Saturday's opponents, the Washington Huskies, come into the contest with a record of 17-12 overall and 7-10 in the Pac-10 Conference. UCLA's post-season is set, in terms of knowing that they will be "dancing." The Huskies are in a situation where they have to win the Pac-10 Tournament in order to get an NCAA bid. To that end, the Huskies should be fired up to win against the Bruins and clinch a #7 seed in the upcoming conference tourney. That will help the Huskies avoid UCLA in the quarterfinal round (assuming that UW gets that far). UCLA will be trying to put a final stamp on all of the plaudits I mentioned above, the most important of which is gaining the #1 overall seed in the NCAAs. Both teams have something to play for so expect a good game.
Let's get to it:
The Huskies have settled on a starting five and a rotation of what amounts to eight and it is slightly different than what the Bruins faced back on the last day of December, 2006. After being removed from the starting line-up because of ineffective play, sophomore point guard Justin Dentmon (5'11" 185 lbs.) is back in the starting 5. Dentmon has not been nearly effective this year as last because of two big reasons. The first: the offense that Washington is running this year is post-oriented, which requires different kinds of passing skills and decision-making than does a wing-oriented offense (see Mike Roll). Dentmon has struggled at times with his passing angles into the post and with his decision-making in terms of when to drive and when to look for the big men. The second: Dentmon no longer has Brandon Roy, et al, to pass to. Roy and Bobby Jones could make up for a lot of mistakes last season. Dentmon is averaging 10.3 PPG, one of five Huskies averaging double-figures, but his shooting percentage is barely above 41%. His three-point shooting is at 30%, which is mediocre at best. He leads the Huskies with 3.7 APG, but he also averages 3.1 TPG. Those are not numbers you want out of your point guard. Darren Collison should be able to match-up well against Dentmon and, when necessary, Russell Westbrook should be able to do the same. The key to guarding Dentmon is to keep him out of the lane. If you keep his dribble penetration to a minimum he normally will have a poor game since settling for the perimeter game is not his forte.
At the ‘2' guard, Coach Lorenzo Romar has finally decided to stick with senior Ryan Appleby (6'3" 170 lbs.). Appleby was the first player off the bench for the Huskies earlier in the year, which was nice for UW because he brought instant offense. But in reality the reason that Appleby wasn't starting was because he was a defensive liability. Romar realized after starting the conference season 1-6 that his team was a mediocre defensive club and that the Huskies were going to have to outscore opponents, thus Appleby's return to the starting line-up. To be fair, Appleby has the capability of being one of the best three-point shooters in the country…when he's on. When he's not, he can shoot his own team right out of the game. His shot selection has always been questionable and nothing has really changed, and he's probably one of the worst overall decision-makers in the conference In short, Appleby will let fly from virtually anywhere on the offensive side of the court and at any time, and make poor decision after poor decision, which creates man problems for the Huskies on the offensive end. As many college coaches say, "He's just good enough to kill you." Arron Afflalo should start on him and if the Bruin junior plays defense on Appleby like he did on Thursday against a smarter player in Wazzu's Derrick Low, then Appleby will be a non-factor. Mike Roll and Westbrook are also smart enough (Roll) and athletic enough (Westbrook) to neutralize Appleby. Appleby is hitting over 43% from behind the arc and he has hit more threes than all but one other Husky has attempted.
At small forward Romar has stuck with talented freshman Quincy Pondexter (6'6" 200 lbs.). Pondexter is averaging 10.9 PPG and 39% from behind the arc. He is a solid 75% from the free throw line and uses his body to get their quite a bit. He is very athletic and should present a real challenge to Josh Shipp. Shipp, however, has played four solid to very good games in a row now and the assumption is that he'll be up for this challenge, too. If he struggles with Pondexter's ability to penetrate look for Coach Howland to move Afflalo onto Pondexter and move Shipp over to Appleby. Pondexter also averages a solid 4 RPG from his wing position.
The two post players for Washington are really the players that cause opponents the most problems. At the power forward spot Romar starts sophomore Jon Brockman (6'7" 260 lbs.), who has arguably been Washington's MVP this season and has certainly been their most consistent. Brockman averages 13.9 PPG and a team-leading 9.5 RPG. He does average 2.5 TPG but that is more because Brockman is the focal point of the offense on about 40% of the Husky possessions in the half court (at least the ones that Appleby lets get that far). He brings his best effort to every game and generally doesn't make many mental errors. The battles between him and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have been captivating to watch, with Brockman's size trying to outdo Luc's quickness and length. Both generally have solid games against each other. Alfred Aboya will also certainly see time on the Husky post. Brockman's one weakness, outside of a lack of quickness, is his free throw shooting. On a team that shoots well from the line, Brockman is clearly the worst free throw shooter among the players in the rotation.
The other post player is freshman Spencer Hawes (7' 250 lbs.), who is one of the two best true low-post players in the conference, along with Stanford's Brook Lopez. He is UW's leading scorer at 15.3 PPG and averages 6 RPG. He is a very offensively gifted player with polished moves to both sides and a nice jump shot that he can consistently take out to 12 feet. He can even hit the occasional three-point shot. He is a deft passer that can usually find the open man when necessary. He is very unselfish, too, with a good basketball I.Q. and understanding. Lorenzo Mata and Aboya gave Hawes some problems the first time these teams met. What really gave Hawes problems, though, were the Bruin double teams that came at him early and often. Expect the Bruins to employ the same game plan. While Hawes is very good offensively, he's not as good a rebounder or defender as he should be.
Off the bench Romar employs one guard, one wing and one power player. The guard is freshman Adrian Oliver (6'3" 185 lbs.), a starter at the beginning of the year. Oliver doesn't score much but he is capable. He will get about 18-20 MPG as he spells Dentmon and Appleby. Romar only really needs one guard off the bench because Appleby can play the point.
The wing is another freshman, Phil Nelson (6'7" 205 lbs.). Nelson has taken the role that Appleby had earlier in the season, that of instant offense off the bench. Almost 2/3 of Nelson's shot have come from behind the arc. He always brings a solid effort and works hard on both ends of the floor (which makes me wonder why he doesn't get more floor time). He is easier to guard than Pondexter because he is more of a shooter than a slasher, but he is a solid player off the bench.
The power player is sophomore Artem Wallace (6'8" 240 lbs.), who gets the least minutes of the bench players and really had seemed like a bit of a bust after his first season, but Romar really has no other post option. In many cases, and this will happen on Saturday from time to time, Romar will use Pondexter and Nelson up front with either Brockman or Hawes. Senior Hans Gasser (6'9" 230 lbs.) will get a few minutes off the bench but he hasn't been a real factor in a game for more than a month as his playing time has been given more and more to Wallace.
This game should be similar to the first match-up between the two in that both teams will be – or should be -- fired up. The Bruins should want to send a message to the Huskies, seeing as they may meet them again on Thursday. A demoralizing home defeat may be more than the Huskies can handle should they meet the Bruins again in 5 days. Conversely, the Huskies want to prevent that, both a defeat and having to face the Bruins again early in the Pac-10 Tourney. Washington has got to realize that they stand a better chance of knocking off #2 seeded Wazzu on a neutral court than they do of beating UCLA in what would essentially be a Bruin home game.
Expect the Huskies to employ both man and zone defense, but it may not really matter. Washington doesn't play effective enough defense to truly bother the Bruins when UCLA is executing with precision, which they have been, even against Washington State. The score of that game may have been low, but as Tracy Pierson stated in his review, it was a thing of beauty because offensively the Bruins were almost surgical in their precision coming out of halftime. In all honesty, the Huskies have to hope that the Bruins come out unfocused and satisfied with their win on Thursday that wrapped up the conference title. That may happen for a bit, but that doesn't seem to be the modus operandi of the Bruins these days. Look how they waited until they were out of the public eye to celebrate their title even a little on Thursday. The Bruins seem to be peaking, and their mountain is higher than that of Washington's. Washington will put up a game fight, and they are much better at home in Hec Arena (they are 16-2 at home and much, getting home wins against Oregon, USC, Stanford, and LSU). But even if that's worth 15 to 17 points, UCLA still beat them by 22 in December.