Wazzu is on a bit of a hot streak, having won four of their past five contests, including a one-point victory at Pauley Pavilion against the Bruins three weeks ago. The Bruins have been on a pretty good streak themselves, having won five of their past six games with the one loss coming against the Cougars. Although Washington State is arguably playing the best ball in the conference right now, this game, as have many others, comes down to which UCLA team mentally shows up to play.
When UCLA lost at home to Wazzu three weeks ago the primary reason for the defeat was the atrocious individual and team defense the Bruins played. The Cougars, who average less than 60 PPG because of their methodical offense, scored 82 at Pauley, which is their highest-scoring output of the season.
Senior point guard Taylor Rochestie (6'1" 193 lbs.), in particular, torched the Bruins for 33 points. His Herculean effort was aided by the fact that UCLA's guards, mostly Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday, had probably their worst collective defensive game of the year. Now the Bruins, who have had questionable defensive focus all season, play the team that is perhaps the worst team match-up for them in terms of focus. Wazzu will use most if not all of the shot clock on virtually every possession, which challenges the focus and resolve of opponents defensively. That's not to say the Cougars won't push the ball when they have the chance as they did in the win at Pauley, but that's not their typical modus operandi. The Cougars will utilize back screens and cuts, hard ball screens and look for back-door opportunities in order to beat opponents and shorten the game by doing so within the last 5-8 seconds of the shot clock. That's why defensive focus will be so critical for the Bruins.
In terms of individual match-ups the Bruins have a distinct advantage against the Cougars. Besides Rochestie, Coach Tony Bennett starts senior post Aron Baynes (6'10" 250 lbs.), senior forward Caleb Forrest (6'8" 223 lbs.), junior swingman Nikola Koprivica (6'6" 216 lbs.) and freshman wing Klay Thompson, (6'6" 187 lbs.). Individually this is not a great deal of talent, but as a team, in Bennett's system, they can be very difficult to beat.
Thompson is perhaps Wazzu's most naturally talented player, but he appears to have hit a bit of a "freshman wall." Still, he had a fabulous first half against the Bruins three weeks ago and UCLA's Holiday will have to step up his defense considerably compared to that game or Holiday won't stay on the floor for long. Remember, that was the game and Thompson was the reason that Coach Ben Howland benched Holiday at the beginning of the second half and inserted fellow frosh Malcolm Lee in his place. Lee proceeded to shut down Thompson.
Baynes is the kind of low post load that has given the Bruins issues this year. While Alfred Aboya and Drew Gordon are athletic and energetic, if they are forced to defend constantly in the low post against Baynes they run the risk of getting into early foul trouble. In the win at Pauley, Baynes had a solid 13-point, 6-rebound performance. More importantly Baynes only turned over the ball once. The Bruins must do a better job of forcing Baynes to turn the ball over once it gets into him inside.
Forrest and Koprivica are both role players, apt to be easily replaced on the floor by freshmen DeAngelo Casto (6'8" 229 lbs.) or Marcus Capers, (6'4" 172 lbs.). And don't forget senior wing Daven Harmeling (6'7" 227), who can get incredibly hot from the outside. All five of these players know their roles (Harmeling and Koprivica shoot, Casto and Forrest hit the boards and Capers provides athleticism and defense), and they perform those roles relatively well. Harmeling sat out the game against the Ducks after spraining his right shoulder in practice a week ago and he's questionable at best for Thursday's game. That could be significant as three-point shooting is a vital part of Wazzu's offense and against Oregon they didn't make a single three-point shot (not that they needed to).
The keys for the Bruins are both individual and collective. First, each player must bring his ‘A' game defensively, especially Collison and Holiday. If the Bruins can stop Rochestie and Thompson then they will win going away. Collison has to force Rochestie to drive to his right consistently while Holiday must fight through screens better than he did three weeks ago. Josh Shipp needs to keep bringing the same play he's been displaying over the past few weeks when he's clearly been UCLA's best offensive player. Nikola Dragovic must continue to hit big shots but he has to become less of a liability on defense. In the games against the Oregon schools last week Dragovic was particularly slow on his rotations and was poor in his rebounding positioning. In fact, last week was the first time in a while when the argument could have been made that James Keefe deserved more playing time at Dragovic's expense. Aboya must be Aboya and the bench must come in and allow for no drop-off from when the starters are on the floor. I know -- easier said than done.
Collectively the Bruins must do three things on defense and two on offense to ensure success. First, they most rotate as a unit so that it causes Wazzu to face contested shots on virtually every possession. UCLA must cause turnovers which leads to more energy on both ends of the floor; this starts at the top, and that's why Collison and Holiday are key to this game. Further, the Bruins must rebound well as a team, particularly on the defensive glass so that they can limit Wazzu's scoring chances and so the Bruins can do one of the things that helps them to be successful on offense: get out and run. When the Bruins get out on the break (and finish), they demoralize their opponent. That has happened from time to time to the Cougars this season. Also, the Bruins must take the ball into the paint. When the Bruins are more aggressive on offense they tend to play more focused on defense and they start scoring in bunches.
Make no mistake -- this will be a tough game for UCLA. They won at Pullman by two and lost at Pauley by one, so home cooking means little (the game being at the Staples Center). Wazzu could be a bit tired from playing the late game against Oregon Wednesday night, but that was a cakewalk against a Duck squad that clearly packed it in before the opening tip (so long Ernie Kent?). However, Thompson, Forrest and Rochestie all played at least 30 minutes, with Rochestie logging 35, which just shows you how important he is to the Cougs. That was actually a restful game for Rochestie who has played every minute of every game since Wazzu played USC three weeks ago.
If the Bruins go on to win the Pac-10 Tournament title, don't be surprised if you look back and find that this was their hardest game of the three they would have to play.
Washington State 64