I usually start out game previews with a question that the Bruins must answer for each particular game, and this game is no different. The question is: Do the Bruins have what it takes to close the deal on a PAC-10 Conference championship? The answer, which will not come in a night, really starts against the Huskies.
The Bruins are a young team and, like the old cliche, really need to continue to focus on one game at a time. That doesn't mean that we can't look ahead a bit and prognosticate, or at least suggest what the Bruins have to do to have a very successful end to the regular season. Tomorrow's game against Washington represents a very big hurdle for the Bruins, not necessarily because of the opponent, although they will be tough, but because of what the game represents. UCLA is currently 20-4, and 10-2 in the PAC-10. However, the Bruins hold only a one game lead over second place California and the Bears are playing well. Washington, while sitting at 6-5 in the conference, does have some significant, albeit inconsistent, talent, enough to beat the Bruins. It very well could come down to -- if the Bruins want to win the conference then they must beat Washington tomorrow. It's that simple.
UCLA has eight days off after the Washington game before they play USC. After the Trojans, the Bruins return home for a series with Oregon and Oregon State. That means the Bruins close out the regular season against Cal and Stanford. Cal closes out the year at home against the Arizona schools, then travels to the Washington schools and finishes at home against the Bruins and Trojans. Stanford, who is alone in third in the PAC-10 at 8-4, closes with the same conference schedule.
With regard to Cal, if you saw their game last night, you recognized that the Bears are playing about as well as the Bruins right now. Given that, you can assume that Cal will win at home against both Arizona schools and against USC. The two games in the Pacific Northwest will be tough, but in reality I think the only game that they may lose is the game in Seattle. Again, if you saw last night's game, then you also realize that Stanford is playing much better now than when the Bruins hammered them back in December. They also stand a good chance of running the table going into their game with the Bruins in a few weeks, (save the game at Washington which will more than likely also be a loss). Assuming that the Bruins beat both Oregon schools and USC, which seems likely, then the Bruins will enter the last weekend in the Bay Area either up 1 or 2 games on Cal and either 2 or 3 games on Stanford. What will determine where the Bruins are in relation to those two teams is really the upcoming game against Washington. If the Bruins win against the Huskies, then the pressure will really be on Cal and especially Stanford to run the table going into the final weekend. And the pressure will be somewhat off the Bruins. That would be a good thing for the Bruins because, to put it simply, pressure affects a younger team much more than an older, more experienced team. And the Bruins haven't been in this position before, where they are clearly the "hunted" and not the "hunter." At least they haven't been in this position in the better part of a decade. Now, you might be asking yourself why winning the regular season title would be so important since there is the conference tournament. The answer is pretty simple; winning the regular season title means that you are a lock for the NCAA Tournament. And as most "experts" have pointed out in the past several weeks, the PAC-10 may get as many as 5 teams into the "Big Dance," but the only lock right now is UCLA, which leads me to my second point…
The Bruins are now playing for seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Most "bracketologists" have the Bruins as either a 3 seed or a 4 seed in their latest boards (and for the record, the brackets I look at are ESPN's, CBS Sportsline's, which has two, Fox Sports', Bracketology.com and Sports Illustrated.com). If the Bruins can beat Washington then in all probability the worst they are looking at is a 14-4 conference record and even with a first round conference tourney loss, a 4 seed, probably in San Diego. Obviously if the Bruins run the table and then win the conference tourney then they are looking clearly at a 2 seed with an outside shot at a regional top seed. But running the table seems unlikely considering they have to play both Cal and Stanford on the road. That is why the Washington game is so critical. Losing tomorrow could conceivably put the Bruins into third place in the conference by the time the regular season ends, and that will cost them some seed spots in the NCAAs, which means a tougher first round opponent. Well, you can do the math. In short, the game in Seattle is huge. Now, as for the game, let's analyze the Huskies ( I know, I said we wouldn't, but I was taking dramatic license).
Washington has the same personnel available that they had in the four-point win over the Bruins a month ago. Coach Lorenzo Romar has decided to change how he uses that personnel, particular how he uses forward Jamaal Williams, (6'6" 240lbs.). Williams had started every game for the Huskies going into Thursday's game with USC, but was benched in favor of senior Mike Jensen (6'8" 250lbs.). Both had very good games although they are very different types of players. Jensen would rather shoot outside, whereas Williams would rather post up and use a variety of moves to beat you. Both played average games in L.A. a month ago, although a player like Jensen tends to give the Bruins more of a headache than does a player like Williams. In L.A., sophomore guard Ryan Appleby (6'1" 170 lbs.), hit some huge 3s in the second half to help lift the Huskies to a come-from-behind victory. Since that game his shooting has become more erratic, and now the Bruins can throw four or even five players at him so that Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar won't get so tired chasing him through screens as they both did in the first game. Freshman point guard Justin Dentmo (5'11" 185 lbs.) has played the past few games, starting with the Stanford game two weeks ago, like he is hitting the freshman "wall." Farmar and Darren Collison will be charged with keeping Dentmon out of the lane, which is where he does the most damage.
The two keys for the Huskies have really been seniors Bobby Jones (6' 7" 215 lbs.) and Brandon Roy (6'6" 210 lbs.). Jones is the third leading scorer on the team and had a nice game in L.A., and Roy is simply the best player on the team and the one Husky who can truly create his own shot.
The big difference here between this game and the one in L.A. is the return of Cedric Bozeman. In Bozeman and Afflalo, the Bruins may have the best defensive tandem in the conference. That means that Roy in particular is going to have trouble finding easy scoring opportunities. And in Bozeman specifically is going to give the Bruins a depth advantage and an athleticism that was missing a month ago.
The final piece to the Husky puzzle is freshman Jon Brockman (6'7" 245 lbs.). Brockman is a true low-post scoring threat whose power and footwork can really bother Luc Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. Brockman made some huge baskets in the second half of the Husky win in L.A., and he may be more of a match-up concern than either Williams or Jensen.
But like the rest of the team, Luc and Aboya are a month older. This team is definitely buying into the coaching they are receiving from Coach Howland, which is defense first, rebounding a close second and then let the chips fall where they may. A month ago the Bruins had serious depth issues, with Lorenzo Mata having just gotten hurt and Josh Shipp having recently packed it in for the season. Now the Bruins are the one team that can match the Huskies depth (Washington plays 10 players at least 10 MPG). The biggest thing that I noticed about the Bruins last night in Pullman was how they defensively come at you in waves. It's not a "40 Minutes of Hell" type of defense, but one that is continually frustrating because they challenge every shot and rebound well. The game may come down to rebounding, and the Huskies are one of the better rebounding teams in the West, especially on the offensive end, where they fly in from the wings to get loose balls, etc. The Bruins must at least make it a "wash" on the boards.
The Bruins play better in the half court than the Huskies, and they have proven that they are one of the better teams in the country at controlling tempo. The Huskies need to speed up this game, but the Bruins have proven that they will force their will on their opponents much better than the Huskies can. The Bruins play better team defense, especially in the half court (and I agree with Greg Hicks on this one; last night's win over WSU was a thing of beauty), and you get the feeling after watching the Bruins play defense like that over the course of the last month that they will bring the intensity on the defensive end tomorrow. For Washington, this is a must-win game. No, they don't need it to qualify for the NCAAs, but it is a must-win in terms of perception. They know that if they fail to win this game, then the perception of a shift in the power base of the PAC-10 will become more perceived, and perception, in many ways, is reality. Now, I know that may be a bit premature, but when you have other major D-1 coaches who are talking about this game as being significant in showing that the Bruins are "back," then you know that it is a big game. With UCLA's history, it would only take one very good season to get the Bruins to be players again on a national stage. That's the benefit of having won 11 national titles.
I said on Wednesday that I thought that this might be the easier game of the two on this trip. Man, wouldn't that be nice after watching the Bruins against WSU. But I still think that once this game bogs down a bit and Washington has to win on skill and technique rather than emotion, the Bruins are the better team. And after listening to Jordan Farmar's post-game comments with Marques Johnson last night, the only thing I kept thinking was that the Bruins have that "Rocky" mentality; eye of the tiger baby, eye of the tiger.