The Bruins, who are 9-3 and tied for first with Washington in the Pac-10 at 3-1, could make some considerable strides with a good showing in the desert in the next few days.
A sweep would probably almost assure them of an NCAA tournament bid, barring a late-season meltdown. And it would almost certainly get them a top 25 ranking, which would be the first for either a UCLA football or basketball team since November of 2002.
The first step in this accomplishment is the game against Arizona State tonight in Tempe.
ASU is having a surprising season, at least for many, since they were picked to finish last in the conference by the Pac-10 media before the season.
Many things have come together for the Sun Devils so far this season, with some players having improved as they've matured, and getting some help from new personnel.
But really the primary reason for ASU's success has been the fact they have one of the best players in the country in 6-8 junior post player, Ike Diogu. He is easily the best player in the Pac-10, and there aren't many like him in the nation. He is big, strong, athletic and very skilled. He leads the Pac-10 in scoring (23.3), rebounding (10.4), and blocked shots (2.73). He is fifth in the nation in scoring, with the four above him on the list coming from lesser conferences. He is one of only three players in the nation to average double figures in both points and rebounds. He leads the nation in free-throws made (136) and attempted (161), while shooting 84.5% from the line. He has scored in double figures for 74 straight games, every game of his career at ASU, which leads the country.
He is easily a first team All-American, possibly even among the small handful of candidates for national player of the year. And UCLA won't face anyone else like him this season.
So, for a UCLA team that has struggled at times defensively, the challenge is: How do slow down Diogu?
Or, do you even want to? Might it make more sense to let Diogu get his 25 and 10, but then concentrate on shutting down ASU's other productive players, the ones that are far easier to guard?
ASU has won 13 of 15 games because, also, they've gotten better support for Diogu this season.
Senior guard, 6-4 Steve Moore, is putting together a nice season, averaging 13.5 points per game. Moore is a well-built, lithe athlete, a lefty who can really stroke it when he gets hot. He loves to shoot, and will sometimes take questionable shots, but he does lead the Sun Devils in three-pointers made, while shooting 37% from behind the line.
ASU certainly does have some nice athletes, and none superior to their point guard, 6-2 senior Jason Braxton. Braxton is incredibly quick for his size and very springy. When he gets loose in the lane, there are good odds that a highlight reel dunk is on its way. Up until this season, the knock on Braxton has always been his lack of refinement, that he plays out of control and hadn't developed his skills over his ASU career. That basically still hold true, but he's far more under control in his senior season and making fewer mistakes. His shot, though, is still poor, having only taken eight three-pointers on the season and having made only one.
Filling out the other starting perimeter position is JC transfer, 6-6 sophomore Bryson Krueger. Krueger has stepped right in and provided ASU with another scoring option and some more athleticism. Not starting, but getting more time playing wing has been Kevin Kruger, the 6-2 sophomore. Kruger is ASU's primary three-point weapon, and has been like a dagger at times this season. He's shooting 49% from three, and he's a great compliment to ASU's running and gunning athletes. He finds his space, waits for the ball and spots up while everyone else is running around.
Serge Angounou, the 6-7, 230-pound sophomore, rounds out the starting five. Angounou came to ASU as a wing but grew into a post player, while still retaining some of his wing skills. He likes to face the basket primarily and shoot from 12-15 feet, and if you leave him open he'll make a majority of them. Angounou is very long, and is a good rebounder, averaging 6.3 per game. Angounou is still getting into the swing of things after missing the entire 2002-2003 season with a knee injury. He's averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds in the past 12 games.
Another JC transfer that has really helped ASU has been 6-2 junior combo guard Tyrone Jackson. Jackson is another good athlete and a good defender. He also has a good outside shot, which he has hesitated to use, actually making 11 of his 16 three attempts so far this season. If he's left open he'll make the shot. As the season progresses, he's getting more playing time and gaining more confidence, especially in his outside shot.
After those seven, ASU uses its bench sparingly. There isn't another reserve that averages over double figures in minutes per game. Allen Morrill, a 6-7 junior, has seen his minutes from last year decrease considerably with the emergence of Angounou. Keith Wooden, the 6-9 sophomore center, doesn't play much but has shown good productivity when he has. It's actually a bit surprising that ASU has a player of Wooden's potential, with a big body and some pretty decent post moves, getting only 8 minutes per game. 6-6 freshman Tim Pierce is averaging about the same, but Pierce still lacks focus, especially on the defensive end.
UCLA's approach to ASU could be to try to keep Diogu relatively under control, keep him to his averages, while limiting the other Sun Devils, mainly because they can. Angounou would be smart to take Dijon Thompson inside, outweighing him by 30 pounds, but if Angounou is content mostly with facing up, Thompson will have an advantage. If UCLA plays the type of perimeter defense it did against Oregon, where it closed out on shooters quickly, they'll have a chance. UCLA also has to better on the ball, preventing Braxton and Moore from penetrating. It's another big challenge for UCLA's freshman point guard, Jordan Farmar, to stay with Braxton defensively.
On offense, UCLA should be able to score enough to win this game. Arizona State has generally played pretty decent defense, especially in defending on the perimeter. But, playing so few players has limited ASU defensively. They employ pressure at times, but can't sustain it. ASU also uses lot of 2-3 zone, to keep Diogu out of foul trouble. Opposing teams have markedly done better against ASU if they got Diogu in foul trouble and limited his minutes. UCLA would be smart to go inside to its post scorers early and often, to hopefully get Diogu to spend some time on the bench.
Arizona State has built that record of 13-2 by winning some close games. They haven't truly dominated any decent teams, but have played steadily and not allowed their opponents to run away from them.
This is such a greatly critical game - and road trip - for UCLA that we just can't make a prediction on the score. As we've stated, in this year of the Pac-10, just about every game is up in the air. You'd be foolish, really, to be betting this year on Pac-10 basketball. Tonight, UCLA could pull off the upset if it sticks with its recent plan for success - limiting turnovers while Thompson and Brian Morrison shoot really well and playing Oregon-game-like defense. Or it could get dominated by Diogu inside and go cold on the perimeter as a result of ASU's quick defenders, and lose by 15.