The UCLA Bruins return to the court on Thursday night when they travel to Tempe, Arizona, to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils (6 PM PST; ESPN2).
The game is obviously a huge one for the team (aren’t they all at this point in the season?), especially considering the momentum the Bruins have been building since they lost to USC in mid-January. It’s the first game of a truly important road trip, with the game at Arizona on Saturday being the one that much of the nation is waiting to see. That could be part of the problem for the Bruins -- that they could be caught looking ahead to that showdown in Tucson. However, the question is really whether that possible distraction will be enough for the Sun Devils to keep the game close.
Head Coach Bobby Hurley has done a decent job at ASU in his one-plus season at the helm. He faced a dearth of talent in the wake of Herb Sendek’s tenure in Tempe and clearly got the team to play above its head much of the 2016-2017 season. As I wrote in my preview for the first Bruin game against ASU back in January, the bottom fell out of the Sun Devils’ season at the end of last year, but that had more to do with the lack of quality depth than anything Hurley did wrong.
The Sun Devils didn’t have nearly the success at the start of this season that they did last year, almost coming back to Earth with regard to the results matching the talent on the roster. Hurley and most Sun Devil fans felt that the talent was on the upswing with the commitment of Sam Cunliffe, among others. However, Cunliffe wasn’t satisfied with things in Tempe and decided to transfer two months ago. Since that time, the Sun Devils have faced the same depth issues they faced last season. They have played hard, but the team lacks any real size or bench play.
The lack of size really hurt the Sun Devils in the first match-up with UCLA and it figures to be a big issue in the outcome of the game again. The only true forward who starts or even plays heavy minutes is senior Obinna Oleka (6’8”, 225 lbs.) and, while he is a warrior in the low post, he simply can’t control the area by himself. Freshmen Ramon Vila (6’8”, 230 lbs.) and Andre Adams (6’9”, 225 lbs.) have been getting more minutes, especially Adams, who didn’t play at Pauley Pavilion but has now been getting up to 15 mpg off the bench. Neither is ready to log heavy minutes in a high-major conference. Then there’s freshman Jethro Tshisumpa (6’10”, 260 lbs.), who started quite a few games after Cunliffe left as Hurley attempted to get more size on the floor. However, he is incredibly raw and he has seen his minutes drop to almost nothing since the game in Los Angeles. Basically it’s Oleka and…???
Size isn’t the only issue that Arizona State faces when playing UCLA. Outside of Oregon State, ASU is the worst defensive team in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils allow opponents to shoot 48% from the field and 37% from the three-point line. The Bruins went for 60% and 59% respectively in a comfortable 22-point win in January. Nothing has really changed much in Arizona State’s defensive structure or effort and now UCLA comes to town playing better on the offensive end than the Bruins were one month ago.
ASU certainly isn’t the train wreck that is Oregon State. The Sun Devils do some things well on defense, namely force turnovers. If there has been one bugaboo this season in UCLA’s offensive game, it can be turnovers. Those killed the Bruins in losses to both Arizona and USC in January. The fact that UCLA may be looking ahead a bit can only be a negative when it comes to the focus and energy that UCLA might bring to the game. When a team is missing that laser-focus, that team can be susceptible to turnovers.
The Sun Devils generally don’t have problems at the other end of the floor. Oleka averages over 12 PPG, and is one of four players on the roster averaging double-figures.
The leading scorer is senior wing Torian Graham (6’5”, 195 lbs.). He is averaging 18.5 PPG and shoots the ball well, averaging 46% from the field and 38% from behind the arc. He went for 26 the first time these teams met. The problem is that Graham generally has to guard a much bigger player and becomes a defensive liability because of it. He is the team’s second-leading rebounder at 4.1 RPG, but he only had a single board in Los Angeles.
The guards are juniors Shannon Evans (6’1”, 160 lbs.) and Tra Holder (6’1, 180 lbs.). Evans has become the team’s primary point guard but he will look to score. Holder is playing more off the ball than last season but he’s still scoring well. Evans averages 15.8 PPG while Holder is at 17.2 PPG. Holder shoots at a rate slightly below Graham while Evans is solid from distance (36%) but struggles more from the floor (42%). Holder is generally considered the best all-around player on the squad and gives them a true multi-threat offensive player. He can drive with strength and with guile, depending on what the needs are of the team. Evans doesn’t drive as much and isn’t as successful when he does, being a distributor and spot-up shooter.
The final heavy rotational player is junior guard Kodi Justice (6’5”, 190 lbs.). Justice is sort of a one-trick pony in that he is almost exclusively an outside shooter. He didn’t shoot well in Los Angeles, but he is certainly capable of getting hot and shooting the opposition out of a game. He had a poor game at Pauley, finishing with 5 points. Still, he’s connecting on just under 40% of his three pointers. He continues to be a real liability on the defensive end as he is not a high-major athlete in any way. Look for UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford to possibly try to exploit match-ups with Justice early on in the game.
In the preview of the first game between these two teams, I wrote that there was some question as to whether ASU would try to slow down the game and make the Bruins uncomfortable or whether the Sun Devils would play their normal style and try to be up-tempo. They tried to run with the Bruins and it ended up getting them hammered. There may not be another way, though. Trying to burn clock and make the Bruins play 30 seconds of defense on every possession stands a real chance of hurting the Sun Devils more than the Bruins. ASU just doesn’t play that style.
However, the Bruins may see more zone, especially with ASU having no real height on the floor. UCLA’s T.J. Leaf and Thomas Welsh combined for 29 points, 17 rebounds and Leaf also had 6 assists. The advantage the Bruins have in the frontcourt is massive. So ASU may try to play a packed-in zone and hope the Bruins have an off shooting night.
The Bruins also have a big advantage in the backcourt and on the wing, especially with the way the team has been playing of late. Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Lonzo Ball all enjoy significant size advantages against their ASU counterparts, and Aaron Holiday is a better athlete than any guard on Hurley’s roster.
Truly, the Bruins are a horrible match-up for the Sun Devils.
However, it gets worse for ASU. That’s because the Bruins seem to now actually be giving good effort on defense. UCLA’s last five games (okay, four and ¼) have seen the Bruins play with more consistency of effort on the defensive end, which in turn has led to poorer shooting nights by UCLA’s opponents. That culminated in last Saturday’s effort that held USC to 33% shooting from the floor.
Arizona State’s only chance in this game seemed to be to try and outscore UCLA, but based on the last three weeks, that seems implausible.
The biggest worry that UCLA has is that the Bruins may be focused on Arizona. That could lead to a lethargic effort on both ends of the floor, with inattention to detail and laziness. However, even with those possible distractions, the talent difference is pretty great.
There are Bruin fans with reasonable fears that UCLA is facing a “trap game” but this team simply has a different feel about it. There seems to be a mission the Bruins are now on and it would be safe to say that the intensity and focus that UCLA is bringing to both ends of the floor is evidence of that. Really, you don’t want to pick against the Bruins until and unless they give you reason to do so, and frankly, the Bruins are now trending upward with this newfound defensive focus.
This is certainly the appetizer to the main course to come on Saturday, but with such a talent and size advantage, and against a team that really can’t successfully play at a tempo the Bruins don’t like, it should be digested with relative ease.
Arizona State 79