What Pierson didn't talk about was how UCLA will react to the USC loss and what the rest of the season may hold. In all honesty, the only truly bad match-up for the Bruins in this year's Pac-10 Conference is USC and with the Trojans not eligible to play in the conference tournament there is a very real possibility, however slight, that the Bruins could make a run to the conference tournament title. The key, however, is the kind of effort that the Bruins give from here on out and losing the way they did could finally be the nail in the coffin of any confidence the Bruins had as a team. This UCLA team has surprised me at times this season with their effort when I truly believed they were going to emotionally pack it in. Perhaps that will still prove to be true these final three weeks, but it is now apparent that it is just as likely that UCLA will "mail it in" the rest of the way and as fans we can start looking forward to the 2010-2011 season (as if some of us haven't already).
There are those three weeks left in the regular season, though, and that provides the slim glimmer of hope that the Bruins can rid themselves of the bad tendencies that have plagued them in many of their losses. Those final three weeks start this weekend with a trip to the Washington schools.
When looking at UCLA's remaining six games only two are at home (the Oregon schools), and with UCLA's current 11-13 overall record and 6-6 record in the conference that means even with a sweep of Oregon and Oregon State UCLA must find a way to win at least one road game to finish the conference year at .500 and two road games to finish the regular season at .500 overall. Neither is an impossible task but right now no one outside the program knows the mental make-up of the squad and whether the team has a resilient quality or not will go a long way to determining how the final six games will turn out.
The first step of the final six games is a visit to the Palouse and Washington State. Wazzu is 15-10 overall but only 5-8 in the Pac-10. They are coming of a 16 point loss at California. It was a game where the Cougars played a great first half, holding a halftime lead of 11 points and being up by as much as 14 points in the first half. Then the bottom fell out and they were outscored by 27 points in the second half. If the USC game was a microcosm of UCLA's season then the loss to Cal was epitome of Wazzu's season. After shooting an unconscious 65% from the floor in the first half the Cougars came back down to Earth in the second half, shooting only 37% from the floor. Couple that with the fact that Wazzu's defense hasn't been all that great all year, (the Cougars are allowing opponents to shoot 45% from the floor and 37% from beyond the arc), and you had the makings of Cal's huge reversal of fortune in the second half of that game. The trouble with the Cougars this season is that they have two very reliable scorers in sophomore Klay Thompson, (6'6" 200 lbs.) and freshman Reggie Moore (6'1" 178 lbs.), but not much else. Although big man DeAngelo Casto (6'8" 231 lbs.) is averaging over 10 PG he has a tendency to disappear on the offensive end of the floor in certain games, (see the first UCLA game). Anyway, Thompson and Moore can score in bunches but the Cougars can't stop anyone. When Thompson and/or Moore go cold from the floor for any stretch of a game it immediately allows the opponent to go on a run. If one of them is cold for an entire game, like Thompson was in the first UCLA game, then Wazzu loses fairly easily. That is the essence of Wazzu's problem; they are trying to outscore people because the Cougar defense isn't what it was when one of the Bennett's was coaching and they don't have a roster that can effectively do that.
When these teams squared off in January in Los Angeles the Bruins won in fairly easy fashion. UCLA controlled the tempo, shut down Thompson until late in the second half and in fact, had a double digit lead for much of the game. It was only UCLA's lack of production from the free throw line that prevented the game from being a 20+ blowout. For the most part the reasons for the outcome of that game haven't changed.
UCLA has had pretty good success this year against teams that don't put a lot of defensive ball pressure on the Bruin guards or aren't overly athletic. Conversely the Bruins have had almost zero success against athletic teams that pressure them. The USC game is a perfect example. It's not so much on UCLA's defensive end that the Bruins play poorly, but rather on the offensive end, where the Bruins fail to execute against that pressure at critical times. Against the Trojans the Bruins had numerous opportunities, especially in the second half, to capitalize on USC's mistakes and the Bruins failed to do so. Washington State is neither athletic nor do they pressure the ball much.
Coach Ken Bone's defense is predicated on passing lane denial rather than on-ball denial. The Cougars can do that because they have in Casto arguably the Pac-10's best shot blocker. So the Cougars take away the passing lanes but allow the ball to penetrate. They overplay the baseline side thus forcing the opponent back towards the middle and Casto. Now if a team is shooting well from the outside then Wazzu is dead because the penetrator simply kicks the ball out to a wide-open shooter. And if Casto is out of the game then Wazzu suffers greatly because they really don't have a "plan B" on defense. In the first game with the Bruins the Cougars did run some zone defense but the Bruins were able to get good outside looks against it and hit enough shots to slowly pull away from the Cougars.
From a personnel standpoint and a style-of-play standpoint the Bruins should be decent favorites to win this game, even with it being on the road. As I said, for the most part the reasons for the outcome of the first game between these two teams haven't changed, save one, and that could be the clincher for why UCLA loses this game.
The Bruins played hard throughout the loss to USC and had a massive advantage on the boards…and still lost. A some point a young team is going to mentally cash it in, at least for a couple of games when losing a game like the Bruins lost against the Trojans. It wouldn't surprise me if the Bruins came out and were hammered on Thursday against the Cougars, which doesn't bode well for the Saturday game at Washington. On the other hand it wouldn't surprise me if the Bruins won at Wazzu and then gave the Huskies all they could handle in Seattle. I just don't know the mental make-up of this team. Remember, the first time the Bruins played Wazzu they were coming off the dramatic victory over Washington at Pauley when Mustafa Abdul-Hamid hit the buzzer beater to win by one. Now the Bruins enter Spokane on a real downer.
The first couple of minutes will tell us how the game is going to go. The Bruins will either put forth a great deal of effort, as they have the past seven games or they will fold at the first sign of adversity. However, they couldn't ask for a better match-up in which to right themselves than the Cougars. The lack of ball pressure will at least allow for the possibility of Jerime Anderson finding a comfort zone. The Cougars don't close out shooters well so perhaps Mike Roll and/or Nikola Dragovic could go off. Finally, for all their shooting prowess with Moore, Thompson and senior Nikola Koprivica (6'6" 221 lbs.) the Cougars don't attack a zone defense well.
Obviously Bone and the Cougars will have seen the tape of the most recent UCLA/USC game and see the way the Trojans used dribble penetration to attack the UCLA zone. Moore has the capability to do the same thing but he may be the only Cougar who can. Thompson, for all his ability seems a bit slower the past few weeks than earlier in the season. Of course getting Casto in foul trouble again will help the Bruins greatly.
The Bruin zone has the ability to shut down the Cougars much like it did in Los Angeles. Casto doesn't block shots well and gets into foul trouble when matched-up against players who are physical and go into his body, a la Reeves Nelson. Again, this all seems to point to Bruin advantages. The problem is that mental fatigue aspect keeps rearing its ugly head. Call it a feeling because that's what it is, but I don't see the Bruins coming with anything close to their ‘A' game on Thursday. They won't lose in a blow out but just like against USC, the Bruins won't make the plays necessary in the end to win the game.
Washington State 68