The loss to USC, on the tail of the disappointing loss at Stanford, has left UCLA at 7-10 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-10 Conference. The Southern Cal loss was especially disheartening for Bruin fans because of the manner in which it happened. The Bruins appeared to show no fight against the Trojans and that doesn't bode well for the rest of the season, let alone for Thursday's match-up with Washington. It was the second straight game for the Bruins, with Stanford being the first, where the Bruins showed no focus or intensity when it mattered. Now they face a Husky team that plays at a frenetic pace and pressures the ball heavily in the halfcourt. That was exactly what the Bruins faced against USC and the Bruins were pummeled. In fact, the 21-point final deficit was actually closer than game actually was. Yes, the Bruins were outplayed that badly.
As the Pac-10 preseason favorite, the Huskies haven't exactly lit the world on fire. They haven't won a single non-conference game of note, although they crushed the same Portland team that destroyed UCLA at the 76 Classic in Anaheim over the Thanksgiving weekend. Their best win appears to be their last game when the Huskies routed California in Seattle. Still, Washington has the athletes and plays a style of basketball that has given the Bruins much trouble consistently over the course of the season.
Washington's best player this season has been senior wing Quincy Pondexter (6'6" 215 lbs.). He leads the Huskies in scoring at 20.3 PPG and rebounding at 7.9 RPG, and is shooting over 56% from the floor and 83% from the free throw line. His only weakness this season has been his outside shooting, where he is only hitting 29% of his three-point shots. He does have more turnovers than assists but that's not surprising since he is clearly the first offensive option for Coach Lorenzo Romar's squad. Pondexter has always been a gifted athlete but this season he's really become a very effective basketball player. Quite simply, the Bruins have no one who can even remotely guard Pondexter. Tyler Honeycutt would be the logical option but USC's Marcus Johnson had no trouble beating Honeycutt on several occasions last Saturday and Pondexter is better than Johnson. On top of that, Pondexter is quite strong for his size. All of that coupled with his weak outside shooting begs Coach Ben Howland to play a zone against the Huskies.
If Pondexter isn't firing on all cylinders then Romar can focus on getting the ball to sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas (5'8" 185 lbs.). Thomas is the Huskies' second-leading scorer at 18.2 PPG and surprisingly is the third-leading rebounder at 4.2 RPG. That just shows how many minutes Thomas plays compared to many of his teammates and how shifty and quick he is. If the Bruins do decide to play off him he has the ability to hit the outside shot. He is the among the team leaders in three-point shooting percentage and three-pointers made. He does have a tendency to play out of control but the Bruins have shown little ability to make players or teams pay for playing sloppily. Thomas is by far the team leader in turnovers. Defensively he is a pest because of his small stature and quickness. He pressures the ball all over the halfcourt and that, too, has caused UCLA problems this season. His size is troublesome because he plays defense by swiping at the ball frequently. To combat this an opposing player must get low in his dribble and all of the UCLA guards, especially Jerime Anderson, tend to dribble much too high. Don't be surprised if Anderson (if he actually plays) gets picked quite a bit with Thomas guarding him.
Thomas' running mate is junior Venoy Overton (5'11" 185 lbs.), who has had a very poor year, considering the expectations on him coming into the season. He's only averaging 7.9 PPG. He is ostensibly the point guard and he does have 58 assists to go with "only" 40 turnovers. Other than that, his style is similar to Thomas' in that both UDub guards have a "score first" mentality. He, too, is a pest on defense and presents the Bruin offense with the same challenges that Thomas does. Offensively Overton can hit the outside shot if the Bruins play off him, but his shooting is way down this year. Still, he has played some big games against the Bruins in the past.
If Howland decides to play man defense then expect the Bruin guards to be shredded. Malcolm Lee could probably handle one of the two Husky starters, but that leaves the other, not to mention the quick backcourt players that Romar can bring off the bench that would more than likely really hurt the Bruins at both ends of the floor. Again, because of their style of play in terms of getting to the basket, coupled with their quickness, lack of outside shooting relative to their ability to drive and UCLA's length, the backcourt match-up screams for Howland to zone the Huskies.
Thomas and Pondexter play over 30 MPG while Overton plays more than 22 MPG. Outside of them the only other Husky that plays more than 20 MPG is junior post Matt Bryan-Amaning (6'9" 240 lbs.). He is averaging 7.4 PPG and 5.4 RPG. He isn't as athletic as USC's posts, nor can he hit the mid-range jumper from the short corner like USC's Nikola Vucevic, but he knows how to throw his body around. Watching Bryan-Amaning play you can see how valuable he is because he is the one doing the heavy lifting of boxing out, allowing other Huskies to get to rebounds. He is a threat to score in the low post so it's not as if the Bruins can simply ignore him. Reeves Nelson did a good job of getting USC's Alex Stepheson in foul trouble last Saturday and Bryan-Amaning is comparable to Stepheson without the USC man's shot blocking ability. Nelson could probably hold his own against Bryan-Amaning but the post is not likely where the game will be decided.
Outside of those four players Romar has six others who average over 11 MPG. The backcourt depth, compared to UCLA's, is disheartening for Bruin fans. Freshman Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 190 lbs.) gets the most minutes off the bench and, while he brings some nice tools to the table, he hasn't been playing with any confidence this season. However, he has decent quickness, enough to bother the Bruins in much the same way that Overton and Thomas can. Sophomores Elston Turner (6'4" 205 lbs.) and Scott Suggs (6'6" 185 lbs.) provide different sorts of strengths for Romar. Turner is a defensive stopper while Suggs provides an outside shooting boost. Turner has eleven steals on the season while Suggs actually leads the team in three-point shooting percentage at 38% and is second on the team in three-pointers made. Finally, Romar can insert junior Justin Holiday (6'6" 180 lbs.), knowing that Holiday will do many of the little things, including playing defense and rebounding, that will help the team win.
Up front Romar can bring redshirt freshman Tyreese Breshers (6'7" 255 lbs.) and sophomore Darnell Gant (6'8" 225 lbs.). Both can bang and rebound and Breshers especially has gotten better as the season has progressed. In fact, don't be surprised if Breshers starts. Neither is an offensive force, but much like Bryan-Amaning, they can't be ignored, either.
Washington has quick players who like to dribble-drive to the basket and can create their own shot. They don't get much inside scoring and they are a threat to score from the outside. Those factors almost insist that UCLA play a zone in order to stay competitive. However, a zone defense will not be enough to even keep UCLA close in this contest. In reality, the likelihood of the Bruins being able to stay in the game is going to be decided on the other end of the floor.
When UCLA has been able to be competitive with good teams this season (Arizona State, Cal and Kansas come to mind), it's because they've started out shooting the ball pretty well and getting good looks from their offense. That in turn has given energy to their defense, especially when they are playing in the 2-3 zone. However, the reverse is also true; when the Bruins start out poorly on offense then they have really played poorly on the defensive end. Case in point: against USC the Bruins gave up huge holes in their zone defense that the Trojans exploited both along the baseline and from the short corner. Watch how the Bruin offense is doing for the first five minutes of the game and you'll probably get a pretty good idea of how the game will go and, more specifically, how well the Bruins will play on the defensive end.
This game has the potential to be a blowout along the lines of the USC game. Washington has some very quick players and they play at a tempo that really causes the opposition to play a sloppy game. However, the Huskies are a much better team at home and have a tendency to play down to their opposition (see the home loss against Oregon). Still, it won't be enough to pull out the victory and the Bruins could be looking at a lengthy losing streak with a good Washington State team on tap on Saturday followed by a trip to the Oregon schools.