The Bruins are coming off a victory over Delaware State, which was a tale of two halves in terms of the Bruins' focus and energy, while the Sun Devils are coming off a nine-point victory over 1-10 USC-Upstate. The question for this game, as it's been for the past several games, is whether or not the Bruins can play focused, intense basketball for a majority of a game. Against ASU focus for 40 minutes is going to be necessary for the Bruins to be successful.
With the loss of Jeff Pendergraph and James Harden, most pundits wrote off ASU's chances of being competitive this season. However, as their 10-3 record proves, that is hardly the case when it comes to the Sun Devils. They don't have one outstanding player as they as they did last season with Harden, but ASU does still have Coach Herb Sendek and the playing style he coaches at both ends of the floor. It is precisely because of the style of ball that Sendek coaches that UCLA will have to remain focused for a full 40 minutes in order to win.
On the offensive end of the floor Sendek wants his team to be patient to the point of burning the shot clock. The Sun Devils don't milk every possession, a la Dick Bennett's Washington State teams, but they are patient. They don't rely on having one guy, like Harden, break down the opposition when the offense stagnates as they have in the past. They utilize more weakside screens and backdoor cuts with an emphasis on screening for their shooters. However, its ASU's defense that forces other teams to have to focus so intensely. Sendek has his team run a modified 1-3-1 zone that "droops" a bit in the middle and forces poor shots from the outside when teams don't attack it. The Sun Devils force teams to use a lot of time to get off a shot, let alone a good one, and this "forced patience" may be why the Arizona State match-up is a good one for the Bruins to start their conference season.
One of the keys to the game will be who wins the play at the point. UCLA's Jerime Anderson's struggles have been well-documented this season and he will be matched up, at least initially, against ASU's senior floor general Derek Glasser (6'1" 190 lbs.), who may be the savviest guard in the Pac-10 this season. Glasser isn't amazingly quick and I've knocked him the past several seasons for it when I've written previews for ASU/UCLA games. That time, however, is no more. Glasser showed last season that he knows how to utilize what limited athletic ability he has to either set up his teammates or to set himself up. He is sneaky in his use of screens, reversing directions and using misdirection passes. He is more than adequate from the outside where he's shooting 48% from beyond the arc. His almost 3 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio is astounding when one thinks about how much Glasser handles the ball for the Sun Devils. To top it off he's an 88% free-throw shooter this season and well over 80% for his career. He is, in fact, tied for the scoring lead for the Sun Devils at 11.8 PPG, which says more about ASU's methodical offense than it does about Glasser's offensive ability. Coach Ben Howland may find that Glasser is too much of a test for Anderson to handle right now and may put Malcolm Lee on Glasser. Lee has the quickness and the length to really mitigate the dangers that Glasser represents. Lee has been playing well as of late, especially on the defensive end.
Sendek has experimented with various starting line-ups this season but seems to have settled on a three-guard line-up with Glasser at the point and juniors Ty Abbott (6'3" 207 lbs.) and Jamelle McMillan (6'2" 180 lbs.) playing on the perimeter and looking for their outside shots. Both players are mirror images of each other; they both average around 8 PPG, they both take more than half their shots from beyond the arc and neither of them reaches the free throw line much. They've combined for 29 total free throw attempts on the season. The difference is that McMillan is the better rebounder and plays better defense while being more under control on the offensive end. Abbott is the better athlete, but can be prone to mistakes. Mike Roll should be savvy enough to stay with one of them so the key is going to be how Anderson plays against the one he's guarding, assuming he won't be guarding Glasser. Theoretically Anderson should be able to stay with either Abbott of McMillan, but their offense runs them off of so many weakside screens that Anderson could simply get lost and the one he's guarding could go off. If that begins to happen expect Howland to utilize Tyler Honeycutt, who has both the quickness and the length, not to mention the desire, to shut down either player.
Junior Rihard Kuksiks (6'6" 210 lbs.) is ostensibly a forward but offensively is almost strictly a perimeter player. He has taken a team-leading 125 shots this season but 97 of those attempts have come form beyond the 3-point line. He is shooting a respectable 37% from deep, but he's one of those players that when he gets hot he becomes seemingly automatic from behind the arc and his range seems to stretch out to 25 feet. Kuksiks is strictly a one-dimensional player; he isn't a great rebounder (3.2 RPG) and he's not a great athlete. But there's a reason why the Sun Devil offense is focused on getting him his shots. Kuksiks can be so prolific from the outside that he is clearly the best offensive weapon that Sendek has. The Bruins will have to get a focused defensive game from Nikola Dragovic and Brendan Lane as well as Honeycutt in order to shut down or slow down Kuksiks. In fact, if Anderson is playing well, don't be surprised if Howland goes small and plays Honeycutt at the '4' so as to get a tougher defensive match-up on Kuksiks.
The final starter for Sendek is senior Eric Boateng (6'10" 257 lbs.), the Duke transfer who seems to finally have found his niche. He leads the Sun Devils in rebounding at 6.7 RPG and does enough scoring at 8.3 PPG to keep opposing defenses honest. Granted, many of Boateng's points have come on garbage rebounds off of his teammates' misses from outside, but that at least shows that he's hustling, which is a big step up from where he was when he first arrived in Tempe. He is shooting 64% from the floor but only 63% from the foul line. He's always struggled with his free-throw shooting and this season is no exception. Boateng isn't anything more than an average athlete and he is a bit on the slow side. Even though UCLA's Reeves Nelson gives up at least 3 inches to the ASU big man, Nelson has a motor that far surpasses Boateng's and he is better as an offensive option than is Boateng. Nelson, and J'Mison Morgan, for that matter, will be asked to do a lot of rotating on defense in this game, which is precisely why I can see James Keefe getting the bulk of the back-up minutes at the five rather than Morgan.
Sendek played a deep rotation earlier in the season, with nine players averaging double figures in minutes played, but he seems to have shortened his bench. Sophomore Taylor Rohde (6'8" 235 lbs.) will play because he is the only other big body that Sendek seems to trust, if only to spell Boateng. Unlike Boateng, Rohde will at least attempt to shoot from the outside. Bruin fans may see Ruslan Pateev (7' 231 lbs.) but he is having a lot of trouble picking up Sendek's defensive scheme and he's very slow.
Senior Jerren Shipp (6'3" 208) is playing more as the season has progressed and seems to have become Sendek's preferred replacement for his three backcourt starters. When Glasser needs a rest, Sendek will insert Shipp and slide Abbott over to the point. Earlier in the season it appeared that freshman Trent Lockett (6'4" 211 lbs.) had firmly established himself in Sendek's rotation, even starting six games and having a great 1st half against Duke. It seems, however, that Sendek has lost faith in Lockett, at least for the time being, and he's been losing minutes to Shipp. Still, keep an eye on Lockett as he's probably ASU's most naturally gifted player and is capable of scoring in double digits quickly. His recent lack of playing time is because he hasn't been playing under control on offense and, as many freshmen do, he's having trouble picking up Sendek's defensive principles.
UCLA and ASU have one opponent in common so far this season, Delaware State. UCLA won by 17 while ASU won by 32. That doesn't tell the whole story, though. You know what you're going to get from ASU in a given game so the fact that they had one big run and wore down Delaware State is no surprise. UCLA, however, played a great first half in leading by 19 against DSU, in a way that ASU never dominated the Hornets. That's what UCLA can do when they're focused. The second half of the DSU game is what UCLA can do when they're not focused and it's a team that UCLA fans have seen far too often this season. If that team shows up then UCLA will be in real trouble.
There are some things that will help UCLA in this game, though, chiefly ASU's style of play. Teams that have sped up UCLA have gotten them to play sloppy and loose. Arizona State's game is to play tough halfcourt zone defense, not to speed up the opponent. That will invariably help UCLA and Jerime Anderson. Obviously playing at home will help, too. ASU is nowhere near as good away from Tempe as they are at home.
The keys to the game then lay out like this:
1) How will Jerime Anderson play? His confidence is necessary for UCLA to be successful and when he's on he can certainly attack a zone defense.
2) Will the Bruins play focused and intense or not? This may be the biggest key to the game.
3) Will the Bruins attack the 1-3-1 zone used by Sendek and ASU? There are many seams in that zone but the Bruins have to move the ball quickly and attack using dribble penetration. Any hesitation and then UCLA will be forced to settle for outside shots.
4) Although I haven't talked about it yet, UCLA should own the glass. Despite their 10-3 start, ASU is being out-rebounded on the season. UCLA needs to own the boards.
Generally things tend to land in the middle when looking at keys to the game. The biggest thing may be ASU's insistence on only a halfcourt defense possibly allowing Jerime Anderson and the rest of the Bruins a comfort zone on offense to do just enough to win.
Arizona State 60