Obviously, the burning question is whether or not the Bruins will respond to the latest setback of losing Josh Shipp for the remainder of the season. But there are other questions, too. Will the Bruins continue to build on the momentum they gained with a sweep in the desert, or will the differing styles of the schools from the Northwest be too much for the Bruins to handle? Specifically, will the precise, slowdown style of Thursday's opponent, Washington State, cause UCLA to lose its focus? The Cougars present a unique challenge, that the Bruins aren't likely to see outside of Wazzu, this year. How will the Bruins deal with this challenge? And how will they do it with a more depleted line-up?
Washington State comes into Pauley Pavilion Thursday night looking to build on some momentum of its own, currently 9-3 and 2-1 in the Pac-10. This past Saturday, the Cougars went to Seattle and upset the Huskies pretty convincingly. And they did this without their point guard, Derrick Low.
The Cougars present a unique match-up for the Bruins, and so much of it stems from WSU's head coach, Dick Bennett. Bennett was the coach for many years at Wisconsin-Green Bay, which is where I came to know him. He runs a strong defensive program, probably the strongest in the PAC-10. The ability of Bennett-coached teams to run a very effective help-side man defense, one that looks almost like a zone, is well known. They force many bad shots, turnovers and generally Bennett does a great job of taking teams out of their offensive comfort zone. Bennett's ultimate accomplishment was taking his final Wisconsin Badger team to the Final Four. The similarity of all of these teams, Wazzu, Wisconsin and UWGB, is that Bennett is very, very good at making his players better as a team than the sum of their parts. On offense, Bennett runs a very precise motion offense where the players set very good screens and (this is very important because this is where the Bruins are lacking) the players come off the screens very well. They know how to come off a screen shoulder to shoulder. They know when to flair out and when to curl. In short, they are very difficult to guard.
If there is one area where Bennett has always needed to show improvement, it's in game adjustments. In both games with Wazzu last year, Coach Howland was clearly out-prepared and out-planned by Bennett, yet Howland was able to make adjustments that clearly Bennett had no answer for, especially in the game in L.A., and the Bruins won both games.
Losing Shipp's experience is going to hurt here. He has seen Bennett's style twice. He at least had an idea of what to expect. The freshmen who will be asked to step up in Shipp's absence really have no idea of what to expect. They are going to take some time, perhaps the whole game, to get used to playing against this style offense and defense.
This is one of those games where the style of play is definitely more important than the individual match-ups, but the players do have to implement the game plan, so it's still key whom Wazzu will put on the floor.
As stated earlier, PG Derrick Low, probably the Cougars' smartest player, key for a Bennett-coached team, is out. So the Cougars have gone to a point by committee and will us various backcourt combinations. One guard who will see a great deal of time will certainly be sophomore Kyle Weaver (6'5" 185 lb.). Weaver is long and lean, so he will have difficulty with Arron Afflalo's strength, but he is a very smart player and will give Afflalo a tough time. Weaver shoots 50% from the floor, and even though he doesn't take many 3s, he does shoot 54% from behind the arc and averages 9.4 PPG. More importantly, Weaver is the leading rebounder on the team, averaging 4.4 RPG. These numbers don't seem like much, but when you consider that Wazzu slows the game down to such an extent that the Cougars only average 64 PPG and hold their opponents to 55 PPG, Weaver's numbers look much better.
Another player that will get significant time is sophomore Josh Akognon (5'10" 198 lb.). Akognon isn't typically a starter for the Cougars, but he plays starter's minutes, especially recently, with Low out, and without Low, Akognon is now the leading scorer for the Cougars (9.7 PPG). Akognon is an excellent 3-point shooter (42%) and has taken more than 60 on the year. And he is coming off his best game of the season, scoring 27 against Washington in Seattle. You would think that, because of his height, that Akognon would be a jitterbug and difficult to guard. But because of his solid build, he might remind you more of Jordan Farmar than Darren Collison. Akognon isn't quick, but he does know how to use screens to get open for shots.
Senior Randy Green (6'3" 190 lb.) will also see at least 20 minutes of action. Green does many little things well, like being the 4th leading rebounder on the team. He is also adept at using his body to set screens. Although he is often the screener for Akognon and Weaver, Green will shoot the three, although his percentage of makes is low (30%).
Finally, junior college transfer Antonio Chavers (6'1" 190 lb.), will see time. Chavers is getting more minutes now without Low and because he is becoming more familiar with Bennett's offense. Chavers may start, but expect him to play only about 10 minutes unless he goes off or someone gets hurt.
At the forward and post positions, the Cougars will rotate four players. The back-to-the-basket types will be sophomore Chris Henry (6'8" 257 lb.) and junior Ivory Clark (6'5" 212 lb.). Henry doesn't take many shots, but he hits at a 57% clip when he does. He rebounds well considering he plays only about 17 minutes per game. He will start, but with the Bruins big men being much more athletic than he, expect Henry to play only between 10 and 15 minutes. Clark is much more athletic and knows how to use his size. He plays about 2-3 inches taller than he is because of his length. He plays tough defense and rebounds well (2nd best rebounder on the team).
The face-up post players are sophomore Robbie Cowgill (6'10" 207 lb.) and freshman Caleb Forrest (6'8" 202 lb.). Cowgill is possibly the most talented player on the Cougars, and as his body continues to fils out, he will be a load as he can hit the 15 foot jumper and take the ball to the hoop. He is also fairly comfortable with his back to the basket. Cowgill will probably get more time on the floor than any other Cougar post. Forrest is much like Luc Mbah a Moute in that he gets many minutes as a freshman, but that's where the similarities end. Forrest, like many of his teammates, isn't all that athletic, he and doesn't rebound particularly well but will play solid defense. Because of his size and limitedc athletic ability, expect to see Forrest on the floor quite a bit with Cowgill.
A key for the Cougars is that each player really understands their role. You can se that there are many sophomores playing and they have all had a year in Bennett's system. Cowgill and Weaver in particular played many minutes a year ago and are properly seasoned for the type of game that Bennett wants. The posts know that, except for Cowgill, they are to be screeners first and shooters only as a secondary option. The Bruins will have to show more discipline on defense than they did against ASU and, you could argue, than they did in Tucson. This will be a difficult matchup assignment for UCLA, given the personnel, and it seems the most certain one would be Afflalo on Weaver. The Bruin big men will have to do a much better job of setting screens on offense as Bennett-coached teams are excellent at getting the officials to call offensive fouls on the opposition. On defense, the Bruin bigs will have to do a very good job of hedging because the Wazzu screens are generally so good that they are near impossible to get over, and going under a screen invites an uncontested outside shot.
However, the Bruins present Wazzu with significant match-up problems themselves, although not as many as they would have with Shipp in the line-up. The Bruins are much more athletic as a team, especially in the post, than Wazzu. And in Afflalo, the Bruins have a player whose strength can't be handled individually by anyone on the Cougar roster. However, as ASU proved on Saturday, if you can contain Afflalo for even short periods of time, the Bruins will really struggle in their offense. This will put a great deal of pressure on whoever takes Shipp's spot in the line-up. In the post, if Lorenzo Mata, Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya and Mbah a Moute can stay out of foul trouble, one of them should be able to score a fair amount of points and all of them should do well on the boards. In fact the Bruins should be able to dominate the boards, even without Shipp since the Cougars are a fairly weak rebounding team.
The Cougars had some problems on Saturday with Husky PG Justin Dentmon, and Darren Collison is quicker and, frankly, a better player. With the loss of Shipp, Collison should be more of a key to this team in the short term than Mike Roll or others since Collison has the ability to pick up much of Shipp's scoring. But he also has the ability to get the ball to Luc, Mata, etc., in a position for each of them to pick up more points. Mbah a Moute's scoring average has fallen off since Shipp's return and the guess is that it will rise again, at least a bit. Collison will have to play under control, but Wazzu will have difficulty keeping Collison out of the lane. Plus, with all the screens that Wazzu sets, Farmar may be more of a liability on defense than usual, whereas Collison has the quickness to be a force on the defensive end.
Finally, this is a game that should be better suited for Mike Roll to make an impact. Roll is going to have to step up somewhat because he will inevitably be thrust into more minutes because of the loss of Shipp. Whether he starts or not is still up in the air, but it's not a stretch to expect Roll to play at least 10 minutes, and probably closer to 15. Now, against Wazzu, Roll won't be as much of a defensive liability because the Cougars don't have the personnel take advantage of Roll's lack of quickness and he is smart enough to know what to do against the screens. On offense, Wazzu is always susceptible to a good three-point shooter and given space, Roll is, or at least can be, that. But Roll has to shoot with confidence and he really hasn't been doing that for the past few weeks.
As difficult as this game should be, there is some precedent for predicting the outcome. Washington State has had great difficulty against teams that are more athletic than they are and show even a semblance of discipline. That's why Wazzu got beat fairly easily by Arizona, Gonzaga and BYU. Even without Shipp, the Bruins fall into the category of those teams, rather than that of Washington, who played a very undisciplined defensive game against Wazzu this past weekend. Shipp's loss will hurt, but for this game anyway, not as much as some may think. The Bruins won't be forced to run and gun, thus saving their legs a bit. And before Shipp returned the Bruins found a way to score the 11 PPG he had brought to the team. Shipp's loss will definitely be felt more against Washington on Saturday. The injury of Farmar will catch up with the Bruins, but probably not on Thursday.
Even though Washington State has now become part of the NCAA conversation, the reality of the Arizona loss is probably a more accurate reflection of Wazzu rather than the win against Washington. But in making a prediction, there is too much unknown after the loss of Shipp. If nothing else, Howland hasn't let on as to who is starting and how the substitution pattern will work. Finally, no one knows how the players themselves feel right now. Are they mentally exhausted? Will they pack it in? Or are they looking at this as one more challenge that needs each of them to step up? The answers to these questions, even more than the personnel questions, may dictate more than anything the outcome of this game. You may call me a wimp on this, but I just can't predict a score. However, I do think that it is vitally important that the Bruins now take the next several games, as the cliche goes, "one at a time."