The UCLA men’s basketball team travels to Seattle on Saturday night to complete the Washington road trip against Head Coach Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies (7:30 PM PST; Pac-12 Network).
The Bruins (20-3; 7-3 in the Pac-12) are coming off a workmanlike victory against Washington State on Wednesday while the Huskies (9-13; 2-8 in the Pac-12) suffered a home defeat to the USC Trojans. UCLA is trying to solidify itself before welcoming the Oregon schools next week, while the Huskies are simply trying to win a game at this point in the season. The Bruins are clearly the favorite, but Washington has been a difficult game in Seattle for the Bruins in the past and the Huskies have an athletic line-up that could give the Bruins trouble. Defense has been the issue for the Bruins all season, but the offense has been good to elite throughout the season. The question is whether the Bruin offense will simply be good on Saturday night or if it will approach the elite status it showed during much of UCLA’s 13-0 start to the season.
Washington is suffering through its second straight season of massive underachievement considering the talent on the roster. Romar, who is in his fifteenth season in Seattle, may or may not be feeling any heat regarding his job security, but he has justifiably faced scrutiny considering he has a roster built around one of the best, if not the best freshman in the country in Markelle Fultz (6’4”, 195 lbs.). And it’s not as if Fultz is the only talent on the roster. If there’s been a consistent knock on Romar throughout his tenure it’s been that he doesn’t get enough out of the talent on his squads. This season is a microcosm of that criticism.
The problem for the Huskies, as it’s been throughout Romar’s years, has been a lack of cohesion on either end of the floor. The Husky offense the past 14-plus years has been a series of one-on-one sets, while the defense tries for quick turnovers and tends to break down quickly against a calm and patient offense. The one-on-one offense has worked when Romar has had the personnel to simply out-athlete the opposition and in Fultz he has a talented player who is capable of carrying to Huskies to victory on a given night.
Fultz is a good, but not great shooter, averaging 48% from the floor. He is an excellent athlete who has the strength to get to the basket on his drives and play through contact. He is also a good to very good outside shooter, averaging almost 42% from behind the arc. He is a high volume shooter, but that’s acceptable when he makes as many as he does. The offense clearly runs through Fultz as he also leads the team with 133 assists on the season, almost 70 more assists than his nearest teammate. He is also a good rebounder, averaging 6 RPG, good for second on the team. He’s going to get his 20-plus points. In fact, he may top 30, but the Bruins can’t allow that to affect how they defend the rest of the Huskies. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball may be matched up on Fultz to start, but that may be asking a lot of him. Don’t be surprised to see a great deal of Aaron Holiday if the Bruins decide to try and run man defense against the Huskies, with Holiday taking Fultz.
The other dangerous player is sophomore guard David Crisp (6’0”, 195 lbs.). Like Fulz, he is averaging over 32 MPG, the only two Huskies to do so. He may lack height but he is a dangerous shooting guard because of his ability to hit from outside. He is almost strictly an outside shooter, making only 42% of his shots from the floor, but 40% from the three-point line. He and Fultz have developed a nice chemistry where, when Fultz drives, if he looks to kick out (which isn’t often), he almost always looks for Crisp. He is quick enough to be a solid lateral defender but his lack of size prohibits him from being much more than that. Keep in mind, though, that Crisp almost single-handedly buried UCLA in Seattle last season late in the second half of that game. If UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford elects to play man defense, he might want to tell the player guarding Crisp that he is never allowed to give help.
The forward positions are held down by sophomores Matisse Thybulle (6’5”, 195 lbs.) and Noah Dickerson (6’8”, 245 lbs.), and they couldn’t be more different as players. Certainly Dickerson is more of an inside bruiser while Thybulle has more of the typical body of a wing, but that’s not the biggest difference. The big separation between the two is how they play the game. Dickerson has gotten almost everything he can out of his talent by working hard almost every moment he’s on the court. Thybulle has long periods of floating through games, which is part of the reason Washington struggles so badly at times.
Dickerson has the playing style of a bruiser, banging in the low post and being physical at every opportunity, He averages 10.8 PPG and 8.2 RPG. The problem for Dickerson is that he doesn’t have the height to defend true post players. He’s really an old school, back-to-the-basket power forward. However he is often asked ot play in the post because of the loss of senior forward Malik Dime (6’9”, 220 lbs.) to a broken pinky finger. Dime is out for the game.
To try and inject more size into the line-up, Romar has inserted freshman Sam Timmins (6’11”, 265 lbs.) into the starting five. Timmins is actually a bit of an outside shooting threat, but is clearly not ready to play starter’s minutes in the Pac-12 yet. He isn’t quick, so although he is a decent rebounder, he isn’t a good defender. Again, he’s being asked to play minutes he wasn’t ready to play because of Dime’s injury.
Thybulle is really the enigma. He is a solid athlete with good strength and length, but he just doesn’t seem to give maximum effort all the time. He is a good enough defender, averaging more steals than anyone on the team, but that could also be a sign of laziness because of his lack of effort on recovery when he doesn’t get a steal. Finally, a player with his size and with the minutes he plays should be averaging more than 2.8 RPG.
Romar is currently running a seven-man rotation, with sophomore Dominic Green (6’6”, 190 lbs.) spelling Timmins and Thybulle, and freshman Carlos Johnson (6’3”, 235 lbs.) subbing in for the guards. Green is a decent three-point threat but isn’t much of a defender or rebounder for his 20-plus MPG. Johnson only plays about 15 MPG, and while he isn’t great offensively, he does use his bulk to rebound well and play physically.
The Huskies shoot 45% from the floor and 38% from behind the arc. However, they allow opponents to shoot 45% overall and 39% from the three-point line. The Huskies can score, and they probably will regardless of whether UCLA plays man or zone defense. The issue for Washington is whether it can hold the Bruins to under the century mark.
Washington’s defense is predicated on turnovers. If the Bruins limit their turnovers then they will win this game handily. That’s because Washington hasn’t shown the kind of defensive fundamentals necessary to play solid defense when others gamble. Their footwork leaves much to be desired and they don’t play help defense well. This is a case where the parts are better than the end results, at least so far.
Romar will probably choose to play a lot of zone against the Bruins, especially after seeing how USC was able to stymie them. The key for the Bruins is not just to get the ball to the middle of the floor but be strong with it once they get it there. That was a problem against the Trojans.
The Bruins were a frigid 3-16 from behind the arc against Wazzu, and if they shoot like that again that Romar could look like a genius playing zone defense.
The free throw line area and the short corner should be open and T.J. Leaf and Thomas Welsh are good enough that they should be able to take advantage of those open areas. Leaf is coming off a huge game against the Cougars.
On the other end of the floor there is an argument to be made that Fultz won’t be able to outscore the Bruins by himself. That may mean not adjusting much if Fultz starts piling up points. As long as UCLA doesn’t allow anyone else to start scoring in bunches then they should be fine. Coaches in the SEC used to game plan for Pete Maravich’s LSU squads by figuring Pistol Pete would get his 40-50 points, but that they wouldn’t allow anyone else to get into double figures. It tended to work as LSU was mediocre in Maravich’s time in Baton Rouge. The same plan could be sound against Fultz and the Huskies.
Seattle has simply not been kind to the Bruins for years. Even Ben Howland’s 2008 squad with Love, Westbrook, Collison, etc. on the squad lost in Seattle, so this is by no means a ‘gimme’ of a game, regardless of how bad Washington has been this season. The Huskies, if they had a bit more luck, could easily be 13-9, which while still not great, wouldn’t be the disaster it is right now. The thing is, Romar is a good motivator for individual games. He had the Huskies up and ready to go when they played Arizona in Tucson, and the feeling is that UDub will be ready to put in a supreme effort to upset the Bruins.
Washington’s roster is very similar to USC’s, and the Huskies could do to the Bruins what USC did, which was force turnovers and convert those turnovers. The crowd will certainly help. The key for the Bruins is to remain calm and run their sets on offense. That’s one thing the Bruins didn’t do against USC as they reverted to one or two passes followed by a contested shot.
That calmness on offense will be needed because it shouldn’t take much for the Bruins to get the Huskies into a running game. The Bruins are clearly the better team in a transition game simply because they have a true point guard and better “basketball” players, whereas Washington has some good athletes who play basketball.
This game could honestly go one of several different ways. The Bruins could see Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton come out of their collective shooting slumps and then simply shoot Washington out of the gym, scoring 100 points in the process. Or, the Bruinc could pull a USC, Part II and lose the game in front of what should be a raucous crowd.
Coach Alford got the road sweep monkey off his back three weeks ago in the mountains. That doesn’t mean he and the team will suddenly be road warriors, and fans should be skeptical until proven the Bruins can make a habit of road sweeps.
Washington is disjointed and down, but expect a big collective effort. That, coupled with the game being in Seattle, Bryce and Hamilton not shooting well, the fact that there are many similarities to the USC game and roster, and the general feeling that the team is a bit ‘off’ right now should combine for an outcome that will be Romar’s signature win on the season.