As of Thursday, the Bruins sit alone in first place in the conference, one game ahead of Stanford. Beyond the Bruins and the Cardinal there is some serious daylight as Arizona, USC and Wazzu are a full two games behind the Cardinal and three games behind the Bruins. It's probably safe to assume that at the halfway point of the conference season, the Pac-10 is effectively a two team race. Think of it this way; even if all of the 5-4 teams went undefeated in the second half of the conference season, which is impossible because they all play each other, the Bruins would have to go 6-3 just for one of those 5-4 teams to tie the Bruins. Based on the quality of a conference where only lowly Oregon State is marked down as a sure win, the likelihood of any of the 5-4 teams going 9-0 in the second half of the season is highly unlikely. Also, the Bruins went 8-1 in the first half of the conference schedule which was arguably the more difficult part of the schedule for the Bruins. UCLA won at Oregon and Stanford.
Wazzu, however, presents an interesting match-up for the Bruins because, once again, the Bruins are going into a weekend series with a significant injury. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is out for the weekend because of a sprained left ankle he suffered in the blowout win last Saturday against Arizona. Mbah a Moute has been a catalyst for the Bruins on defense and the question for Thursday night, and to a greater extent the weekend, is how the Bruins will cope without him on the defensive end of the floor.
Wazzu comes into the Thursday contest on as bad a losing streak as they have suffered in the past two years. The Cougars were unexpectedly swept at home last weekend by the Bay Area schools, and since the Bruins knocked the Cougars from the ranks of the unbeatens back on January 12, the Cougars are 3-4.
Because this is the second time through the conference, the previews are going to focus more on style of play and other "team" analysis rather than looking at individual players. In the case of the Cougars, most everyone knows that they are going to play a grind-it-out style on both ends of the floor thus turning every possession into a gem-like prize.
Wazzu's offense is predicated on precise execution with each player knowing their respective roles and adhering to them quite well. The problem over the past several weeks has been the shooting of Wazzu's best long-range scorers. Senior point guard Derrick Low's shot had all but disappeared before the Stanford game last week and junior forward Daven Harmeling's offense has been completely non-existent for the better part of two weeks. Harmeling played 26 minutes in the overtime loss to Stanford without scoring a point. Harmeling is the only thing Coach Tony Bennett has for offensive support coming off the bench and, as his shooting has gone south, so have the Cougar fortunes because it has thrown each Cougar player out of his role and thrown the team out of its comfort zone on offense.
The Cougars like to use a variation of a motion offense with an occasional flex cut thrown in just to keep defenses honest. In the scheme of things, the idea is that Low works through screens trying to get open looks coming off those screens, especially curl cuts back into the lane. Low is especially good at recognizing when he's being chased by his man, thus making Low curl, or when his defender is sliding underneath, making Low slide to the outside off the screen. Low is quick enough to get to the basket before help arrives off the curl and he is deadly enough to hit a three-point shot if he is drifting off his screen. The Bruins have been having trouble defending the curl for most of the season, but the past several games have done a good job of "jamming" the player looking to curl or hedging on him. Either way it has given the chaser enough time to fight through the screen and get back to his man before any harm can be done. Two things here: first, this is where the Bruins will miss Mbah a Moute, as he has been adept at jamming and hedging, and second, Low has been drifting outside almost exclusively over the past several games, thus making him easier to defend. In short, Low has been relying too much on his outside shot and as he's been in a slump, the other Cougars have tried to compensate, thus taking them somewhat out of their respective roles.
Generally, if the curls and drifts aren't working, the Cougars try and swing the ball enough times to get an isolation play on the low block for junior post Aron Baynes. Baynes is a serviceable big post man, but as teams have gotten a better read on what the Cougars are doing on offense, they've been able to take Baynes out of the game on offense. With the way UCLA's Kevin Love has been playing, Baynes may be in for another long night.
With Baynes and Low not providing the Cougars with the scoring they were earlier in the year, senior Kyle Weaver has been stepping up to try and alleviate the scoring load from his teammates. Weaver looks to slash to the basket, especially to the right coming off of a half-screen. Generally, he gets a good shot or gets to the foul line. He used this well against the Cardinal last weekend, but he missed some free throws that could have given his team the win. Don't expect that to happen again. I've been saying for two years that Weaver is one of the best players in the conference and easily Wazzu's MVP. He's done nothing to dispel that. However, as he scores more and looks more for his own shot, Weaver is less able to do the things that set him apart on this team, namely the passing, screening, defense and rebounding that make him such a wonderful all-around player.
With Low and Baynes seemingly out of synch and Weaver asked to shoulder more of the scoring, the Cougars don't have many more offensive options. As I said before, their only offense off the bench has basically dried up because of Harmeling's shooting slump and the remaining three Cougars who get serious minutes, Taylor Rochestie, Caleb Forrest and Nikola Koprivica are not scorers. Essentially Bennett and the Cougars must wait for either Low to come out of his slump or Baynes to reassert himself. It's more likely that the former will happen rather than the latter.
Despite the Cougars' offensive woes, they have been able to stay in virtually every game because of their defense. In fact, even though they are only 3-4 over their last seven games, the only game in which their defense was really taken apart was when the Bruins beat them at Pauley several weeks ago. The defensive system that the Cougars employ is almost a mirror of the one the Bruins use, except that the Bruins have better athletes. Because UCLA has such outstanding slashers in Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison, expect the Cougars to roll underneath most of the screens that the Bruins set. The Cougars are also adept at moving into "help" positions rather quickly. It is this style that forces opponents to go deep into the shot clock on offense. Still, the Bruins were able to score at will at times in the first meeting and there's nothing that has happened in the past several weeks to show that Thursday's meeting will be anything different.
Expect the Cougars to come out fired-up because they are riding a two-game home losing streak. But consider it a false bravado. The Cougars know they are out of the race for the conference title. They also know that they are facing a team that put a beat down on them for 38:30 the last time they met. UCLA's 81-74 victory over the Cougars in January might be the most misleading score of the year in college hoops. The Bruins were up by 20 points or more for large portions of the game. If the Bruins start out as quickly as they did last week against the Arizona schools with intensity and execution, the false confidence that the Cougars show may crumble quickly. In as much as that is a real possibility, there is a very real chance that UCLA may blow Washington State off the floor. However, I don't believe that will happen. The Bruins are missing Mbah a Moute and it is a Pac-10 road contest. Plus the Bruins aren't the kind of team that "rocks" the opposition with huge run (although Arizona may beg to differ), but the Bruins basically wear down the opposition. Because of Wazzu's lack of athleticism, Alfred Aboya and James Keefe should be able to fill in adequately for Mbah a Moute. The Cougars still haven't shown that they have an answer for Kevin Love. Wazzu didn't have an answer for Stanford's Brook Lopez last weekend and Love is a better offensive player, is a better passer and has better weapons around him than does Lopez. The Cougars will put up a game fight, but considering their shooting woes, and their lack of confidence, don't be surprised if the Bruins pull away late.
Washington State 65