UCLA has all but wrapped up a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, has the #1 seed in the conference tournament and has at least tied for the regular season Pac 10 Conference crown. All that stands in the way of the Bruins winning the conference outright is a victory over Wazzu on Thursday evening. Let's keep this short and to the point: The Bruins should be pumped for the game. We've heard since January how much of a surprise Washington State is, how they are a difficult team to play against because of their style. It's put-up or shut-up time, and not just for the Bruins, but for the Cougars as well.
Is there any question who should be the coach of the year? No, not in the conference, but nationally! The job that Tony Bennett has done in Pullman rivals what any coach has done over the past decade. It's one thing for a Ben Howland (proven coach) to come into a situation with tradition and talent, or at least the possibility of recruiting talent. It's quite another for a young, relatively inexperienced coach to come in and win convincingly night in and night out with a team of recruits that very few other major programs wanted.
The game on Thursday has become huge for Wazzu and its fans. The game has been sold out for a few weeks and it is probably the marquee game of the evening nationally.
The Cougars bring a style of play that UCLA has found difficult to deal with this season; a slow-down offense with a very efficient and physical defense. That being said, the Bruins are starting to play with an offensive efficiency that, as Tracy Pierson wrote in his Stanford review, is starting to wear down teams. So the game will be the clichéd irresistible force against the immovable object.
Washington State cannot be evaluated by breaking down the starters and the bench players. Bennett plays a rotation that goes eight deep and he has shuffled the starting line-up as he sees fit. The best way to view the team is to look at the backcourt and the frontcourt players.
The two constants for Wazzu this year have been junior backcourt players Derrick Low (6'1" 186 lbs.) and Kyle Weaver (6'5" 185 lbs.), which Howland called one of the best backcourts in the country. Low has gotten most of the plaudits, and justifiably so. He is the team's leading scorer at 13.3 PPG and he leads the Cougars with 62 made three-pointers. He is deceptively quick and very smart, and has been a difficult defensive assignment for whomever has to guard him. He is very good about getting into the lane but he also has a very good and quick outside shot. Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook will have to bring their ‘A' games in order to slow down Low.
Any discussion of the Pac-10 player of the year should at least include a mention of Weaver. He is 2nd on the team in scoring (11.1 PPG) and leads the team in assists (4.8 APG) and rebounding (5.4 RPG). He really has become the player that Wazzu can't do without. On top of all that there is an argument that can be made that he is the equal of Arron Afflalo on the defensive end. Weaver really would be an asset on the Bruins and he is probably the only Cougars (maybe Low, too) that would get serious minutes if he were a Bruin. Because of his defensive capabilities, it would be good if the Bruins were able to establish a low post presence early on as Weaver is going to hound Afflalo. Conversely, Afflalo must force Weaver to make mistakes in the offense because the offense for the Cougars generally runs through him even though he isn't the point guard.
There are two other guards that have been playing up to 20 MPG for Bennett, sophomores Taylor Rochestie (6'1" 175 lbs.), a Tulane transfer, and former starter. Mac Hopson (6'2" 175 lbs.). Rochestie has been nicked up this season, but since he has returned to relative health he has seen his minutes rise considerably. Bennett has a lot of confidence in him to properly run the Cougar offense. Rochestie can pass well and is a very good outside shooter (46% on threes). His problem is a lack of quickness. If there was someone to compare Rochestie to it would be Stanford guard Mitch Johnson, except Rochestie has a shot. Still, the Bruins should really attack Rochestie when he is in the game. He is fairly slight and could wear down easily. He is also the least effective of the backcourt defenders for Wazzu.
Hopson was in Bennett's doghouse earlier in the year because he was taking too many chances on both ends of the floor. Hopson seems to recently have somewhat bought into the concept of efficiency, both offensively and defensively. Hopson actually averages 54% from behind the arc, but it's his quickness that makes him dangerous. He can get into the lane easily, much like Low (who he would remind me of if he played smarter), and he is a decent passer in the lane. In fact, if Bennett could combine Rochestie's court acumen with Hopson's athleticism he would have one of the best guards in the country. If the two of them are on their game they could potentially provide more to the Cougars' cause than Westbrook and Mike Roll could for the Bruins.
Up front Bennett has four players for three spots (although he could move Weaver to the ‘3' if necessary). The scorer of the bunch is sophomore Daven Harmeling (6'7" 215 lbs.). Harmeling is the one frontcourt player that can quickly light up an opposition's defense for 20+ points. He does this because he is a hot and cold three-point shooter, but when he's hot, he's lights out. His three-point shooting percentage is 44%, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He's been "0-fer" in several games but then he has games where he goes off by hitting 6 of 7 threes. He really is strictly an outside player, though, having been to the foul line only 47 times this season. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute may be matched on him because his length and quickness will really give Harmeling fits. If the earlier game is any indication, Harmeling will struggle to get off shots. But the Bruins can't let him hit one or two shots early or winning will be difficult.
The power forward spot will be manned by senior Ivory Clark (6'5 ½ " 212 lbs.). If Low isn't the leader of this team then Clark is. He is very workman-like, but he excels at it. Need a rebound? He'll get it. Defend the post? He'll do it. You get the idea. He is strictly a low-post threat, so Harmeling may have Josh Shipp on him with Luc on Clark. Either way, Shipp should be okay in that neither player is a double-threat. However, guarding Clark may be easier because Shipp won't have to fight through so many screens. There is also the added advantage that Harmeling can shoot you out of a game and you'd want Mbah a Moute's quickness on him. Even if Clark plays very well he can't single-handedly carry the Cougars like Harmeling can. Just ask Gonzaga.
The starting center will be junior Robbie Cowgill (6'10" 211 lbs.), who has been a bit of a disappointment this season. With the skill set he has you would have thought he'd be more of a force for the Cougars on offense. But he's only averaging 7.6 PPG and 5.2 RPG. Perhaps he's just an unselfish player who puts the needs of the team above his own stat line. You can't really argue with the results. Still, if he provided a true inside threat, imagine how much better the Cougars would be. Cowgill, despite his slight build, is strictly a low-post player, although he is a very good passer, both down low and out on the perimeter. This will be a good test for Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya as they get ready to guard mobile big men in the NCAA Tournament.
The last frontcourt player is sophomore Aron Baynes (6'10" 270 lbs.), a traditional low-post player who gives the Cougars solid minutes off the bench. The problem for Baynes is that he's not very quick, and the Bruins can really take advantage of that when he is in the game. He will force Cowgill to slide to the ‘4' when Clark or Harmeling sit.
This is a game of styles. Wazzu is going to try and get the Bruins to play into their hands by slowing down the ball and forcing the Bruins to work for each 35-second possession on both ends of the floor. UCLA has to be patient on offense and not revert back to poor decisions on drives, etc., on offense. Earlier in the year I thought that Wazzu was actually not a bad match-up for UCLA because of the style of play that UCLA can employ and which, over the past two weeks, they are employing. In order to beat a team defense like the kind that Wazzu runs, a team's half-court offense must be efficient. Quick passes couple with good movement off the ball. The cutters must be running their defenders into solid screens leaving no space to fight through. Back screens and re-screens are especially important in games like this. If UCLA decides to constantly pound their corresponding defenders into screens, Wazzu will start to break down defensively. That's basically what happened in last year's contest in Pullman. Which brings me to the defense: UCLA is the only team capable of playing Wazzu's defensive game better than the Cougars. Remember, UCLA's players are generally stronger than the Cougars are, and quicker, too.
So with all the advantages that UCLA should have, why the worry? Because UCLA has to bring focus and intensity to this game or it will be a struggle. There are people who disagree with this but UCLA is capable of winning this game easily, but it's about effort and focus. Oregon, Arizona and USC all have demonstrably better athletes than the Cougars yet Arizona and USC all lost (the Wildcats twice), and Oregon barely beat Wazzu (albeit also twice).
The Bruin offense is humming against man defenses and the Bruins shouldn't expect to see any zone. Bennett believes in a zone about as much as Howland does. The game should be very tight in the beginning, with the crowd into it and the Cougars pumped up. UCLA, however, is used to this, and as Tracy Pierson has stated, the Bruins just wear you down. The Bruins get up for big games unlike many other teams in the nation. I don't think the Cougars truly understand what a big game is yet. This will teach them. Expect the Bruins to put on a few mini-runs and take the conference outright.
Washington State 54