Since UCLA lost to the Sun Devils in Pauley Pavilion January 17th, ASU has gone 3-2, winning a game at Arizona, losing two on the road against the Washington schools, and then winning two on the road against the Oregon schools.
Over the last 10 games, the Devils are 6-4.
It's not as if they've gotten worse, but it's more a case where they've settled in to their proper level. ASU is a good team, very well-coached, with one of the best players in the country, one other good player, and then a roster full of guys who probably wouldn't start on any other team in the Pac-10.
UCLA out-played Arizona State for the first 32 minutes of their meeting, and then the Bruins had their worst 8 minutes of the season.
On one hand, you'd have to think that those 8 minutes are a reminder, a wake-up call for the Bruins, one that will be effective in keeping them from repeating it.
On the other hand, you have to give some credit to ASU's zone defense, which was the main catalyst to UCLA's 8-minute aberration.
Because of that defense, ASU's Herb Sendek is able to take a team with just two players and create of the best defenses in the Pac-10. They allow just 58.4 points per game for the season, and just 58.4 within the conference. Their field goal percentage defense is 41% in the conference.
It's a pesky match-up zone, which is very good at cutting off lanes to the basket and forcing offenses to shoot from the outside. In matching up, its man principles tend to put more pressure on the ball than a typical zone, which also keeps offenses from passing from the strong side to the weak side with enough alacrity to then find a seam.
Opposing offenses that have been successful have been aggressive in cutting and finding space, and then very aggressive in trying to penetrate and create. The teams that have done well against ASU are those that have, also, drawn a lot of fouls.
We're sure that UCLA's Ben Howland has been staying up nights, playing the tape of those 8 minutes and preparing for this re-match.
More than likely, he won't do anything too gimmicky, but rely on Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday to break down the zone and create – for themselves and their teammates. Holiday could be the key; if he continues his newly aggressive play he could be a big factor in cutting up ASU's zone.
Probably also a big factor in UCLA's success against ASU will be Alfred Aboya. He has become a very effective offensive weapon, averaging 14.5 points per game in UCLA's last four, doing it by hitting his mid-range jumper, his jump hook, converting when his teammates have given him feeds for lay-ups and then getting fouled and hitting his free throws. He'll be going up against Jeff Pendergraph, one of the best shot blockers in the Pac-10, but one of the drawbacks of playing a zone is that you can't guarantee Pendergraph will be the guy directly defending Aboya every time he touches the ball. Look for UCLA to make a concerted effort to get Aboya touches, specifically along the baseline or at the top of the key where he's now a threat to shoot and will draw defenders, which will open up space for others. We would bet that while ASU will have to honor Aboya's scoring ability now to a degree, the Sun Devil brain trust would still rather have Aboya taking shots than Collison, or Josh Shipp, Nikola Dragovic or Mike Roll. Look for Aboya to get open looks, and he'll have to not hesitate and knock down the shot, like he did against Notre Dame.
UCLA was effective against ASU's zone for the first 32 minutes because they screened against the zone, which created space to shoot. In those last 8 minutes, UCLA went away from screening. We would bet they'll go back to it. If Dragovic floats outside looking for just his shot, you can probably expect James Keefe to get on the floor to set some screens. Dragovic, though, is a guy Howland can't resist giving a lot of time against zones, since he's a good shooter and at 6-8 he can shoot over a zone while needing less space.
Another key to the game will be UCLA's efforts to limit James Harden. Against other teams with one great player, if you shut him down, generally there might be someone else who can pick up the scoring slack. But that's not the case really with ASU. In UCLA's first match-up against Harden, they started off pretty well defending him, but then Harden got loose. Holiday, with the surge of defensive effort and focus we've seen in the last four games, will probably get the majority of the assignment. But watch for UCLA to use Malcolm Lee and his quickness off the bench to hopefully wear down Harden.
Pendergraph had a good game against UCLA (18 points and 7 rebounds) and has been playing pretty well since. He, though, over the last couple of years, has been an opposing post that hasn't fared well against UCLA's double-team, and UCLA is doing it better now than it has anytime this season. They're also rotating much better defensively, and the key will be to find Harden away from any double-team or trap. UCLA would ideally like to take away Pendergraph with a double-team, and then keep Harden smothered so ASU is forced to go to someone else.
ASU's patient, Princeton-type offense will attempt to slow down the game, being very happy by keeping both teams to under 50 shots. UCLA has made an effort to speed up its game in the last few weeks -- not necessarily taking worse shots, but taking shots quicker in the shot clock if they're good ones.
So, UCLA will have a bit of a different approach than it has in the past when facing ASU. Previously, it was content to play at ASU's speed, with the theory that the Bruins were basically better at it than the Sun Devils were. But with Howland departing a bit from the more deliberate pace, it will be interesting to see if UCLA takes more shots in semi-transition before ASU can set its zone.
As we said, UCLA out-played ASU for 32 minutes in the first match-up. It was ahead by 11 points with 8 minutes left. We think that those eight minutes were the exception and the first 32 were the rule. UCLA is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, against both man and zone defenses, and we don't think ASU's zone will be able to keep UCLA's offense from scoring. We also think that UCLA has improved – most notably on defense – since the first meeting.
And, as we said, you can expect that Howland and UCLA will be fully prepared to attack ASU's zone. It's now famous how well Howland does in games when he has more time to prepare. Not only is this the Thursday game (where he has more time to prepare as opposed to the Saturday game), we're sure Howland has been preparing for this since January 17th.
If losing to ASU in Pauley isn't motivation enough, the players are also very aware that if UCLA wins this game, it would put them in the driver's seat to win the Pac-10 regular season, with the Bruins' remaining conference schedule being far more favorable than second-place Washington's.
The fact that it's in Tempe will be the only thing that will keep this from being a blowout.
Arizona State 55