UCLA goes on the road for its first Pac-10 matchup tonight against Washington, a team that is very capable of beating the Bruins since they play good defense and can be deadly shooting from the outside...
The UCLA Bruins are going somewhere today that might feel a bit foreign to them – on a road trip.
So far, in seven games, they've only played two games on the road, and one of those games – Duke in Indianapolis – wasn't truly a game in a hometown gym against a hometown crowd.
The next two games, against Washington tonight and Washington State Saturday on the road, might give us a good indication if this team has a chance of pulling out the rest of the season. Pac-10 road games have notoriously been a struggle for recent UCLA teams, even ones that came into the Pac-10 season with a better record than the current 2-5 and had quite a bit more experience than this one. UCLA has lost to Washington in four of its last five visits to Seattle.
Perhaps the biggest factor here is that UCLA's best all-around player, Dijon Thompson, is very doubtful for the Washington game. Apparently, even after the MRI, doctors can't really pinpoint the cause for the swelling in his knee. The word is that he more than likely won't play tonight.
So, this UCLA team, which is struggling in just about every aspect of the game, will be missing its best player when it goes into a hostile arena, against a Washington team that is completely capable of beating UCLA.
The Huskies are 5-4, and they've done it in a completely unpredictable way. They started out the season 0-3. They lost to Gonzaga, but also lost to lowly Montana State. So, it looked like Washington might not be very formidable. Then they, unpredictably, beat Wyoming, a pretty good team that is currently 10-2. Two games later they lose to Eastern Washington, which actually isn't as big of an upset as you might think since Eastern Washington is a pretty good program. Then they put together three straight good efforts and get three straight wins against three mediocre teams. So, if you go by Washington's schedule so far this year, it's near impossible to really gauge just how good they are.
The Huskies are very young, so it makes it even more difficult to judge how good they are since they're continuing to improve. They're a much better team now than they were when they lost to Montana State in their season opener a little over a month ago.
But, sadly, even though Washington is hard to put a finger on, they're still capable of beating UCLA – because they have quite a bit more talent than many of the five teams that have beaten UCLA so far this season. And some of those were home games at Pauley for UCLA.
Washington's big gun is Doug Wrenn, the 6-7 junior forward. Wrenn, after having a big season last year when he averaged 19 points a game, is now having an inconsistent one, and that's actually pretty predictable. Wrenn is a tremendous athlete, who can score from inside with a big, muscular body, and fill it up from the outside. But Wrenn is also a bit of a knucklehead, being very selfish sometimes and taking bad shots, not getting his teammates involved and other times lacking effort. He can either help Washington win, or really make them lose on any given night.
With Wrenn being inconsistent, the player who has really become Washington's big gun is 6-0 sophomore point guard Will Conroy. Originally a walk-on, Conroy has carried Washington recently. After averaging just 2.5 points a game last season, Conroy now leads the team with a 15 points/game average. He put up 32 against Gonzaga. He's shooting 40% from three, and is leading the team in assists. Conroy has decent quickness and handle, but isn't as much of a penetration threat as he is an outside shooting threat.
Washington has some pretty good talent to fill out its backcourt. A consistent starter has been junior 6-0 point guard Curtis Allen, who has started alongside Conroy. Allen is wiry and very quick, and he also shoots the ball very well from the outside. He can sometimes force it a bit too much and cough up the ball sometimes, but if he plays under control, Allen's quickness is tough to contend with.
Probably the best backcourt player on the team is a football player, freshman point guard Nate Robinson. Robinson has only played in five of Washington's 9 games so far this season because of his football commitment, but he's expected to play tonight against UCLA. The 5-9 Robinson was one of the most athletic and talented point guards to come out of high school last year on the west coast, and he's made a big impact in his first five college games. In fact, Robinson has led Washington in scoring in three of those five games. He's very fast and quick, and very athletic, and he has added a nice outside shot to his package, also shooting over 40% from three.
Washington's frontcourt, after trying a few different lineups and combinations, has now settled down. There's Wrenn at small forward, who is also probably best when he's inside and physically over-powering a smaller defender. Then there are two freshman post players to go alongside him. 6-8 Mike Jensen was ranked the best power forward on the west coast during his senior year. He then redshirted last year due to a shoulder injury. He has yet to really explode, but he's got a great deal of talent. Right now, he's still learning the ropes, getting about 24 minutes a game and averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds. Washington also starts another freshman post, 6-9 Anthony Washington, who lines up at center. Washington is in a similar situation as Jensen, just starting to get his feet wet. He's only averaged 15 or so minutes a game, but he'll have to play more now that sophomore center Jeff Day has been ruled ineligible indefinitely because of academics. Washington, though, is a better potential player than Day, with very long arms and an already-developed shot-blocking ability. Jensen and Washington are obviously very young and will make some mistakes, but the Washington coaches have decided to go with them and let them play through their inexperience.
Washington's only senior, the 6-8, 280-lb. Marlon Shelton, comes off the bench but doesn't contribute too much, just mostly his big body.
First off the bench is 6-3 junior shooting guard C.J. Massingale, who is a solid player with some point guard abilities and an okay shooting touch when he gets an open look. 6-6 freshman wing Bobby Jones, from the Los Angeles area, is getting time. Jones is long and athletic and a very good defender, which Washington has been utilizing. He also gets inside and boards well.
Matching up against UCLA, the scariest aspect to this Washington team is their outside shooting. While UCLA hasn't shown any penchant for guarding opponents' outside shooters, Washington as a team is shooting 40% from three. In their last three games they've made 32 three pointers and shot 50% from three. When Conroy, Robinson and Allen – and even Wrenn – get hot, they can rain them in. Washington also has some guys who can penetrate. No matter what defense UCLA runs, if Washington is able to penetrate, get UCLA's defense to collapse and then kick out to an open shooter, it could be a long night for the Bruins.
There are a few other factors going on here:
-- Washington's head coach is Lorenzo Romar, the former UCLA assistant. His assistant is Cameron Dollar, the former UCLA point guard. It's a good little off-the-court drama to keep in mind.
-- Jason Kapono, being shadowed everywhere he goes on the floor by opponents, has had a bad streak of shooting lately. With Thompson more than likely unable to play, it makes it quite a bit easier to guard UCLA and Kapono, especially when, with the lineup changes, there aren't any other consistent outside shooting threats on the floor with Kapono. It will be interesting to see if Kapono can get some good looks against Washington, a team that has played good defense and particularly good perimeter defense so far this season with its array of quick guards and long-armed wings. Washington overall matches up well defensively against UCLA since they're quick and tough on the perimeter, but a bit soft and inexperienced inside.
-- If Wrenn plays under control, he can be dominating. If he's in a mood to take bad shots, he can be a hindrance for Washington.
-- Washington's fans, while not among the most boisterous in the Pac-10, should be smelling blood and be pretty jacked up, as should its players, facing a UCLA team that it clearly can beat.
-- UCLA is a better rebounding team, actually. With Kapono going inside and leading the team in rebounding, he's getting a lot of putbacks and scoring inside. Andre Patterson could have a big rebounding game, and with good rebounding guards like Ray Young and Cedric Bozeman, UCLA could gain an advantage in the game through its rebounding. If Washington isn't shooting well, UCLA could keep Washington to one shot, and then get second chances on the offensive end.
-- Perhaps the biggest factor to this UCLA team is its collective mental state right now. There's a question around UCLA circles if this team has more or less lost its competitiveness given how the season has started and the general hot-seat status of its head coach.