Isaac Hamilton, Lonzo Ball, Thomas Welsh (USA Today)

Preview: UCLA v. Washington State

Mar. 3 -- While you might think the Washington State game isn't important, it truly is critical for No. 3 UCLA. It's also the last time the core of this team will play in Pauley Pavilion as Bruins...

The UCLA men’s basketball team closes out the regular season portion of its schedule on Saturday night when the Bruins host the Washington State Cougars at Pauley Pavilion (7 PM PST; ESPN).

The game represents the final appearance in the fabled venue for Bruin seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton (assuming he doesn’t apply for an NCAA waiver), as well as being the likely final appearance for Bruin freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, although Leaf is highly likely to sit out the game following the ankle injury he suffered on Wednesday night against Washington. Because it is assumed to be the final home look at this quartet (and perhaps other Bruins as well), and because it is the final game of what has been a remarkably successful regular season, and because the game is being televised nationally, the atmosphere is bound to be much more electric than what Bruin fans saw on Wednesday when the intensity in the air at Pauley was rather muted, especially after Leaf went down with the ankle sprain. However, it is a very important game for the Bruins and one that they cannot take for granted. The question is whether the Bruins will be focused enough to win the game and finish the regular season at 28-3.

Head Coach Ernie Kent’s Cougar squad comes into Saturday’s contest at 13-16 and 6-11 in the Pac-12 Conference. In all honesty, Kent has done a pretty good job of coaching this team, probably getting the most out of one of the least talented and athletic rosters in the conference. The Cougars, coming off a 23-point loss at USC earlier this week, actually have something to play for in the game. As things stand right now, Wazzu sits in 10th place in the conference with a decent shot at the 9-seed for next week’s conference tournament should the Cougars beat the Bruins and Wazzu gets some help from Utah when the Utes host Stanford this weekend. That would be the difference between going up against Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday, and going up against Arizona State. The Sun Devils are the better match-up for the Cougars.

The game is massively important for UCLA because of the possible NCAA Tournament seeding consequences should the Bruins lose the game. Depending on whose bracket predictions you reference, the Bruins currently sit as a predicted #2-seed or #3-seed for the upcoming Big Dance. However, there is every reason to expect that UCLA, should the Bruins win out, will be placed in the West Region as a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAAs should they win out. A loss to Washington State would most likely end that scenario even if UCLA manages to win out in Las Vegas.

When these teams faced off in Pullman on February 1, it was the first time the Bruins had played since the back-to-back losses to Arizona and USC. UCLA methodically pulled away from Wazzu, eventually winning by 16, in a game where the Bruins first started showing a new energy on the defensive end. Since that game, UCLA’s overall game, especially on defense, has only gotten better. However, there are some real concerns about this game.

That’s because of the absence of Leaf. In the first meeting of these teams, the Bruin frosh went off for 32 points and 14 rebounds. He was basically unstoppable inside the arc. Although UCLA’s Gyorgy Goloman is a solid role player for the Bruins, he’ll be stepping into a starting role on Saturday night and certainly will be a step (or two…or three) down, especially on offense, from Leaf. The Bruins will simply need to find a way to replace those points somewhere else, and that won’t be an easy task.

UCLA’s Thomas Welsh had 17 points and 6 boards in the first meeting, while Lonzo Ball was, well, Lonzo Ball, with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Aaron Holiday also was in double-figures with 13 points. More than likely those three players won’t massively improve on their point totals from the first game, although Bruin fans have learned by now not to be surprised by anything Ball does in a game.

That means the most likely candidates to compensate for Leaf’s scoring absence are the two seniors. Hamilton has been offensively slogging along in mediocrity for about two months now. He could certainly come out of that slump, at least for this game, but there’s probably a bigger concern that he’ll try and do too much on offense, especially considering this is his home finale.

The more probable player to step up for the Bruins is Alford. He only had 7 points on 6 total shots in the Palouse, and it was arguably his worst offensive game of the year. He has shown a remarkable maturity this season and should be given credit for changing his game to fit within the team concept on offense. Against the Huskies on Wednesday, it was primarily Alford who kept the Bruins focused on the offensive end, including several times where he purposefully brought the ball out and got UCLA into its halfcourt offense when things seemed to be breaking down into an up-and-down, AAU-type track meet.

The good news for UCLA is that Washington State is offensively ill-equipped to take advantage of Leaf’s absence. If Welsh were the one out for Saturday there would be far more concern.

That’s because Washington State’s best players is senior post Josh Hawkinson (6’10”, 230 lbs.). Hawkinson has the ability to play both in the paint and around the arc. Even in games where the Cougars have been blown out, Hawkinson has remained remarkably consistent. He’s shooting 56% from the floor overall, and 48% from behind the arc in conference play. He’s also averaging almost 10 RPG. He will be a handful for the Bruins, but the silver lining is that Hawkinson hasn’t been able to carry the Cougars in games against elite competition. He’ll get his points but it is unlikely that the Cougars can pull off the upset unless he gets some scoring help from his teammates.

Josh Hawkinson

The three most likely players who would be in line for the offensive role of helping Hawkinson are senior guard Ike Iroegbu (6’2”, 195 lbs.), sophomore forward Robert Franks (6’7”, 240 lbs.) and freshman guard Malachi Flynn (6’1”, 170 lbs.). Iroegbu, who averages 13.8 PPG in Pac-12 play, and Franks are the more probable of the trio to score big points. Flynn has been a consistent 10 PPG scorer all season but hasn’t shown the propensity to go off for 20-plus points. In fact, he was scoreless against the Trojans earlier this week.

Iroegbu has some nice statistics for a guard, averaging 48% shooting from the floor and 37% from the three-point line in conference play. He’ll continue to vary his game from possession to possession, switching between hunting his own shot and feeding the ball to Hawkinson.

Franks is the wildcard. He was a little used bench player at the beginning of the season, but has developed into one of Kent’s go-to players. He still comes off the bench, but now he’s consistently playing more than 20 MPG. He went off against the Trojans for 20 points, but there is some good news for the Bruins in that stat line. He can hit the three, sitting at 34% in conference play, but he tends to want to take the ball inside. Goloman will probably be matched on him when the Bruins are in man defense, and although the Bruin junior is not anywhere near the offensive force of Leaf, he is probably the better defender. If Goloman plays his role, solid defense and rebounding and leaving the offense primarily to the other four Bruins on the floor, the Bruins will probably be fine.

The other two Cougars will play big minutes are seniors Charles Callison (6’0”, 185 lbs.) and Conor Clifford (7’0”, 260 lbs.). They both start, but Franks has been biting heavily into Clifford’s minutes.

Neither is a world-beating type of player, but rather complimentary pieces to the other four. There is a worry that Clifford will now get more minutes with Leaf out, forcing Goloman to have to guard Hawkinson, and, when Goloman needs a rest, forcing Ball to guard Hawkinson, but the reality is that Wazzu is probably going to see a lot of UCLA’s 1-2-2 ¾ court press and 1-2-2 halfcourt defense, especially when the Bruins have four guards on the floor.

If Kent is going to change something in this game it probably won’t be a personnel change but rather a tactical change. Knowing the Bruins are playing without Leaf, there is every reason to believe that Kent will have the Cougars take the air out of the ball and try and shorten the game. This fits with Wazzu’s offensive personality anyway as the Cougars average less than 70 PPG. The key to making the plan work is avoiding turnovers and making the Bruins play a full shot clock worth of defense as much as possible. The idea would be to frustrate the Bruins and entice them to take quick shots on offense in the hope that UCLA will become impatient in trying to speed up the game. Still, turnovers will be key. In the first meeting of these teams, Wazzu had 14 turnovers while the Bruins committed only 6.

Expect Washington State to play a great deal of man-to-man defense because there should be a clear strategy for the game; make Goloman win the game. By that it means that the Bruins and Head Coach Steve Alford should expect the Cougars to sag off Goloman, inviting him to shoot every time he touches the ball. The thinking will be that if Goloman makes his shots, so be it, but it’s a more likely option for success than allowing one of the other Bruins to get open looks. Alford should really have a stern one-on-one conversation with Goloman before the game so that he understands to stay in his role.

At this point, and knowing that Leaf is out, the only real goal for the Bruins is to win the game. It doesn’t matter if UCLA wins by 1 point or 100. The key is to get to Las Vegas at 28-3 and have a chance to run the table and take the reward that comes with doing so.

Obviously the loss of Leaf hurts, and in a vacuum, that should be relatively easily dealt with as Washington State doesn’t match up well with the Bruins (although part of that disparity was the inclusion of Leaf in the first game). However, the game will not be played in a vacuum. Many coaches hate senior night games because the atmosphere has a tendency to pull focus from the task at hand. Knowing that it’s their last game and knowing they are without their talented power forward, there is a fear that Hamilton and Bryce will try and do too much, getting UCLA out of its offense and giving Washington State a real chance.

However, if the Bruins are truly indeed a team on a mission, this is the kind of game they have to win, even if it’s by gutting the game out. There are already indications that Leaf will be cleared for the Thursday night game in Vegas against USC, but for the game to have real meaning, the Bruins will have to take care of business.

Expect the final score to be lower than what fans are seeing from the Bruins this season. They simply can’t lose a player such as Leaf and not have it negatively affect the offense. Further, Washington State is not UDub, meaning the Cougars certainly don’t have the appearance of a team that’s quit on the season.

It will be closer than most expected coming into the week, but the Bruins should still get the job done. The maturity seen from this team recently will win out in the end.

Enjoy the final home game of the season and the last look in Pauley Pavilion of Bryce Alford, Hamilton and Ball…and hope that when we look back on those players and this team several years hence that they will all have become the stuff of legend.

UCLA                    82
Washington State 73

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