I wrote last week that the Bruins were playing their biggest game of the year to date when they hosted Arizona State. This game is bigger. It's on national television (Fox Sports), and it's a battle between the two teams tied atop the Pac 10 standings. Both the Bruins and the Huskies sit at 5-1. UCLA is coming off of a closer-than-necessary win against Washington State, while the Huskies are coming off a hard-fought, emotional win over USC. The Bruins have now played two straight games in which their offense has disappeared in the latter part of the game. The big question for Saturday is: will UCLA's offense be able to be productive for the balance of the game or will bog down again as it did against ASU and Wazzu?
Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar has taken a lot of heat on BRO over the past several years for not being able to get enough quality play out of the recruits he has brought to Seattle. Its not that UDub hasn't been successful; it's that with the talent Romar has had on hand many feel he should have been more successful. If Romar's response is this season, then he has been able to silence some critics. Romar has done arguably his best coaching job to date up to this point in the season. With a roster that is arguably less talented than at least three other programs in the conference, Romar has the Huskies poised to be alone in first place come Saturday night, after seven games of conference play.
Romar has been able to do this because he has allowed his kids to play to their strength, and it all starts with his frontcourt "beast," veteran Jon Brockman (6'7" 255 lbs.). Brockman averages a double-double: 15. 1 PPG and 10.8 RPG. He is a beast on the low block and, quite frankly, the Bruins have no answer for him. Alfred Aboya, James Keefe and Drew Gordon are bound to struggle physically against Brockman. UCLA's best hope is that the activity, athleticism and quickness of Aboya and Gordon will keep Brockman off balance. It isn't likely. Brockman had an off offensive game on Thursday against USC because of Taj Gibson's presence in the paint and the Bruins don't have anyone like Gibson, at least not yet. Brockman isn't flashy. He bulls his way to the hoop, has good enough hands to be able to score regularly from 8 feet and in and generally plays smart. That's not to say that his hands are soft; they're not and he is good for at least two bricks per game. However you can count on him to hit one or two 15 footers to offset that. If Brockman has one downfall it's that he is mediocre at best from the free-throw line. He is only shooting 55% from the charity stripe. UCLA's best hope is to drive the lane on offense and force Brockman off the floor because of fouls.
The other two starters up front for the Huskies are redshirt freshman Darnell Gant (6'8" 215 lbs.), and junior Quincy Pondexter (6'6" 215 lbs.). Gant is raw and not really an offensive threat, although he hit a couple of short jumpers against the Trojans. He rebounds well and is very active on defense. He is a poor man's Drew Gordon. He plays more than Gordon because Romar really has no other choice. As a side note, that should tell fans all they need to know about the difference between Romar's recruiting and Howland's. If Gordon were at UDub, he'd be starting and playing close to 30 MPG. This is one match-up that the Bruins can exploit on offense as Gant isn't used to having to go out to the three-point line to guard his man, so Nikola Dragovic and James Keefe, who played a nice, confident 11 minutes at Wazzu, should be able to pull Gant away from the hoop.
Pondexter has not quite lived up to his hype. In fact, an argument can be made that Pondexter has regressed since then. His confidence is certainly not where it was expected to be. That may be because he is clearly the 3rd option at best in Washington's offense. He is averaging 10.1 PPG and is second on the team in rebounding at 5.8 RPG. His shooting percentage, however, especially from behind the arc, isn't anything to brag about (he's at 20% from ‘3'). Athletically he is gifted but he consistently wants to try things that aren't his strengths. However, because Pondexter is athletic, you may see Malcolm Lee on the floor more because of his length and athleticism and his ability to rebound. That would be to spell Josh Shipp who will undoubtedly have the initial assignment of guarding Pondexter.
Off the bench Romar brings sophomore Matthew Bryan-Amaning (6'9" 235 lbs.), who is better offensively than Gant but doesn't bring the same kind of energy on the defensive end. He rebounds well (5.4 RPG) for the 20 MPG he averages and he gives the Huskies a different look than Gant does. Jrue Holiday's older brother Justin Holiday (6'6" 180 lbs.) provides depth behind Pondexter and he provides solid defense and energy.
In the backcourt the Huskies have prolific frosh Isaiah Thomas (5'8" 180 lbs.) and senior Justin Dentmon (5'11" 185 lbs.). This will be the quickest backcourt the Bruins will have to defend perhaps until the NCAA Tournament. Thomas is UDub's leading scorer at 15.9 PPG, but he does so shooting many more questionable shots. He is only shooting 43% from the floor and 33% from ‘3', where he has more attempts than anyone else on the team. He has also been to the free-throw line more than any of his teammates and he hits 73% of his free throw attempts. He and Dentmon (who averages 14.2 PPG and is the team's best three point shooter) basically split the point and shooting guard duties. They are both very quick and used that quickness to score a combined 39 points against USC's backcourt on Thursday. SC's Daniel Hackett did score 24 points against them and both can be overwhelmed on the defensive end by a bigger guard, but their collective quickness causes fits. They both have a penchant for playing out of control and making mistakes. The backcourt battle is going to decide this game and Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday easily have the ability and smarts to outplay Washington's. Not only are Collison and Holiday better defenders that make less mistakes, they are bigger and stronger than their UDub counterparts. It's a question of whether the Bruins will use that to their advantage.
The backcourt depth for Romar is supplied by sophomore point guard Venoy Overton (5'11" 185 lbs.), who is similar in style to the Washington starters, and freshman shooting guard Elston Turner (6'4" 205 lbs.), who gives them a different look and provides more muscle defensively. Overton averages about 20 MPG and, like his backcourt mates, is good from the free throw line. Turner is a three-point shooter on offense and the Bruins had better recognize it when he is on the floor. He's attempted 52 shots for the year and 37 of them have come from behind the arc.
Washington clearly has the advantage in the frontcourt battle. The key here is going to be what happens in the backcourt. You can count on Romar mixing his defenses and perhaps even throwing some press at the Bruins, although much of the reason the Huskies pressed the Trojans was because USC had basically one guard for the game. Darren Collison has been in a bit of a funk…not a slump, but a funk. He is playing less assertively at times recently and deferring to providing for his teammates. As a result he hasn't gotten into any sort of rhythm offensively the last two games and has missed shots that he normally hits. Hopefully Howland or Collison himself has been able to convince the Bruin floor general of what he needs to do for the team to be successful.
Four Huskies -- Pondexter, Thomas, Dentmon and Brockman -- play a lot of minutes and fatigue may be a factor in this game. All but Thomas played over 30 minutes on Thursday and Thomas almost hit the 30 mark. The Bruins have an opportunity to wear down the Huskies a bit, like they did with USC. However, the Bruins had 4 players over 30 minutes on Thursday and Nikola Dragovic played 29, so there may not be an advantage there. Finally, UCLA has lost four straight in Seattle, and the Huskies playing at home will be the difference in this one, as it's notoriously been during the Howland era.