In their second year under Head Coach Dick Bennett, the Cougars, who are 6-5 and 1-1 so far this season, present a very unique challenge -- actually, for any team that faces them.
In the era of speedball, Bennett specializes in what is quickly becoming an antiquated approach, the slow-down, half-court style of play.
Antiquated or not, if you have the right personnel, it's an approach that can be tough to play against. Even if you don't have the personnel it can be a difficult style to play against.
UCLA found that out last year when it lost for the first time ever against Washington State in Pauley Pavilion, 55-48.
The Pac-10, generally, has struggled against the Cougars under Bennett. Even if they've beat them they've made it tough. Last week, the Bay Area schools went to Pullman and Cal beat WSU, 59-47, but Stanford lost, 60-51.
The style tends to cause a wide range of results. So far this season, Washington State barely lost against Gonzaga, 54-52, but got blown by a talented Oklahoma State team, 81-29 (that's not a typo).
The Cougars don't have much talent, but the couple of guys they do have that can play present tough matchups for UCLA.
Now, remember, you have to take all of the scoring averages of all of the WSU players in proper perspective. This is a team that is averaging just 49 points a game on the year.
UCLA's toughest matchup is muscular 6-6, 240-pound senior power forward, Jeff Varem. Varem is putting up 8.8 points per game and grabbing 7.8 rebounds. He might get guarded by UCLA's 6-11 center, Michael Fey, but he's too quick for Fey. If Dijon Thompson, playing the four, matches up against him, Varem is easily too strong for Thompson. He can not only score down low, but he can shoot out to about 15-feet pretty consistently.
Luckily for UCLA, another tough, physical type, 6-7, 225 pound senior forward, Shami Gill, reportedly won't play. He missed the Cal game Sunday with a back problem and apparently didn't make the trip for the Los Angeles road games.
For a team that doesn't have much depth at all, it's a pretty big blow. Against Cal, the Cougars started 6-9, 190-pound freshman center Robbie Cowgill. Cowgill is young, inexperienced, physically underdeveloped and not greatly talented. He has some decent face-up skills, but is generally getting pushed around pretty well so far in his freshman year.
It will be interesting to see how UCLA matches up defensively. More than likely it will be determined by whoever can guard Varem the best.
Possibly the most talented player on the Cougar squad is 6-5 senior wing Thomas Kelati. Kelati has quietly grown into one of the best wings in the Pac-10, combining good quickness with some very accurate outside shooting. He leads the team in scoring, averaging 11.9 per game, which is 24% of their scoring (about the equivalent of Dijon Thompson's team-leading 17 points per game). He has taken more than a third of their threes for the season, and is shooting about 40% from the arc. With his length and quickness, he's someone you have to stay in front of defensively, but can't sag off, with a quick release on his outside jumper.
Chris Schlatter, the 6-6 senior, is the other wing starter. Schlatter isn't overly athletic, but has some decent skills, and will knock down an open look if you forget about him.
Rounding out the starting lineup is 6-0 freshman point guard Derek Low, who missed the first five games of the season. Without another true point guard on their roster, Low is now playing 30+ minutes per game, and struggling some. Being relatively stocky, he's not particularly quick, and while he had decent skills in high school, he's still making that transition to college and hasn't quite settled down. After guarding Oregon's Aaron Brooks, Low should seem like he's in slow motion for UCLA's freshman point guard Jordan Farmar to guard.
Again, Washington State doesn't have much depth, particularly in the frontcourt. 6-4 freshman Kyle Weaver gets the most minutes off the bench, providing some athleticism on the wing, especially on defense. 6-3 sophomore Randy Green is a better shooter than Weaver, but neither really present particular problems for UCLA. Josh Akognon, a 5-10 freshman, spells Low, and is probably the most apt to shoot the ball quickly on the team, which still isn't very quickly. Freshmen 6-8 post Chris Henry and 6-6 combo forward Daven Harmeling have also supplied some minutes.
There are a total of eight freshmen on the team, and without much upperclassmen talent, Bennett is forced to play them.
What Washington State does is slow down the game, use its entire shot clock, and play tough and physical, trying to make you defend for at least 35 seconds on every possession and wear you down. It proves relatively successful against teams that aren't physical enough. Highly athletic teams can overcome it fairly easily. UCLA isn't necessarily very physical or highly athletic, so the WSU style should keep the game close and low-scoring.
UCLA does have a clear advantage in many areas, though, particularly in the frontcourt. After Varem, which is admittedly a tough matchup, Washington State has very little to throw at UCLA's frontline. Varem will probably get the call to guard Fey, and Fey's main goal should be to draw fouls on Varem and limit his minutes. If UCLA can reduce Varem's productivity, they'd have a chance of winning easily. Much will depend on whether UCLA's man defense can hold up to WSU's clock-bleeding style. WSU hopes that you lose focus sometime during those 35 seconds and give up an easy basket. Defensive rebounding is key against Washington State, really needing to limit their number of shots and 35-second clocks, and UCLA looks to be able to dominate the glass.
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