T.J. Leaf (USA Today)

Preview: UCLA v. Washington State

Feb. 1 -- UCLA goes on traditionally one of its toughest road trips, and it does so on a two-game losing streak, starting Wednesday night in cold Pullman to face not-a-pushover Washington State...

The UCLA Bruins return to action on Wednesday night when they travel to Pullman, Washington in order to play at the Washington State Cougars (6 PM PST; Pac-12 Networks).

This is the first time this season that we’ve had to write that the Bruins will be entering the game on a losing streak.  It is an incredibly important game as the Bruins try to steady things after the losses to Arizona at Pauley Pavilion and at USC.

Head Coach Ernie Kent’s Cougars will not be the pushover many thought them to be.  The preseason consensus was that the Cougars would occupy the basement in the conference standings this season and that simply hasn’t been the reality.  The Cougars are 11-10 on the season and 4-5 in the Pac-12.  More importantly, Wazzu is 8-4 at home and the Bruins struggled mightily in Pullman the past two times they’ve traveled to Pullman, losing last season and at the tail end of the 2013-2014 season.

Although the Bruins enter the contest with an overall record of 19-3 and a 6-3 record in conference, there is a sense that things aren’t quite right in Westwood.  Certainly the poor defense UCLA has played, especially the last few games, has contributed to that feeling.  What was unexpected was that the offense would take a two-game nose-dive, at least compared to the level at which the Bruins were performing earlier in the season.  To add to the feeling of unease, LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of Bruin freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, made comments in a public interview after the Arizona game that could easily be taken as criticisms of players in the program.  Finally, after the USC loss, the younger Ball made his own comments to the media that effectively stated he thought the Bruins were not all on the same page right now.  Two weeks ago people were talking about UCLA being a national championship contender.  After the two straight losses, the conversation has revolved around whether UCLA could even earn a spot in the West Region come time for the NCAA Tournament.  The outcome of this game will go a long way to settling things down or causing panic to ensue.  That’s why the game is very important to the Bruins.

Kent’s team is admittedly lacking in overall talent and athleticism. However, Kent is doing arguably his best coaching job in his career this season, getting the Cougars to be a team that truly represents the sum being greater than the parts.  The Cougars do have one all-conference player and the rest of the team clearly knows their individual roles.  This is not going to be an easy game, especially if Wazzu follows some of the blueprint to slowing UCLA’s offense established by Arizona and, on a different level, USC.

The all-conference player is senior forward Josh Hawkinson (6’10”, 230 lbs.).  He leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at 16 PPG and 10 RPG.  He also has 20 blocks on the season.  He’s taken at least 50 more shots than his next closest teammate.  He is, essentially, the first couple of options on offense.  Further, he is a good passer, with almost twice as many assists as turnovers on the season.  If there is one silver lining, it’s that Hawkinson is a very average athlete.  That means that depending on the line-up chosen by Kent, that UCLA, especially T.J. Leaf, should be able to guard him relatively straight up.

Josh Hawkinson

Kent will have a key decision to make in terms of players on the floor because of what UCLA will probably do and what USC showed can happen to the Bruins when they have to deal with a smaller line-up.  Senior post Conor Clifford (7’0”, 260 lbs.) will start, but by teaming him with Hawkinson at the same time would actually play a bit into UCLA’s hands.  That’s because UCLA’s Thomas Welsh could guard Clifford with Leaf on Hawkinson.  If Kent goes small then Welsh would have to guard Hawkinson (bad idea) and Leaf would have to take a wing or a guard (worse idea).

The problem for Kent is that Clifford is one of his best players.  He doesn’t rebound well, but he does block out well.  He, like Hawkinson, struggles against athleticism, but he is a fairly strong defender.  He also averages just under 10 PPG.

The backcourt is a traditional three-guard offense that has experience but lacks size.  Kent will start seniors Ike Iroegbu (6’2”, 195 lbs.) and Charles Callison (6’0”, 185 lbs.) along with freshman Malachi Flynn (6’1”, 170 lbs.).  Iroegbu is the most accomplished of the three and has been a starter virtually his entire career in Pullman.  He averages 11.5 PPG and 4.3 RPG, which are both good for second on the team behind Hawkinson.  He has the most assists on the team with 67 and is second on the team with 16 steals.  Still, there is a sense that Iroegbu’s career will not match the promise he showed as a freshman.

Callison has been a spot starter for several years, but this season has been a fixture in the starting line-up.  He is generally not much of a scorer, but he is the best perimeter defender.  He has 26 steals on the year.  He and Flynn are the two most consistent outside shooters on the team, with Callison averaging 38% from the three-point line.  Keep in mind that Callison had a very strong game against the Bruins in last season’s win over UCLA in Pullman.

Flynn is the hope for the future in Pullman. He averages 11.2 PPG and is shooting 47% from the floor and 45% from behind the arc.  He also has 62 assists.  He is the most naturally gifted of the backcourt starters, but like Iroegbu and Callison, he lacks size.

The problem for Kent and the Cougars is that lack of size.  UCLA is going to counter with four guards who are all bigger than any one of the three starting Cougar guards.  Even UCLA’s Bryce Alford has a length advantage on the three guards. The Bruins should be able to both shoot over the Cougar guards when given a step and post them up.  Throw Aaron Holiday in the mix and UCLA has a decided advantage in both size and athleticism.  The Wazzu guards are certain to bring a superior effort, so if the Bruins play with a lackadaisical effort or decide to resort to one-on-one play then Wazzu could outplay them in the backcourt.

Again, the key for Wazzu, and probably the only chance for the Cougars, is to create mismatches and that means probably playing a smaller line-up, which would force UCLA to either do the same or have Leaf or Gyorgy Goloman guard a wing away from the basket. If Kent decides to run a smaller line-up then he’ll probably use sophomore Robert Franks (6’7”, 240 lbs.) in place of Clifford.  Franks has the ability to shoot from various spots on the floor.  His issue is that he has consistently shot poorly this season.  Still, he would take the UCLA ‘4’ away from the basket creating more open space for Hawkinson to be able to work inside.

The only other player who should see significant minutes is sophomore guard Viont'e Daniels (6’2”, 175 lbs.).  Daniels can spell any of the three starters, but his real value is as another consistent outside threat.  He is hitting 37% of his long-range shots.

The potential backcourt mismatch really mitigates any of the so-called ‘blueprints’ that Kent can use from the Arizona and USC games.  The differences in personnel between those two schools and Wazzu is significant.

Both Arizona and USC had things in common that bothered the Bruins that Washington State simply doesn’t have.  Both the Cats and Trojans have a true point guard to can dictate play.  In Arizona’s case, it has two; Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen.  USC has Jordan McLaughlin.  The Cougars don’t have a true point guard let alone one of the quality of the three mentioned.  Kent’s backcourt is essentially three shooting guards who have the ability to be a lead guard, but none have the feel of a true floor general.  That means Wazzu’s offense probably won’t operate as efficiently as either Arizona’s or USC’s.  Further, both Arizona and USC had an athletic advantage across the board.  In USC’s case, the Trojan guards were athletic enough to clearly offset any size advantage the Bruins enjoyed, and really, that was only with regard to Lonzo Ball, as USC had enough size in its backcourt to counter Alford and Isaac Hamilton.

Further, Wazzu doesn’t turn its opponents over much.  In fact, the Cougars have committed almost 40 more turnovers on the season than their opponents.  The Cougars are shooting slightly better than their opponents, 46%-45%, but they allow a healthy percentage from behind the arc.  The Cougs close out well, but many opponents have been able to shoot over the shorter guards.  Wazzu is being outrebounded by 4 RPG and have given up 20 more steals than its forced.  That’s really symbolic of the turnover margin.

Kent will probably vary between a small line-up and one that utilizes Hawkinson and Clifford on the court simultaneously.  Additionally, UCLA should expect Washington State to play a lot of zone.  That was how USC was able to stymie the Bruins and it gives Wazzu the best chance to get UCLA’s offense to become perimeter-oriented and selfish.  Washington State was able to do that earlier this season to Washington, a team with better athletes and more talent, but a team that is offensively disorganized and poorly coached.  If UCLA stays disciplined then the Bruins should be able to score at will against the Cougars.

That’s the real question, isn’t it?  Whether UCLA will be disciplined on offense.  The Bruins have spent large portions of the past two games essentially panicking on offense and resorting to ‘hero-ball.’  What was clearly frustrating to Coach Alford in the USC game was UCLA’s inability to get the ball to the middle against USC’s zone.  However, the pass was there much of the time.  The problem is that when UCLA did throw the ball into that space, the Bruin post who received the pass simply wasn’t strong with the ball.  USC was able to collapse on that player and force turnovers and bad shots and passes.  The Bruins need to be stronger with the ball in the middle of the floor.  The Bruin man offense looked very good in the beginning of the game when Thomas Welsh was scoring almost at will against one of the best post defenders in the conference in USC’s Chimezie Metu.  Can the Bruins stay patient on offense and not settle for jump shots after one or two passes?  They were able to do it earlier this season against Nebraska and Texas A&M, two teams who are better than Washington State.

Finally, the thing that really did UCLA in against USC was the turnovers.  If UCLA is patient and composed then the Bruins should be fine.  Washington State’s roster is simply not constructed in such a fashion as to force many turnovers.  That would mitigate any run-outs by the Cougars, and even when they do get those opportunities, Washington State is not nearly as athletic as either Arizona or USC.

Really, unless UCLA truly implodes in the game, the outcome shouldn’t be close.  The Bruins really must sweep the two games of this road trip to have any shot at a truly protected seed.  Still, as Colorado showed this past weekend in beating Oregon, anything can happen on a given day.

UCLA                        88
Washington State     75

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