The two pressing questions for the Bruins are:
Will they be able to regain the focus necessary to beat a quality opponent?
Will the team be able to perform at a high level despite the accumulating injuries?
UCLA comes limping into Saturday's tilt with the Huskies, with UCLA having just lost starting center Lorenzo Mata for at least six weeks with a fractured tibia. The injury comes at a bad time, not only because the Bruins have been suffering a rash of injuries, but also because Mata was becoming a low-post force, certainly on the defensive end, and was really starting to take command of the starting center position. The Bruins will have to look to Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya and possibly Ryan Hollins, who could see some time returning from a groin injury, to pick up the slack for the injured Mata.
Washington brings a completely different type of challenge to the game than UCLA saw Thursday night against Washington State. While WSU generally played employs a controlled, hard-nosed approach, the Huskies play probably the "fastest" style of any PAC-10 team. Their offense can score in bunches but their defense also leaves much to be desired. Thursday night's win over USC is a perfect example; The Huskies raced out to an early 19-point lead and kept a healthy double-digit lead for much of the first 32 minutes, but then were only up by 3 with several minutes left in the game as their offense went cold. Washington relies on many ball screens for their penetrating guard and wing players, and they have the kind of team that can break you down one-on-one. However, on defense, the Huskies do a poor job of defensive rotation adn their help-side defenders are often shaded too far to the weak side to effectively prevent penetration by the opposing team. In short, Washington is a team of good athletes who play without a great deal of discipline.
The Husky offense is initiated by freshman point guard Justin Dentmon (5'11" 185 lb.), who is built like a little thicker Darren Collison, but without Collison's offensive abilities. Dentmon does average 9 PPG, and he gets many of his points from the free-throw line, where he averages 85%. He shoots only 43% from the floor, though, and forces many of his shots. He is also not a very good three-point shooter, averaging only 25% for the year. Dentmon does know his role, that of passer first, and performs it well. His assist to turnover ration is almost 2-1. Finally, he is a surprisingly strong rebounder, averaging over 4 per game. Whoever is assigned Dentmon will have their hands full, and we may see more of Darren Collison because of the quickness Collison provides.
At the other guard spot is Washington's best player, senior Brandon Roy (6'6" 210 lb.), who is averaging 19.4 PPG and 5.6 RPG. He is quick and fearless on the offensive end. You can expect that he will make several acrobatic shots over the course of Saturday's contest. Roy shoots over 50% from both the floor and behind the arc, while also shooting 79% from the charity stripe. Offensively, Roy has few weaknesses, with a strong build much like Arron Afflalo, only taller, and one of the quickest first steps in the country. He's been particularly hot lately, averaging 30 points per game in Pac-10 play. With most of Washington's offense is predicated on ball screens, Roy will get the majority of them. He likes getting screens that let him get down the center of the lane, and he is much less effective coming in from the baseline. While he may score quite a bit, he'll give up his fair share of points, too, and tends to take too many chances against his defensive assignment. This bodes well for any player that shows patience and discipline, like Chris Rodgers did in the 2nd half of Arizona's comeback win over the Huskies two weeks ago. The guess is that Afflalo will be assigned to stop him, or at least slow him down.
The starting small forward is senior Bobby Jones (6'7" 215 lb.), who has been hot and cold this season, but when he gets hot, look out. He probably becomes more of a scorer than even Roy. He averages 11.4 PPG, and that's modes because of the foul trouble he often finds himself in. He also can entirely disappear for long stretches of games. Defensively, he is quick enough to stay with Luc Mbah a Moute, but he has trouble with stronger players, such as Alfred Aboya. Conversely, Mbah a Moute will have his hands full with Jones on defense. Getting Jones in foul trouble is a key to beating the Huskies and to freeing up Mbah a Moute.
One of the starting post players is senior Jamaal Williams (6-5, 220 lb.). Williams has really improved since his freshman year, and now looks to lead by example on the court. He is the 2nd leading scorer on the team at 14.9 PPG and has become a strong low post force, using his quickness and craftiness to make up for his lack of height around the basket. Williams is a bit of a black hole, too; when he gets the ball in the post, it's probably going to result in a shot, even a bad one. Defensively, Williams is a fairly solid player who has played with more discipline than his more ballyhooed teammates. The belief is that the Bruins will have to play more of a "big" line-up simply because Mike Roll will have his lack of quickness exposed by the athletes that Washington can throw at him. That could mean that Alfred Aboya would be matched up against Williams, and Aboya is a better athlete with longer arms and better balance, but Williams is a much more experienced player, which should make for an interesting match-up.
At the other post position, the Huskies will start freshman Jon Brockman, (6'7" 245 lb.) who, as many of you remember, was a major recruiting target for Coach Howland. The reasons that any coach would want Brockman are evident: a true back-to-the-basket player with a toughness rarely seen in a freshman. He has decent post moves, plays very good post defense and is a ferocious rebounder, leading the Huskies at 7.4 RPG. Wright, Aboya and Hollins will have their hands full on the boards with Brockman, and if they don't receive help on the block, he could get the Bruin "bigs" in early foul trouble.
Off the bench, Washington has five players that average more than 12 minutes per game. Of these, the two key players are sophomore guard Ryan Appleby (6'1" 170 lb.), and senior post Mike Jensen (6'8" 250 lb). Appleby is a pure shooter, can be deadly from behind the arc and can single-handedly carry his team for large chunks of a game, as shown by his first-half performance against Arizona. But Appleby has been turnover prone when asked to handle the point, tends to make bad decisions and if he isn't getting good screens he becomes a much poorer shooter. Again, that was shown in the 2nd half of the Arizona game after Lute Olson made some halftime adjustments to keep Appleby from shooting. Appleby is also a defensive liability, being too slow to stay with many guards, and not strong enough to stay with others. Jensen is essentially a 6th starter, and he is now beginning to get starter's minutes and getting his legs back after sitting out the first dozen games or so with an injury. He is a big body that will crash the boards, but he likes to shoot from beyond the arc. He's decently athletic, and he gives the Huskies another solid player with senior leadership. Jensen is prone to stupid fouls, though, and it's pretty common to see him with 4 fouls with about 5 minutes to go in the game.
UCLA has established a pattern since Pac-10 play has started – playing focused for the Thursday game and flat on Saturday. When the Bruins are focused, they are by far the more disciplined team and Washington has trouble with discipline. But this is a Saturday game. If the Bruins are going to have a chance in this game, they have to play like its Thursday and play smartly -- control tempo, take advantage of Husky defensive mental lapses and weather the inevitable Husky runs. That's asking a lot for a very depleted line-up. Farmar is still on a bad ankle. Afflalo looked a bit tired on Thursday and now Mata is out. This looms as a game where all the stars are finally aligning against the Bruins. They are tired, young and quite frankly have been a bit lucky in terms of shots and bounces in the last couple of weeks. I think that run ends on Saturday.