Upon closer inspection, however, fans of the Bruins should realize that something is missing. That "something" is the suffocating defense that UCLA became known for down the stretch last season. As has been pointed out by both Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks, the 2006-2007 version of the Bruins men's basketball team is offensively more accomplished than last year's squad. Conversely, this year's Bruins are not (yet) the defensive juggernaut that last year's team was in late February and March.
Now comes crunch time for the Bruins. UCLA travels to Arizona this weekend to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils (Thursday night) and the Arizona Wildcats (Saturday morning). While Saturday's game against the Cats is the marquee match-up of the weekend, the Bruins must take care of business on Thursday in Tempe. It is imperative that the Bruins use Thursday night's contest as a springboard for the defense that they will have to play for the remainder of the season if UCLA is to reach the Final Four.
As I said earlier in the season when ASU visited Pauley Pavilion, the Sun Devils have a good coach and, quite frankly, not much else. The Sun Devils really don't have much high-major D-1 talent, and it shows in their record; Arizona State is winless in the PAC-10 going into the game with the Bruins and there is the very real chance, with ASU's loss to Oregon State last weekend, that the Sun Devils will finish finish conference play winless.
ASU does have some things going for it, though, on Thursday, not the least of which is the fact that UCLA will more than likely be looking ahead to Saturday's showdown with Arizona. ASU also has a style of play going for it which bothers UCLA. Last Saturday, the Bruins' defense looked very shaky in the loss to West Virginia. A lot of that had to do with West Virginia's spread offense, an offensive style that has given the Bruins trouble this season. The Sun Devils don't spread their offense like the Mountaineers do, but they do work the shot clock and they do stretch a defense a bit. ASU gave the Bruins fits in the first half of the game at Pauley earlier this season. Finally, ASU is generally playing better as of late, the OSU loss notwithstanding.
Coach Herb Sendek, he of the Princeton-style spread motion offense, has changed the starting line-up since the teams first met in January. The point guard is still the same, freshman Derek Glasser (6'1" 180 lbs.). Glasser is not particularly quick, and it was questionable if Glasser would be able to successfully play beyond the mid-major D-1 level. Glasser is playing, but up to this point, ASU has been one of the worst major college teams this season. Glasser averages 5.8 PPG and 3.3 APG (while only averaging 1.7 TPG), and his shooting is horrid. He's averaging 32% from the floor and 30% from behind the arc. Even if Darren Collison does play, expect him to be used sparingly. This is Coach Howland's one last shot to use Russell Westbrook in a starter's capacity and get him ready for the Big Dance. Westbrook should be able to muscle Glasser and he is much quicker than the Sun Devil point guard, too.
The off-guard spot is manned by ASU's leading scorer, freshman Christian Polk (6'3" 175 lbs.). Polk, who's averaging 12.8 PPG, played well in the loss to UCLA earlier in the year. He's a good spot-up shooter who knows how to use screens to get open. He has become one of the only two offensive threats that ASU possesses. He is the chief 3-point shooter on the club, having taken 168 3s, almost double his next nearest teammate. He's hitting only 32% of those shots, but he has gotten a bit better as the season has gone on. Arron Afflalo should be assigned to Polk as Afflalo is the most accomplished Bruin at fighting through screens and Polk will be using quite a few of them. Don't look for Polk to penetrate, though, but rather to catch and release. Afflalo will have to stay close to Polk because of that quick release.
The post position is manned by the one true PAC-10 level player the Sun Devils have: sophomore post Jeff Pendergraph (6'9" 210 lbs.). Pendergraph's scoring average has dropped since the first meeting with the Bruins (he now only averages 12.3 PPG), but he's the only ASU player to average over 50% from the floor. In fact, he's really the only one that's close, and he has been solid with his shot selection. He is almost strictly a back-to-the-basket type of player (0-5 on threes this year), but will take a jumper out to about 12 feet. He is the leading rebounder on the team at 9.3 RPG. Pendergraph is tough and smart. About the only real weakness he has is a lack of strength. A healthy Lorenzo Mata would be a tough match-up for Pendergraph if the Bruins make a concerted effort to pound the ball to the low post. Alfred Aboya, who has been playing well as of late, will have more of a problem with Pendergraph at both ends of the floor.
At the other forward position, senior Allen Morill (6'6" 232 lbs.) is now starting. Morill has come off the bench for much of his career, including the first game this season with the Bruins. It appears that Sendek likes his leadership and work ethic, which is exactly what Morill brings to the floor. Morill only averages a little over 4 PPG and just under 3 RPG, but a lot of that can be attributed to his starting the season as a bench player. Morill isn't a good shooter, averaging 42% from the floor and 26% from beyond the arc, but he brings intangibles. Morill, though, faces a match-up problem in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and no amount of intangibles is going to really help Morill here. In fact, expect to see senior forward Serge Angounou (6'7" 230 lbs.) for more minutes than Morill on Thursday. Angounou is a better – albeit more mercurial -- player than Morill, and has had some very good games against the Bruins over the past two seasons He's a better shooter and is quicker than Morill, which means he can probably force Luc to work harder on defense. Angounou is averaging 6.7 PPG and is second on the team in rebounds, averaging more than 6 RPG. He is also a legitimate three-point threat.
The final starter should be freshman guard Jerren Shipp (6'3" 200 lbs.), Josh Shipp's younger brother. Shipp is starting because he doesn't have much else, and Shipp has, well, intangibles. Shipp is getting extended minutes and is doing much of what Josh was known for his freshman year -- grit, court acumen and sneakiness. It's funny that Jerren will most likely be facing his brother directly when the Sun Devils are on offense. Jerren will take the ball to the hoop and shoot the three, but you have to figure that Josh won't let little brother beat him in an important game like the one Thursday. However, if Sendek elects to go more with junior guard Antwi Atuahene (6'3" 205 lbs.), then the Bruins will have to adjust defensively with Afflalo moving onto Atuahene and Shipp guarding Polk. Atuahene is stronger than the freshmen, can shoot and likes to get to the basket. All in all he's a tougher match-up when he's on his game than either Polk or Jerren Shipp. Atuahene has been in Sendek's doghouse a bit as of late, though, but you can bet that if ASU is close at the end he will have his best possible line-up on the floor, and that will probably include Atuahene.
This game is an important one for the Bruins and it makes me nervous that Howland states that this game makes him nervous. I am hoping that he is nervous because he knows how important this game is to the Bruins' future plans rater than a feeling that this ASU team can sneak up and bite the Bruins. The game on Saturday against Arizona, while very important, means little if the Bruins don't take care of business on Thursday in Tempe.
Arizona State is going to come out with a mix of man and zone and if Collison doesn't start/play, it will take the Bruins a bit of time to get going offensively, much like they were stagnant against West Virginia for a long stretch. On the other hand, West Virginia is much better than ASU and Tempe is nowhere near the home-court advantage that Morgantown is. Plus, the Bruins don't have to cross the country for a morning game.
The Sun Devils are going to try and spread out the Bruins in order to get good looks, much like they did in the game at Pauley. They will also look to get the ball to back-door cutters, much like West Virginia did, so it is imperative that the Bruins watch out for the things that hurt them last Saturday. Arizona State isn't the kind of team that can really take advantage of the weaknesses in the Bruin defense, but they can make the game interesting.
Expect Howland to start with Collison on the floor and only play him as much as necessary (although, with Howland, that may be more than I would like). This should be a game where Howland can play the bench more, getting the team ready for Saturday. I think it highly unlikely that UCLA will shoot the ball as poorly as they did against West Virginia, but if they do, the rest of the season may turn out to be tougher than it first appeared. All in all, though, the Bruins should win fairly comfortably setting up a showdown on Saturday in Tucson.
Arizona State 58