The Arizona game has typically been the more important game of the weekend trip, however, with Coach Herb Sendek at the helm, the game against the Sun Devils has become much more than an afterthought. Because of the raised competitiveness of the ASU game, this road swing will be among the most difficult that the Bruins have faced over Coach Ben Howland's tenure. The Bruins will have to be focused squarely on the Sun Devils this week and then, after that game Thursday night, the Bruins will have to turn right around and immediately refocus on the Wildcats. This week will be the most significant challenge to UCLA's mental preparedness and ability to remain focused over a two-game period. Admittedly, it will be a trip that will help prepare the Bruins for the coming NCAA Tournament and its Thursday/Saturday or Friday/Sunday schedule. This week the Bruins will see what they are really made of. Now they'll see if the experience that many writers have touted, having participated in the past two Final Fours, will truly hold any weight. How will the Bruins respond?
The ASU game has significant implications for both the Pac-10 race and the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins need to win the game in order to maintain their one-game lead over the surging Stanford Cardinal. Having a one seed in the conference tournament may not be that key this year as the teams stuck in 4th through 9th places all present match-up problems for both the Bruins and the Cardinal. However, being the regular season Pac-10 champ will go a long way to securing a very high seed in the NCAAs. The NCAA seeding is very important as both the Bruins and the Cardinal are fighting for a high protected seed. The Bruins, in particular, have a very good shot at a #1 seed in the West Region of the Big Dance, which would mean that UCLA would only have to travel to Anaheim and Phoenix in order to reach the Final Four yet again. Even a #2 seed in the NCAAs would probably ensure that the Bruins are in the West Region, and that is exactly the route the past two versions of the Bruins took to get to the last two Final Fours.
The game may be more important for the Sun Devils. The Bruins have already essentially "punched their ticket" to the Big Dance. ASU is fighting for their NCAA lives. They are squarely on the proverbial NCAA bubble. The Sun Devils have had a remarkably good season. In fact, Sendek is on most short lists for national coach of the year, leading the Sun Devils to 17-9 overall and 7-7 in the Pac-10. Because of the strength of the Pac-10 this season, that could be enough to garner an NCAA bid, but ASU's problem is an RPI of only 69, and that may not be good enough. To add to that, ASU's out-of-conference opponents were not that significant, although they did crush Xavier, but their strength of schedule is a mediocre 79. ASU is still looking for a victory that would guarantee their NCAA bid, and this game provides a great opportunity for the Sun Devils. Even a split this weekend would help the Sun Devils because it's likely that a 9-9 conference record would get them an NCAA bid (which would make it the first time in Pac-10 history a 9-9 team made the NCAA tournament). Next week the Sun Devils will face Oregon State, thus a split this weekend virtually means at worst a 9-9 conference mark.
The added element to this game is the fact that UCLA absolutely destroyed the Sun Devils last month at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA won that game, 84-51, and it wasn't that close. If ASU has any pride at all, they are going to use the result of that game as motivation. Some may argue that ASU can't possibly be 34 points better than they were only one month ago. Remember, however, that there was a year that UCLA lost up at Stanford in the "Maples Massacre" by 48 and then beat the Cardinal a month later at Pauley by 19. For those not adept at math, that's a 67-point swing. So, that kind of turnaround has happened before.
This game will test the patience of the Bruins. ASU has a tendency to work the clock on offense and uses a mix of man and zone defenses to slow down the opposition. When the teams first met in January, the Bruins were clicking on all cylinders on both ends of the floor. Since that weekend the Bruins have regressed a bit. The defense that the Bruins can play has only showed up in fits and starts. Last week against the Oregon schools, the Bruins were slow on their defensive rotations and gave up more than a few semi-back door baskets. UCLA can't afford to do that against ASU because back door cuts and quick lobs to the high post leaning to the basket are staples of the Sun Devil offense. Plus, the Sun Devils do have personnel that can bother the Bruins.
Junior post Jeff Pendergraph is difficult to guard because he can take his defender out to about 15 feet. He's also become an above average passer. Kevin Love is coming off probably his worst weekend statistically as a Bruin and looked a step slow on defense. If that continues on Thursday, the Bruins and Howland will be forced to use Lorenzo Mata-Real in his place, much as Howland did in the Oregon game.
Love was less effective offensively, too, since opposing teams the second time around in the Pac-10 are far better prepared for him. But you can probably expect UCLA to work even harder to get Love touches than they have recently. He also said that he let down in the Oregon game mentally, and vowed this week to never let that happen again.
Two freshmen dominate the ASU backcourt; Ty Abbott and James Harden, while sophomore Derrick Glasser has looked very good recently. Another freshman, Rihards Kuksiks, has been starting the past few games. This gives the Sun Devils a four wing/one post line-up, just the sort of line-up that has given the Bruins trouble this season. All four of the wings are decent to good passers and all four can hit the deep shot. This will provide a huge challenge for Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute will be pulled away from the defensive hoop by Kuksiks, while Westbrook will have his hands full with Harden, who is one of the best freshmen in the nation. While it's true that Westbrook neutralized Harden in the first meeting, remember that Harden was playing with a groin injury. He's healthy now.
The key will be forcing the ASU guards to move laterally, thus keeping them from seeing or utilizing the back door cuts or the lobs. Collison will have to make sure that he gets in Glasser's head early. Shipp will have to be sure that he stays near Abbott, because if Abbott hits his first few shots, he'll probably be hot the rest of the game.
On offense, the Bruins will undoubtedly see more doubling of Love, thus it's imperative that the Bruins move the ball quickly, regardless if ASU is in a zone or a man on defense. ASU isn't particularly quick as a team and the Bruins have the ability to take advantage of this. Sendek likes to play zone when he has a small line-up on the floor, and UCLA tore it apart in the first meeting. Against a zone, the Bruins tend to be much quicker than the Sun Devils, and that hasn't changed. UCLA also has some natural advantages against ASU's man defense because of their size and athletic superiority. The Bruins should also have a significant advantage on the boards.
Finally, there is one thing to consider. The key players for the Sun Devils are primarily freshmen and sophomores. They are just as apt to be "scared" of the Bruins as they are to want to come out and get into a slugfest. For many of the Sun Devils, the only experience they have of UCLA is the butt-whoopin' the Bruins put on them last month. If UCLA gets a decent lead early, the Sun Devils may just start thinking, "Here we go again." The ASU players could think that they still have Saturday and USC.
In all probability though, the Sun Devils will play hard, much like Oregon did this last game. The difference between Oregon and ASU is that Oregon has better players across the board, but ASU has a coach who won't let a big second-half lead slip away, like Oregon does. This game will be played at a slower pace than the first meeting, so expect a slugfest, much like Sendek coached when he was at North Carolina State.
The Bruins should have more in the tank than the Sun Devils. UCLA has better players, although not demonstrably so, and they have a lot of big-game experience. Still, ASU is the home team and the Bruins may be looking ahead slightly to the Wildcats on Saturday. This one has all the makings of a close one.