Last weekend provided a glimpse of what the Bruins can be like as a team when they play with intensity and intelligence. They played one mediocre half, (the first half against Stanford), and three very good halves. One can argue that the first half of the Cal game was the best half by the Bruins yet this season.
In last week's Cal preview I mentioned that one of the questions coming into the game was the play of Darren Collison, particularly on the defensive end. Collison answered the question with arguably his best defensive performance of the young season. Now the question surrounding the Bruins is one of consistency. Will UCLA use the NorCal sweep as a springboard to the rest of the season or will they revert to their inconsistent play reminiscent of the non-conference schedule?
Washington comes into the game with a record of 9-5, 0-1 in conference. Essentially, the Huskies have defeated those teams that they should have beaten while losing their bigger-name games. Their best win of the year is probably their road victory over a mediocre LSU squad on December 29th.
Washington has some talent, but is very young; having only two seniors on the roster, guards Ryan Appleby (6'3" 170 lbs.) and Stanford transfer Tim Morris (6'4" 210 lbs.). It didn't help Coach Lorenzo Romar that his best player from 2006-2007, center Spencer Hawes, decided to enter the NBA draft. Also, sophomore guard Adrian Oliver, who was counted on for significant minutes after a solid freshman campaign, suffered from numerous injuries and decided to transfer at the beginning of December, thus hurting the Huskies' depth further. As a result, the Huskies are built much like UCLA, athletic and a bit on the small side. The two biggest differences in the two teams are the talent of their base player rotations and the head coaches; Romar and UCLA's Ben Howland.
Romar has been tweaking the starting lineup for the Huskies since the beginning of the season. Only junior forward Jon Brockman (6'7" 255 lbs.) has started every game. After that, only junior guard Joel Smith (6'4" 210 lbs.) has started at least 10 games. Of the remaining players, Appleby would be a candidate to have started every game except for an injury he suffered at the beginning of the season.
Since his return, Appleby has started all but one contest. Because of Romar's constant shuffling of the lineup, the Bruins should probably expect to see Appleby at the point. Appleby, however, is a shoot-first, pass-second point guard. He is the best long-range shooter on Washington; in fact his 48% shooting from the floor is bested by his 51% shooting from behind the arc. He has taken 47 of his 60 shots on the year from three-point range. He has only 12 assists on the season, but then again, he has only 7 turnovers. Appleby is an up and down player; when his shot is on, he seemingly can hit anything up to 35 feet. When he's off, his bad-decision making come out, he has trouble making lay-ups and he tends to pout -- not exactly what you need from your lone senior. He is much quicker than he looks, has a very quick trigger and knows how to come off of screens. He is clearly the one Husky that Howland doesn't want to get warmed up.
Last weekend, Collison had trouble with Stanford point guard Mitch Johnson. However, Collison followed up that game with a much better defensive effort against Cal point Jeremy Randle. Now he faces a very different player in Appleby. Being much more of a scoring threat, Howland may prefer to put Russell Westbrook on Appleby. Certainly Howland will rotate the two on the Washington senior. It will be interesting to see if Collison's bout with food poisoning this week, which sent him to the hospital, made him miss practice Tuesday and then have to receive fluids intravenously after practice Wednesday, affects his play.
When Romar goes to a more traditional lineup with a more traditional point guard, he can turn to junior Justin Dentmon (5'11" 185 lbs.) or freshman Venoy Overton (5'11" 180 lbs.). Dentmon, who was a starter for his first two seasons in Seattle, has started 7 games this season. He is getting starter's minutes, averaging almost 27 MPG, good for second most on the team. He is averaging 11.2 PPG, third best on the team, but more importantly, he has 40 assists this season against only 24 turnovers. Dentmon's shooting has been pretty poor, though, averaging only 43% from the floor and 31% from behind the arc. He has been seeing less of the floor than in his last two seasons because of his poor decision making and defense.
Overton, who is arguably Romar's best pick-up in last year's freshman class, has been good at dishing the ball to his teammates. He has a team-leading 49 assists while committing only 31 turnovers. The problem is that Overton has been horrible shooting the ball. His 39% shooting from the floor has caused opposing players to play well off him, thus making it difficult for Overton to get into the lane. This limits his effectiveness. As a result, Overton's minutes have gone down significantly in recent games.
Both players are quick, along with Appleby, but there isn't that big of a worry about Collison and Westbrook staying with them. The very inconsistent play, poor defense and bad decision-making by Appleby and Dentmon has been a big reason why the Huskies have struggled the last couple of seasons.
The guy that has possibly given Washington some hope of emerging from the same old poor perimeter play is Morris. Morris, Romar's nephew, has brought some elements to this Husky team that they haven't had for a while – namely a good perimeter athlete who is a good defender and plays intelligently. Washington is a different team with Morris on the floor, and he does what he can to negate the knuckle-headedness of Appleby. Morris is averaging 9.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG and shooting 58% from the floor. He's even been a solid threat from behind the arc (47%). You'll be a little shocked watching Washington with Morris in the game; they actually defend. While Westbrook might like defending someone his own size like Morris, he would, by far, rather have Appleby or Dentmon have to defend him and not Morris. If Morris has a real Achilles Heel, it's his foul shooting, where he is only 55% from the line (47%).
Smith is almost strictly a spot-up shooter. He's taken more than half of his shots from behind the arc and he's averaging over 50% from both the floor and from the three-point line. Josh Shipp should be assigned to Smith, but if Shipp gets lazy fighting through those screens that the Huskies should set, then expect Westbrook to slide over to Smith and have Shipp take Morris.
Brockman is Washington's best player and the team's leader up front. While not very athletic, Brockman, much like Kevin Love, knows how to use his body on both ends of the floor. He's not the offensive player that Love is, but Brockman's interior defense is among the best for his position in the conference. Brockman leads the Huskies in both scoring (18.4 PPG), and rebounding (11.4 RPG). He's also been to the free-throw line 82 times, by far the team's leader in that category. Brockman's game is simple: get the ball on the low block and pound it in. He also, though, has developed a good 15-foot-and-in jumper which gives his offensive game some more dimension. A match-up with Love will be intriguing as the Bruin frosh becomes more adept at the defensive end and as Brockman is forced to really focus on the defensive end himself against the Bruins, which is something he hasn't had to do for the past two seasons. This will be a very different match-up than what Love saw this past weekend in NorCal. There he faces some athletic and long players. In Brockman he'll get a player much closer in comparison to himself, at least in terms of build and strength.
The other starter up front has been junior Artem Wallace (6'8" 250 lbs.), who is essentially the blue-collar worker of the team. Wallace doesn't score much or rebound much. He plays defense, gives up fouls and sets screens. He played 29 minutes against Wazzu on Saturday, but it's doubtful he'll play that much against the Bruins. It's more likely that Romar will go a bit smaller and more athletic by using sophomore Quincy Pondexter (6'6" 210 lbs.). Pondexter, who started last season, is probably Washington's best "pure" basketball player in terms of athleticism and upside. He averages 9 PPG and 4.6 RPG, good for second on the team. Pondexter, however, has had two issues this season. First, his shot selection has been poor, thus his 45% average from the floor and atrocious 26% from behind the arc. Second, he tends to get lost on defense. He is getting better at this, but if Romar decides to play Pondexter at the expense of Wallace, that means the Husky sophomore will be guarding Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or Alfred Aboya, etc. Not a good match-up for Washington.
When Morris and Wallace are in the game, Washington, surprisingly, becomes a good defensive team.
Freshman Matt Bryan-Amaning (6'9" 235 lbs.) has been getting some time off the bench, primarily for Brockman and/or Wallace when they get fatigued or in foul trouble, but because he is a younger, less experienced version of Wallace he isn't much of an offensive threat.
This is a very bad match-up for Washington. If the game were in Seattle I'd give them a chance at pulling the upset, but the LSU game aside, the Huskies have been horrid on the road this season. They were blown out by Texas A&M in New York in the NIT and by a very mediocre Oklahoma State team in Stillwater. They hung close with Syracuse in the third place game of the NIT, but the Orangemen (I refuse to use the name change) were disinterested and are not a very good team to begin with. Now Washington travels to Pauley Pavilion, which is becoming a geared venue again (look at the Bruins' Pac-10 home-winning streak), to face one of the best teams in the country and it has all the makings of a blowout.
Washington will probably play a good deal of zone simply because they match-up poorly with the Bruins man for man. Also, a zone will help slow down the game, which is the only way the Huskies can stay in this one. If they start to run and gun with UCLA, the Bruins may win by 35. So, Romar's game plan should be to slow down the game, force UCLA to run its half-court zone offense, use its new toughness on D to keep it close and hope for the best. I assumed that Cal would have done the same thing, but inexplicably Cal coach Ben Braun decided to play man most of the game and the Bruins won handily. It will be interesting to see what Romar does – the dilemma being that he knows (like Braun) that his team plays better man defense but UCLA is not near the offensive team in their zone offense.
Remember, though, that the Cal game was in Berkeley and Cal has better talent than Washington.
This one should be over early. The one thing that could keep it close is if UCLA is looking past Washington toward the WSU game on Saturday.