The game features the best team in the Pac-10 (UCLA), the best player in the conference (ASU's James Harden), and two of the best coaches in the country in UCLA's Ben Howland and ASU's Herb Sendek. The two squads come into the contest on different ends of the momentum scale with the Bruins having hammered Arizona on Thursday while the Sun Devils suffered a very tough loss to USC. How each team reacts to those outcomes will go a large way in determining the winner of the game.
UCLA is starting to play its best basketball of the year and, more importantly, they are bringing a more concerted effort to the defensive end of the floor. This is bad news to opponents who may have been hoping that UCLA's youthful players would be susceptible to mental breakdowns at key moments in games. The reason for the Bruins' continued improvement, apart from the fact that Ben Howland-coached teams are notorious for getting better as the season progresses, is the play of senior guard Darren Collison. Collison quite simply has been the best point guard in the country so far this season. Besides the fact that he's looking for his shot more and making very good decisions on tempo for the offense, his lack of turnovers this year is truly astounding. He had 2 turnovers Thursday night against the Wildcats and that is almost 1/3 the number of turnovers he's committed in the last five games combined. Arizona State really has no answer for Collison. The ASU point is manned by junior Derek Glasser (6'1" 190 lbs.), who is athletically over-matched by Collison. Glasser is averaging about 40% from behind the arc, he hits his free throws and he has a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. However much of his success has come against some real cupcakes. Against more athletic teams, suffers, as he did against the Trojans, committing 6 turnovers. He will have a lot of trouble with a wave of Collison, Jerime Anderson and Jrue Holiday coming at him. Look for the Bruins to pressure Glasser into mistakes.
Sophomore Ty Abbott (6'3" 215 lbs.), is the ‘2' in the Sun Devil starting lineup and has much better athleticism than Glasser. However, he is no Holiday. Abbott plays more for what he brings in intangibles rather than statistics, which is typical for a Sendek team. Sendek likes to have at least one player on the floor who is a "glue" guy, and Abbott provides that. Trouble is, Abbott hasn't fully accepted his role. He has shot the ball horribly from the floor this season, averaging 31% overall and 26% from the three-point line. That's bad, but what makes it worse is that Abbott has attempted 85 three pointers so far this season, second on the team. That's more than James Harden.
Off the bench, Sendek has sophomore Jamelle McMillan (6'2" 180 lbs.), and junior Jerren Shipp (6'3" 214 lbs.). McMillan will spell both guard spots while Shipp, who started as a frosh, will man the ‘2' and the ‘3'. Neither is a threat, in fact, Shipp is really not a Pac-10 level player. Neither has the athleticism to handle what an elite team will throw at them and UCLA is elite. The Bruins have backcourt bench depth in the form of Mike Roll, Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson and all three would arguably start at ASU right now. The Bruins have a huge advantage in the backcourt.
The Sun Devils should be able to give the Bruins some problems up front. They start senior Jeff Pendergraph (6'9" 240 lbs.) and sophomore Rihards Kuksiks (6'6" 205 lbs.), but the real story here is sophomore swingman James Harden (6'5" 218 lbs.), who is arguably the best player in the conference. Harden is athletic, has good awareness and vision and can score. He truly is a 5-tool player. He's a good shooter (54% from the floor), from both inside and outside the arc (where he's 40%). He gets to the free throw line where he makes his free throws (75%) and he plays bigger than he is, averaging 5.8 RPG. He's the best individual player the Bruins have faced this year. Look for Howland to run different players at him, including Josh Shipp, Holiday and Lee with the idea that they can tire out Harden by the second half.
Pendergraph is a very good player in the low post and the only real threat that Sendek has in that spot. He averages 13.5 PPG and 7.1 RPG. He shoots 80% from the charity stripe and knows how to get there, having been on the free throw line 60 times this season. He generally is a steady player rather than a star and he should be a bit easier for Alfred Aboya, Drew Gordon and James Keefe to guard because, while Pendergraph is good, he isn't near as athletic as USC's Taj Gibson or Arizona's Jordan Hill. Those are the kinds of players that give UCLA trouble.
Kuksiks is strictly a three-point specialist, but he does it well. He has attempted a team-high 91 threes this season, hitting an astounding 54%. With Kuksiks it's simple; force him to put the ball on the floor. That will be the job of a variety of Bruins, but UCLA has made a habit of being able to shut down guys like Kuksiks unless they are surrounded by serious talent, ala Florida from two and three seasons ago.
Off the bench Sendek can bring junior Eric Boateng (6'10" 245 lbs.) and freshman Taylor Rohde (6'8" 225 lbs.). Both are nothing more than serviceable players for a few minutes at a time, although Boateng is barely that. In fact, the Duke transfer may be among the bigger recruiting busts of the past few years. Rohde may see more time if the Bruins shut down Kuksiks because he's a better rebounder than Kuksiks. The Bruins counter with Keefe, Gordon and Morgan off the bench. While UCLA is truly deeper, the presence of Pendergraph and especially Harden give the Sun Devils an edge in the frontcourt.
Last season UCLA blew out ASU twice, losing in Tempe by 21 and in LA by 34. The reason for the blow-outs were because UCLA was a bad match-up for the Sun Devils. Not much has changed. If anything it is more of a match-up nightmare for ASU. The Bruins are more athletic than the Sun Devils in key spots, most noticeably at the point. UCLA's bread and butter this season has been an ability to force opposing point guards into bad decisions and turnovers which the Bruins use to generate easy transition points, and it's safe to say that UCLA has developed into one of the best transition teams in the nation.
Sendek will likely rely on his trademark match-up zone on defense, but the Bruins have shown a propensity to be able to chew up zones. Just ask Arizona. Offensively the Sun Devils are a patient team, trying to get the opposing defense to fall asleep for back-door cuts or drive-and-dish shots. That didn't work against the Bruins last year and, while it may work a bit this year, the Bruins can offset that by being able to be more of a quick-strike team offensively. This year's Bruin squad can score more in bunches better than last year's squad could, and that will really hurt an ASU team that likes to slow the pace a bit (although not as much or as well as Tony Bennett's Washington State squad).
The game is on national television, it's at Pauley and the building should be sold out. The Bruins didn't really exert much effort in dispatching the Wildcats Thursday night, while ASU blew a 7-point halftime lead against the Trojans. This is a big game for both teams as the Bruins can put 3 games between them and the team that was supposed to be their closest competition over the course of the conference season. ASU needs a win to stay in touch with UCLA (and Cal) in the conference race, and they already dropped their game at Cal. But, as I said already, the Bruins are a bad match-up for the Sun Devils. About the only shot ASU has is to dominate the boards, with rebounding being a UCLA weakness, but ASU isn't a great rebounding team themselves. This may go against conventional wisdom, but don't be at all surprised by a blowout victory by the Bruins.
Arizona State 53