Wazzu Preview

UCLA has yet to prove it can string two good games together, which makes us skeptical in their match-up against Washington State, a team that can shoot and possibly counter UCLA's newfound zone...

From now on I am not going to write a detailed game preview. All I am going to do is predict a UCLA loss and watch as the Bruins come out and win a game that no one, including yours truly didn't think that had a chance to win. So with that in mind, when the Bruins host Washington State Saturday at Pauley Pavilion the score will be:

Washington State 2,000
UCLA 3 (Nikola Dragovic will hit a ‘3' with time running down in the second half to keep the Bruins from hanging a goose egg on the scoreboard)

Just kidding. However, can you blame me or other Bruin fans for thinking crazy thoughts like the one above in this topsy-turvy season?

UCLA is coming off an exciting 62-61 victory over Washington that was capped by a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot by senior Mustafa Abdul-Hamid. The fact that UCLA won was reason enough for Bruin fans to be happy, but the manner in which UCLA won was even more satisfying. Sure, UCLA could have won in much easier fashion had they hit their free throws in the last minutes of the game, but it was UCLA's intensity and effort all game long which was impressive. It was without question UCLA's most complete effort of the season on both ends of the floor and it was probably the first time this year that UCLA displayed the grit, determination and fire on defense that many UCLA fans have come to expect from a Ben Howland-coached team. What is most gratifying as a fan, though, is that Washington didn't play badly or miss wide-open shots as was the case when UCLA beat both Arizona State and California. The Huskies tried to get in the lane and for the most part the Bruins refused to allow that to happen. The Huskies crashed the boards and for the most part UCLA stood its ground. In short, the Bruins just wanted it more and that's a refreshing thing to be able to say this season.

Now comes a new challenge, the Cougars of Washington State. Wazzu is coming off a solid 67-60 victory over USC on Thursday, the same USC team that drilled UCLA last weekend by 21 points. The Cougs were able to shoot over 50% against the athletic USC defense in the second half of that game and they evened out the battle of the boards with the Trojans at 35. The Cougars aren't nearly as athletic as UDub but they shoot the ball much better, especially from outside and they have at least one inside player who the Bruins must account for when Wazzu is on offense.

First year coach Ken Bone's best player, and perhaps the best player in the Pac-10 Conference is sophomore wing Klay Thompson (6'6" 20 lbs.) who leads the team in scoring at 22.8 PPG and is second on the team in rebounding at 5.2 RPG. Thompson is a gifted offensive player that can score from anywhere on the floor. He has taken more shots than the next two Cougars combined, more three-pointers and more free throws than any other Cougar and he shoots well from inside the arc and out as well as from the charity stripe. Quite frankly he is almost a clone of Washington's Quincy Pondexter and while not being as strong as the UDub senior, he is a much better natural scorer. UCLA will have its hands full trying to slow down Thompson, let alone stop him regardless of whether the Bruins play man defense or a zone.

Freshman Reggie Moore (6'1" 178 lbs.) has been the find of Wazzu's freshmen class. He scores 13.8 PPG and is a completely different threat than Thompson. While Moore can certainly shoot from beyond the three-point line, his game is predicated on dribble penetration. He's taken exactly one half of the shots from the floor less than Thompson yet he's been to the free throw line only one fewer time than Thompson. As the point guard he has a 2 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio and does a great job of protecting the ball. He is deceptively quick and will cause the Bruins many problems if Howland decides to go man-to-man.

Up front the Cougars have arguably the most improved sophomore in the Pac-10 in DeAngelo Casto (6'8" 231 lbs.) who leads the Cougars in rebounding at 7.3 RPG. He is also Wazzu's third double-digit scorer averaging 10.1 PPG. He is a warrior underneath the hoop and does a great job setting screens in Wazzu's motion offense. Unlike Washington's big men Casto actually has a bit of a back-to-the-basket game. If the Bruins play man defense then James Keefe and Reeves Nelson will have their hands full with Casto. While both Bruins, especially Nelson, (look what he did to UDub's big men), can play with Casto, paying attention to him will mean less time to paying attention to the help they will inevitably have to give on one of Wazzu's wing players.

Senior Nikola Koprivica (6'6" 221 lbs.) doesn't start but he plays starter's minutes, averaging almost 23 MPG. He is clearly Wazzu's designated outside threat having taken over half of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and hitting on over 50% of those shots. Unlike the rest of Bone's wings/guards, Koprivica can't create his own shot but he is adept at using screens to free himself. In many ways he's a poor-man's version of Arizona State Rihards Kuksiks.

The two other starters in Bone's four guard lineup are sophomores Abe Lodwick (6'7" 200 lbs) and Marcus Capers (6'4" 180 lbs.). Lodwick is more of a deep threat while Capers has become Wazzu's defensive stopper, much like Kyle Weaver was for the Cougars several years ago.

If the Bruins were to play man defense against Wazzu's starting lineup then expect to see Malcolm Lee on Moore, Mike Roll on Capers, Tyler Honeycutt on Thompson, Nikola Dragovic on Lodwick and Nelson/Keefe on Casto.

Besides Koprivica, Bone has freshman Xavier Thames (6'3" 186 lbs.) who will play close to 20 minutes while spelling the guards. Sophomore Charlie Enquist (6'10" 222 lbs.) will play up to 10 minutes in order to give Casto a breather. Thames will play the point when Moore is out and he does have the ability to create his own shot while Enquist is a big body that helps Bone's squad stay effective on defense when Casto is out.

Bone is much different than his predecessor, Tony Bennett, in that Bone would rather his team get out in transition. While they don't have the horses yet to do that consistently, they aren't the methodical Cougars of past years. When they play in the halfcourt then the Cougars will run a traditional motion offense that allows their creative players, (Thompson and Moore), to use screens to create seams to the hoop and create their own shots. The Cougars are very good at setting screens and do a nice job of setting up shooters Koprivica and Lodwiick. If Ben Howland insists on running a man defense much of the game then he risks Thompson going off on Honeycutt. The UCLA frosh will get tired chasing Thompson and getting knocked around by all the effective and hard screens the Cougars will set for him. It makes much more sense for the Bruins to stick with the zone that was so effective against Washington. If the concern over Honeycutt wasn't enough then Howland needs to remember that Wazzu carved up USC's man defense and the Trojans do a better job of man defending than do the Bruins.

Defensively the Cougars play the same hard-nosed style halfcourt man-to-man defense they've played since Dick Bennett was the coach. They will also hold down the defensive boards well thus negating much of what Honeycutt can bring to the offensive table.

Playing Washington State used to be like playing a wishbone team in football. You hoped to play them in the Thursday game because it took four days to prepare for them. That isn't the case as much anymore, at least with regard to preparing for a system, so playing UDub first should ready the Bruins for Wazzu. Further, UCLA's zone is something the Cougars more than likely won't have more than Friday to prep for because USC is a man-to-man defensive team. Both of these factors should help the Bruins.

Still, as great as it was to see the Bruins put forth the Howland-type effort on Thursday night, it remains to be seen of the Bruins can string two games like that together. They haven't been able to yet this season and playing Wazzu, the most underrated team in the Pac-10, is probably not the best recipe to see of the Bruins can retain their intensity and focus. If UCLA can replicate their Thursday effort, they should win. But since we haven't seen that kind of effort twice in a row yet this season it's a case of "I'll believe it when I see it". Besides, Wazzu hits their free throws and for UCLA its still an Achilles Heel. This is the game where it may come back to bite them.

Washington State 68
UCLA 60


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