ASU Preview

UCLA starts the second half of Pac-10 play Thursday, taking on ASU at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA eked out a one-point win in Tempe a month ago, but both UCLA and ASU have changed since then...

13th-ranked UCLA (17-4, 7-2) takes on Pac-10 cellar-dweller Arizona State (7-11, 1-8) to start off the second half of the conference season.

In their first match up, the Bruins beat the Sun Devils 61-60 on a last second drive by a gimpy Jordan Farmar.

Bruin fans might also remember that contest as "The Game Where Arron Afflalo Lost His Shot." Arron was 1-9 from 3 in that game, 4-14 overall. Indeed, Arron, Jordan and Darren Collison were a combined 8-27 from the field. The Bruins shot just 36% as a team.

At the opposite end of the floor, ASU hit 47.2% of its shots, as Sun Devil big men Serge Angounou and Jeff Pendergraph repeatedly shredded the Bruins. That was a game where UCLA's vaunted defense failed to put in an appearance. UCLA's guards did an awful job of rotating off high ball screens and the communication between bigs and smalls was mediocre at best.

Yet, the Bruins won. How did they do it? Well, there was that last shot by Jordan, but Ben Howland would probably look at the final stat sheet and point out that the Bruins out-rebounded the Sun Devils 38-29, and they also shot 29 free throws (making 24 of them) compared to ASU's 13. When Coach Howland makes references to the stats after a game, he most frequently cites rebounding totals, free-throw attempt comparisons and 3-point FG percentage in his analysis. It's easy to tell what Howland emphasizes with his teams besides defense.

There are two big personnel changes from the last time these two teams played. Cedric Bozeman is back in place at SF in place of Josh Shipp. And Ryan Hollins is taking the minutes which used to go to Lorenzo Mata. Both changes should play a key part in why this game will likely have a very different outcome than the last one. However, the home court "advantage" enjoyed by 90% of the teams in college basketball hasn't enriched the Bruins' cause so far this season. They are 4-0 on the road in Pac-10 play, but just 3-2 at home. With 5 road games coming up on the back end of the conference season, it becomes paramount for UCLA to win the remainder of its games at Pauley if they want to take home the Pac-10 regular season championship for the first time since 1997.

Defending the Sun Devils, your first goal is putting a cap on Kevin Kruger, 6-2 JR SG. Kruger leads ASU in scoring (14.4 ppg) and assists (4.1 apg) and he's a deadly 3-point shooter. He only got 7 shots in the first match-up between the two teams, but all of them came from behind the arc and he made 3 of them. Arron Afflalo will no doubt draw the assignment of tracking Kruger through the innumerable high screens that ASU's post players will set throughout the game.

The presence of Ced Bozeman and the obvious improvement in Jordan Farmar's health should enable the Bruin guards to do a much better job this time around in picking up the ASU big men when they roll to the bucket after setting a screen if the Bruin big men have stepped out on Kruger. Mike Roll has also shown himself to be very solid on defense, using his size to great advantage, and Darren Collison should also be able to contribute with his quickness, although his lack of size hurt him in the previous game against ASU, which has strong guards to go along with its mobile big men. Kruger weighs 185. "Point guards" Antwi Atahuene (7.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Tyrone Jackson (4.6 ppg, 3.0 apg) are 6-4, 210 and 6-2, 195, respectively. Atahuene, especially, is a dangerous threat to penetrate and dish after breaking down a defense, and one or a combo of the Bruin guards will have to keep in front of him and stick with him off picks rather than leaving the big man to slide over fast enough to keep the athletic Atahuene out of the lane. He was a bad match up for both Collison and the hobbled Farmar the last time out.

6-7 JR wing Bryson Krueger (12.0 ppg) is the number 2 scorer on ASU. An athletic player who is a scorer rather than a shooter, he didn't hurt the Bruins much the last game, as Josh Shipp was able to body up well with the slender Krueger (190 pounds at best). Bozeman himself outweighs Krueger by at least 17 pounds, but is notably quicker and more experienced than Shipp, with longer arms. This should enable Bozeman not only to defend Krueger, but also to help out in picking up Kevin Kruger on the high picks or keeping the ball out of the hands of the big men when the ASU guards shovel the ball back to them after the pick.

Ryan Hollins' presence should also enable the Bruins to be more effective this time around on defense. Now, if you asked me to choose between Hollins or a healthy Lorenzo Mata as UCLA's main starter, I'd take Mata. But in this game, with ASU's personnel, I think Hollins has the tools to be a more effective player than Mata was in the first game between these squads. ASU mainly utilizes 6-10 210 FR Jeff Pendergraph (8.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and 6-8 230 JR Serge Angounou (8.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) up front. Neither player has impressive stats and, besides blaming that on a lack of a true point guard on their team, the reasons are obvious: Pendergraph lacks strength and experience, and is most comfortable facing the basket and shooting the jump shot off the "Pick and Pop"; he needs to add muscle and develop a low-post game to become a consistent top scorer. Angounou, on the other hand, lacks both a consistent jumper and good foot work inside. He makes up for it by having a strong handle to go along with superior athleticism and good size for a power forward. Angounou played like a man possessed against UCLA in Tempe, scoring 23 points (he may, in fact, have sold his soul or at least rented it that weekend, for he also scored 19 points against the Trojans).

In Tempe, Angounou was often given a wide open lane to drive to the basket and jam it after getting the ball back from a guard off a high screen. Pendergraph was able to pop 5 wide open Js via the same method: He set a screen, made himself available for the return pass, and with nary a Bruin in sight, just took the shot (he actually had 7 wide open Js; he just missed 2 of them). The Bruins need to do a much better job this time around in playing against each player's strengths. When Pendergraph sets a high pick, the Bruins need to put a man on him to deny him the return pass. When Angounou sets the high pick, the Bruins need to keep a body between him and the hoop, laying off of him enough to deny Angounou the ability to use his handle and quickness to blow by a defender who gets too close to him.

Hollins is longer than Mata, and quicker, and faster, and might do a better job of keeping a hand in Pendergraph's face when he doesn't switch out on the guard, or getting back in position in the lane fast enough to dare Angounou to take the jumper after first harassing the guard coming off the screen. Hollins' energy in the last 4 games has been vastly superior to anything previously seen from his direction. When we realize that the extent of top true centers in the Pac-10 stops at Matt Haryasz and Devon Hardin, it's easy to see that Hollins can be one of the most impactful players in the league down the stretch drive. I'm not talking about his play as an individual; I mean his impact as a component in the overall, excellent team defense and at times excellent team offense which UCLA has been producing of late. Hollins has averaged 9.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 1.8 bpg in the last 4 games and taken at least 6 charges as well. If he can even approach those numbers for the rest of the season, it is hard to see UCLA losing more than a couple additional games in conference play, notwithstanding a brutal road schedule which includes games at Washington, Cal, Stanford and USC (yes, those pesky Trojans might win 20 games this year).

On offense, UCLA has often struggled with its outside shooting and/or turnovers. This is the kind of game where the Bruins could continue that trend and still win by 12-15 points off their defense. There's a reason why ASU is only 1-8 in a Pac-10 conference, which simply isn't as strong as it has been in the recent past. They don't shoot the ball very well, they make as many turnovers as assists and they are only average at best in rebounding. With Luc Richard Mbah A Moute leading the way, the Bruins should once again dominate the glass against this team. Luc's offense seems to have picked up of late, and with Hollins presenting enough of a threat inside, the Bruins should do a much better job of breaking down ASU in the paint than they did in Tempe. Jordan's improved ankle and the resultant improved penetration skills he's shown of late should do more of the same.

In short, the Bruins shouldn't just settle for 3s, as they do so often. Right now, no one besides Jordan is hitting their long Js with any consistency. If the Bruins go inside and take the ball hard to the hoop, they will draw fouls and again build a huge advantage at the foul line. Perhaps it's time for Howland to start inverting the Bruin offense at the start of games, focusing more on assaulting the paint and then drifting back outside only after the post game is established. This thought isn't original with me; it seems to be exactly what Howland had planned for the Oregon and Oregon State games. Expect more of the same in this game. As the Bruins gain confidence in Mbah A Moute, Hollins, Aboya and perhaps Wright inside, it's possible that Afflalo, Roll and Collison will find more of a comfort zone and start hitting their 3s as they see more daylight between themselves and their defenders.

One thing is for certain, though: Howland understands that the 3-point shot is the most important offensive play in college basketball, and the Bruins will continue to fire up a good number of shots from that range, whether they hit them or not. But if the Bruins establish themselves in the paint first, they will find that ASU has little post presence inside apart from the foul-prone Pendergraph. And if they succeed in buckling the ASU defense, it only seems to be a matter of time and confidence before Afflalo and Roll start adding their 3s to the mix again.

This game features the best in the Pac-10 against the worst. The Bruins barely beat the Sun Devils in Tempe, but they've gone uphill since then while ASU has moved in the opposite direction. It's time for the Bruins to take a real home-court advantage for the first time this season (well, for the second time; the USC win was quite impressive).

UCLA 66, ASU 48.

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