Preview of Washington Game

When UCLA goes to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies today, it has all the makings of a "trap" game for the Bruins -- a game where they could let down. Washington, also, is playing for their lives. Will UCLA show its championship form and play with focus?

The UCLA Bruins finish off their Pacific Northwest road swing on Sunday against the Washington Huskies. Seattle hasn't been a kind place to the Bruins over the past few seasons, with Coach Ben Howland suffering two of his most disappointing losses in his short UCLA tenure in the Emerald City. This game is especially critical for the Bruins as they try to maintain their one-game lead in the Pac-10 Conference over Stanford, and with it, the probable #1 seed in the West Region for the NCAA Tournament.

This is a classic "trap" game for the Bruins. UCLA is coming off a hard-fought, well-played and exciting win over Washington State, in Pullman this past Thursday. There is no question that the Wazzu game was the more important game of this road trip. However, and I am sure that Howland is emphasizing this, there is no such thing as an unimportant game, now, and Washington has the capability, at least at home, to beat virtually anyone in the conference.

Add to the fact that UCLA is playing the game without Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who is still out with a sprained ankle and is still at least slightly questionable for the USC game next weekend. The Bruins were handed a pleasant surprise by the play of James Keefe on Thursday and it would be nice is Keefe and Alfred Aboya could continue their solid replacement of Mbah a Moute, at least for one more game.

So the Bruins aren't completely healthy (what else is new?). They are playing a "weaker" team after beating a ranked foe on the road and with their arch-rival coming up next, and, to top it all off, it seems that every top team in the land, including Memphis, has been getting a bit of a scare if not an outright loss over the past two weeks. Yes, Virginia, this is a trap game.

The good news for the Bruins is that Washington doesn't match up well with UCLA. As the season has gone on it has become glaringly apparent that Coach Lorenzo Romar has let the talent level in Seattle dip significantly. There is no Brandon Roy or Bobby Jones, etc. There is, however, Jon Brockman, and he is a force and the one significant strength on the Huskies. Outside of the junior behemoth, who seems like a poor-man's version of Kevin Love, the Huskies have some nice athletes, but no real basketball players, at least not in the mold of the Bruins. Junior Justin Dentmon, who provided such a spark for the Roy-lead Huskies, hasn't improved over the past two seasons. Sophomore Quincy Pondexter, the gem of last year's recruiting class, is exactly the same player he was over a year ago. His lack of improvement has caused his minutes to decrease dramatically and his role to become that of bench player.

The Huskies can be dangerous, but for Washington they really need to have several different things clicking at the offensive end to even be competitive in some games, and this could be one. The Huskies like to run a varied motion offense with the idea that Brockman needs to at least touch the ball. As the ball goes into Brockman, his teammates revert to a modified 4-out/ one-in offense. The Huskies will start junior Artem Wallace in the post with Brockman, but he's strictly a defensive player and rebounder; someone who can give Brockman a rest when he needs it. Offensively, UDub is much more effective when they have Brockman surrounded by some athleticism and shooting. The Huskies' best offensive five are Brockman, Dentmon, senior forward/guard Tim Morris, senior shooting guard Ryan Appleby and probably Pondexter, with freshman point guard Venoy Overton also being a possibility. This unit is capable of scoring when they move the ball well and set and use their screens. The problem is that Washington does that very rarely. More often than not, the Huskies rely on one-on-one plays or crazy deep shots early in a possession, specifically from Appleby. Brockman has been clearly frustrated this season even though he is leading the team in scoring by a wide margin. His frustration comes from the lack of teamwork that he senses (at least that's what I see). The look on his face reminds me quite a bit of Love's earlier in the season when he wasn't getting touches for long periods of games. It wasn't that Love was upset at not scoring; he was upset at not seeing the ball at all, thus throwing off any semblance of offensive balance. I see the same thing in Brockman.

While Morris provides a calming influence on the team on both ends of the floor, it hasn't been enough. The Huskies have lost their last four Pac-10 games, three of them at home at Hec Ed Pavilion. Now comes UCLA and a Bruin defense that is clearly rounding into form and all the Huskies can run is an offense that the Bruins can easily frustrate because of Washington's propensity to rely more on individual plays than a team concept. UCLA was able to blow Washington off the floor at Pauley Pavilion last month precisely because of this mismatch. That game was over by the half and this one could go the same way unless a couple of things happen.

The Huskies could decide to be balanced, as they have at times this season. Many teams use their offensive game to feed their defensive intensity. Washington is one and their zone defense isn't all that bad when they are focused. The balance they show on offense could also slow down an opponent as they need to work deeper into the shot clock to get a good shot. Finally, there is the wild card that is Appleby. The pesky Husky senior has the capability of shooting his team out of games, but every once in a while he is so "on" from beyond the arc that it does several things. First, it extends the defense because his man must step well beyond the three-point line to guard him, thus opening up the rest of the offense. Next, it infuses his teammates with an energy that makes their games more effective on both ends of the floor. Finally, when Appleby is hot his team scores and does so in bunches. Now, Appleby's hot streaks have been few and far between this season, but you can't simply discount that he'll get hot for this game.

Defensively, the Huskies are clearly one of the two worst teams in the conference. In order to stay in this game, the Huskies must keep men in front of them and hit the boards hard, two things that the Huskies don't do well. The Huskies don't play very strong man defense as they haven't been quick enough to stop dribble penetration, which, without a shot-blocker in the middle, can be quite a problem, and they don't rebound well at all out of a zone defense.

The Bruins have become particularly adept at surgically attacking zone defenses and are still quite efficient against man defenses. The best the Huskies can hope for is that the Bruins have an off-shooting day. The Huskies will mix defenses and probably play more zone than man, but it will still be a tall order for them to slow down the Bruins. Wazzu played a magnificent defensive game against the Bruins last Thursday and the Bruins still scored in the mid-60s. Washington is nowhere near the Cougars on the defensive end.

The fact that this game may be Washington's last glimmer of hope at a post-season berth can't be discounted. Plus, it's a nationally televised game. Washington should come out fired up and ready to go. If they aren't, then Romar's coaching should come in for some serious questioning in the Seattle papers on Monday.

The other wild card is how the Bruins will approach this game. Will they come out flat, assuming that the win is in the bag? Or will they attack right away and try to bury the Huskies early, like UCLA did to Washington at Pauley? If it's the former then the Bruins still have some growing to do. If it's the latter, then the Bruins really are rounding into tournament form.

Based on what I've seen over the past two weeks, I am going to assume the latter. Let's assume that the Bruins will lose a bit without Mbah a Moute in this game, but I don't see the Huskies being able to put up a significant resistance against a focused UCLA squad. If the Bruins start carving up the Husky defense then don't be surprised if the Huskies get selfish on offense and this game, like the one at Pauley, is over by around the half.

Finally, the Huskies looked absolutely disinterested against USC Thursday night. Have they packed it in? If so, then this could be a route. We'll predict that they won't just quit, but they certainly don't have the talent or the coaching of visitors.

UCLA 77

Washington 63


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