Now that they’ve dispatched Arizona, the UCLA Bruins return home to Pauley Pavilion this week to host the Washington schools. The first game is Wednesday night when Head Coach Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies come to Westwood (8 PM PST; Fox Sports 1).
The Bruins are clearly on a roll right now, being ranked #3/#2 in the polls and having now beaten all three teams that defeated the Bruins early in the season. UCLA took care of business against Arizona State last Thursday and looked for all intents and purposes like a national title squad in defeating the Wildcats on national television in Tucson last Saturday night. Since the USC loss in January, the Bruins have looked focused and hungry. With a very bad Washington team coming into town, to be followed on Saturday by a mediocre Washington State squad on Saturday, the only real questions are whether or not the Bruins will lose any of the focus they’ve been playing with and if losing some focus will be enough to give two of the bottom feeders in the Pac-12 Conference a shot at winning on the road.
Pundits, journalists and amateur bloggers tend to throw around pejorative sayings like “boat raced” and “dumpster fire” when describing disorganization and chaos, especially in sports. Many times terms such as those are used much too liberally, but in the case of the Huskies, both terms are incredibly appropriate. UDub is the poster child for a program that seems externally to be in chaos right now. The Huskies have a good chance to finish the season 9-22, including 2-17 in conference games, which would be a record of futility unmatched since Bob Bender’s first season in Seattle when the Huskies won 5 total games including 3 in the (then) Pac-10. In fact, you’d have to go back to 1959-60 to find a season in which the Huskies won as few as 2 conference games. For those who wonder if Washington’s athletic administration will pull the trigger on firing Romar after this season, look no further than that. However, the problems run deeper. Romar’s tenure has been characterized by teams with good-to-great athleticism that play out of control and never quite reached the level of winning that the talent on hand should have achieved. Last season UDub had two NBA first-round draft picks on the roster and the Huskies had a bad season. This year, even with a player who could go as the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the bottom has fallen out. It’s not as if basketball is a top priority in Seattle or that there are unreasonable fans. Heck, Washington hasn’t been past the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament since the 1952-53 season when Tippy Dye was the coach. All Washington wants is some basic competence, and quite frankly, Romar’s deficiencies as a coach have been laid bare this season (and last) for all to see. By all accounts, Romar is a decent man and a solid-to-good recruiter. The powers-that-be in Seattle probably want a reason to keep Romar beyond the class he’s bringing in next season. That’s why Romar could badly use a victory in Los Angeles this week, whether in Westwood or South Central.
It’s not as if Romar doesn’t have talent on the roster. Impact freshman Markelle Fultz (6’4”, 195 lbs.) has the ability to offensively take over games. The problem is that Fultz has been in and out of the lineup the past few weeks with a knee issue. Some have questioned the true nature of the injury, citing that Fultz may be “saving” himself from a true injury in a lost season with the NBA draft on the horizon. Still, regardless of the reason, he’s been out of the lineup. Even without Fultz, Washington has some nice individual pieces. Sophomores Noah Dickerson (6’8”, 245 lbs), Matisse Thybulle (6’5”, 195 lbs.) and David Crisp (6’0”, 195 lbs.) could probably see serious minutes on virtually every other team in the Pac-12. Senior Malik Dime (6’9”, 220 lbs.) is as good of a rim protector as there is in the conference when used correctly, and freshman Sam Timmins (6’11”, 265 lbs.) has real potential and should be able to provide some serviceable minutes off the bench that would give Dime and Dickerson a rest at times.
The problem for the players is that they seem to be put in schemes and spots where they can’t succeed, certainly not as a unit. Because of the lack of tactical understanding and the apparent lack of technical teaching, these players look lost and out of position many times over the course of games. The issues become spotlighted when Washington plays teams that play unselfishly and can dictate the tempo. In UCLA, the Huskies will be playing a team that has become a very bad match-up for them.
In the first meeting between these teams, on February 4, despite the poor game prediction, the state of the Washington program came into full focus. The Bruins simply flattened the Huskies on their own court by 41 points. More importantly, Washington appeared to play uninspired from the opening tip, which is in many ways worse than quitting when it’s clear you’re overmatched. That kind of effort is the type that could spell doom for Romar as he had the reputation of being able to emotionally motivate his team for big games. The game in Seattle was a testament to a team that was tuning out the coach.
To the team’s credit and to Romar’s, the Huskies have at least been competitive the past few games, including hanging tough in Tucson, but they’ve fallen in all of those games. Now they come to Los Angeles to play arguably the hottest team in the country.
Whether Washington can stay competitive in the game will really come down to the availability of Fultz. He averages 23.2 PPG, which is best in the conference, and 5.7 RPG, which is second-best on the team behind Dickerson. He’s shooting 48% from the field, which is very good for a perimeter player, and 41% from behind the arc, which is really good when looking at the high volume of shots he takes. He’s second on the team in blocks and in steals and generally puts forth as god of an effort as he can on both ends of the floor. Without him, Washington will get run off the court in the first half. With him, it makes the game at least marginally interesting, especially because it pits the two college players who might go 1-2 in the NBA Draft against each other, with Fullz and Lonzo Ball making for a good headline.
Dickerson is a solid inside presence that plays with great effort all the time. He is a solid 52% shooter from the field and is a strong player on the glass, averaging 8 RPG. His offensive game is limited to around 8 feet and in from the hoop. He is also hampered by his lack of relative length. For instance, in this game he’ll have to guard one of Thomas Welsh (7’0”), Ike Anigbogu (6’10” and athletic) or T.J. Leaf (6’10”). His 6’8” height will allow the Bruins to shoot over him even though he gives good defensive effort.
The Bruins didn’t have to face Dime in Seattle since he was out with an injury. He returned shortly after but was then suspended for slapping an opposing fan. He is athletic and can protect the rim, but he is relatively neutralized by a team that can shoot from the outside, as UCLA can. Even when the ball gets to one of the posts in the mid-range area, Dime will have to come out to contest all three Bruins posts, even Gyorgy Goloman, because of their ability to shoot, and pulling him from the paint allows UCLA’s wings to cut into the lane for easier shots.
Thybulle is long and fairly athletic, but he tends to play soft. He’s decent enough on the offensive end, being a solid three-point threat, but he doesn’t rebound well for his size (3.2 RPG) and tends to get pushed around. He looked horrible against the Bruins in Seattle.
Crisp is another who gives effort, but he is sort of a one-trick pony in that his offensive game is almost entirely outside shooting. Almost 60% of his overall field goal attempts have come from behind the three-point line. He shoots a solid 38% from distance, but his overall lack of size hampers him when he gets into the lane. His six-foot height is a real liability on the defensive end of the floor and Bruin head Coach Steve Alford has shown this season that he can take advantage of match-ups, and the Bruins will have an advantage with whomever Crisp is guarding, certainly from a size standpoint.
The bigger issue for the Huskies, though, is schematically based. The offense is really predicated on perimeter isolation plays, especially for Fultz. The ensuing drives (when the Huskies don’t rely on outside shots) are out of control as often as not. Honestly, as long as an opponent rebounds well, the Huskies are relatively neutralized on many possessions.
The defense is so loosey-goosey that it seems as if there is no scheme. When Romar goes to a man defense, the concept seems to be to put ball pressure on and have the offense either throw a tough pass or be funneled on a drive into Dime. The problem is that the Huskies play horrible help-side defense. Further, the on-ball defender has had an alarming tendency to sort of give up the minute the penetrator gets even with his shoulder, thus leaving the interior defender stuck with guarding at least two players.
Pauley is expected to have a large crowd again for this game as it will be nationally televised and it has a late enough tip-off time for people to make it to the arena after work. The aura should have plenty of energy. The question is whether the Bruins will have the same energy. One BRO poster put forth the opinion that the Bruin play better when they perceive they are the hunter rather than the hunted. Certainly the Bruins played with a chip on their collective shoulders the past few weeks, but this is the first game where they clearly are not trying to prove something. We really haven’t seen the Bruins in this type of a game since UCLA’s commitment to defense and effort began to grow after the USC loss. Until the Bruins prove the contrary, there will be some question as to whether they will bring the kind of effort to the floor to boat race the Huskies or whether the Bruins will slowly pull away.
Oregon State is clearly the worst team in the Pac-12 this season, but at least the Beavers can point to some injuries as one of the reasons they can’t even be competitive in most games. Really the Huskies have no excuse, so the onus for the poor performance has fallen on the coach.
The Bruins are playing a team that seems to be in emotional tatters, or at least counting the days until the end of the season, a season in which the term dumpster fire can be appropriately used to describe the lack of fundamentals, schematic foundation and sometimes effort that have surrounded this program from early in the year. The Bruins boat raced the Huskies on their own court and there isn’t anything outside of the effort the Bruins give to indicate that this game will be any different.