the arc. The problem for Hurley is that Justice is a major defensive liability, so even though Justice plays 22 MPG, Hurley needs to pay attention to how and when Justice gets those minutes as the player he’s guarding can torch him on the other end of the court.

Theoretically the Bruins should be able to thoroughly dominate the paint, especially on the offensive end. ASU really has no answer for the size and length of the three Bruin posts. UCLA should also be able to win the battle of the glass as Arizona State is nothing more than an average rebounding team.

ASU focuses on the turnover game. The Sun Devils have forced 200 turnovers this season so if UCLA can take good care of the ball then that would take away a foundational part of what ASU does. A mitigating factor is that ASU has almost 190 turnovers as a team, so the Sun Devils certainly struggle at times to keep possession.

The one area that ASU is a known quantity is in terms of its collective effort. The Sun Devils really bring effort every game. The USC game on Thursday is a perfect example. While the Trojans won by 10, which was also the halftime deficit faced by ASU, it wasn’t because the Sun Devils didn’t compete. The loss was the result of very poor shooting on the part of ASU coupled with 50% shooting for the Trojans. Keep in mind that while the Sun Devils forced 15 turnovers, they were beaten on the boards by 8, shot only 38% for the game and allowed the almost-50% shooting by Trojans and still only lost by 10. This is also a team that defeated a ranked Texas A&M team.

That’s why the Bruins have to bring real effort to this game. Certainly the Bruins and Alford should be aware by now that they can’t keep having the up and down nights of effort like the ones in Pullman and then on Thursday. The consistency of good effort has to appear for the Bruins to have any chance of being successful this season and, really, no one, not even Alford knows what kind of effort the Bruins will bring in this game. If it is something like what they showed in Pullman then UCLA will lose. If it approaches the effort of Thursday then UCLA’s superior talent should be the deciding factor.

Both Bryce Alford and Parker are the bellwether players for the Bruins. Parker was admittedly horrible on the Washington trip, but was truly engaged against the Wildcats, posting another double-double and looking aggressive and confident in the process. If he plays anywhere near that level on Saturday then the Bruins should be dominate. More importantly, as Parker and Bryce Alford’s efforts go, so seemingly does the effort of the rest of the team.

The Sun Devils will struggle with a rejuvenated Aaron Holiday, who seemingly is now out of his December slump. He was arguably the best player on the floor on Thursday for long parts of the game.

But again, it comes down to effort. We know what we are going to see from Arizona State. The feeling, and it’s completely a guess, is that UCLA will have enough effort to win this game, especially because it is at home. If the Bruins can’t muster a good effort, then the Lavin comparisons will get louder.

Maybe the Bruins really can get Russell Westbrook to come and do a pregame speech before every game in order to ensure the Bruins play with fire and intensity.

UCLA 75
Arizona State 70


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