That bodes well for keeping Saturday's game at Washington a close affair and has many Bruin fans and you would think the players themselves thinking confidently going into what has been a house of horrors for UCLA the past five seasons. The question for UCLA in almost every game has been whether or not the Bruins would play with focus and energy -- which Bruin team would "show up," as it were. The question for Saturday, however, shifts that same issue from the Bruins to the Huskies. After losing at home to USC on Thursday the question that should be asked is which Husky team will show up to play?
Most fans remember the first meeting between the Bruins and Huskies a little more than a month ago at Pauley Pavilion. Former UCLA walk-on Mustafa Abdul-Hamid hit an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer to give the Bruins an improbable win. Since that game, the fortune of both teams has ebbed and flowed. UDub had recently been on a strong run which saw the Huskies moving up the Pac-10 standings until Thursday's uncharacteristic home loss to the Trojans. Frankly, the Trojans are a bad match-up for the Huskies because USC plays very good man-to-man defense and Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar doesn't have the inside power to challenge USC's two post players.
The Bruins, on the other hand, have won some games and lost others as they've searched for some consistency, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Since the Bruins have gone almost exclusively to a 2-3 zone defense, that end of the floor has seen relatively consistent play. What has dictated UCLA's wins and losses has truly been the production and efficiency of the Bruins' halfcourt offense. Thursday night saw UCLA operate its offense the best it has all season. As Tracy Pierson wrote in his game review, Washington State's defense isn't all that good, but the Cougars do have a pretty good shot blocker in DeAngelo Casto. The Bruins were so effective with their passing that they rendered Casto ineffective on the defensive end of the floor. There is some question how that will translate against the Huskies on Saturday.
Wazzu doesn't put a great deal of pressure on the ball and the Bruins have been successful against teams that practice lane denial rather than ball denial. Conversely the Bruins have struggled against teams that put a lot of pressure on the ball. Except for the win at California, UCLA has tended to see its turnover numbers rise alarmingly when teams pressure the Bruin guards. Washington is going to put much more pressure on the Bruin ballhandlers and over more of the floor than Wazzu did. How the Bruins handle that pressure, i.e. if the Bruins can avoid too many turnovers, will go a long way to determining the outcome of the game.
Defensively, zone defenses have given UDub some serious trouble this season. The Huskies are not a good outside shooting team, averaging only 31% from the three-point line for the season. Their two outstanding scorers, senior Quincy Pondexter (6'6" 215 lbs.) and sophomore Isaiah Thomas (5'8" 185 lbs.), who average 20.3 PPG and 17 PPG respectively, are only shooting 36% and 31% from beyond the arc. In fact, besides Pondexter, only sophomore Scott Suggs (6'6" 185 lbs.) is shooting at least 36% from beyond the arc. Washington's strength is its ability to drive the ball to the hoop. Along with Pondexter and Thomas, Romar can count on very good athletes in juniors Venoy Overton (5'11" 185 lbs.) and Justin Holiday (6'6" 180 lbs.) as well as freshman Abdul Gaddy (6'3" 190 lbs.) to have the quickness to beat their defensive man to the hoop or attack the seams in a zone defense. The problem for Romar and the Huskies is that they don't always play smart or tough basketball and can tend to settle for outside shots.
Relatively poor outside shooting wouldn't be as much of a liability if the Huskies could rebound well on the offensive end, but quite simply the Huskies don't have a strong front line. Junior Matt Bryan-Amaning (6'9" 240 lbs.), sophomore Darnell Gant (6'8" 225 lbs.) and freshman Tyrese Breshers (6'7" 255 lbs.) do give Romar a great deal of size on the low block. However, each has some serious liabilities. Bryan-Amaning, perhaps the most effective big man on the roster, has gotten into consistent foul trouble throughout the season. Gant is incredibly raw as an offensive player and Breshers, who will ultimately be the best of the three, isn't the quickest of players. A good indicator of how much the Huskies miss Jon Brockman is that UDub's leading rebounder is Pondexter at 8.1 RPG while the three Husky big men combine to average only a little more than 10 RPG.
The Bruins will need to be able to have their post players be a threat. That will mean having Reeves Nelson and his newly acquired 15 stitches be effective at scoring the ball. It will also mean that both J'mison Morgan and Brendan Lane will have to build on the solid play they showed in Pullman. The Bruin inside players do have some advantages over their Husky counterparts. Nelson has a more polished inside game and Lane can shoot out to the three-point line while Morgan showed some uncanny passing ability out of the post against the Cougars. However, all three Bruins, even Morgan, lack the girth that the Husky posts have.
Of course, there is the proverbial elephant in the room in the form of Washington's ability to get to the free-throw line when they play in Seattle. Much has been written about the free-throw disparity between the Huskies and their opponents when the Huskies play at home. Much of that disparity, regardless if you think it comes from Pac-10 officials favoring Washington, results from UDub's aforementioned ability to drive the basketball. The question will be whether or not the Huskies can do that against an active Bruin zone defense. In the first match-up of these two teams, the Huskies were able to get good looks from the short corner and through the use of skip passes coupled with backscreens on the top two Bruin defenders. Being successful with those was much of the reason Washington was able to lead against the Bruins for much of the game at Pauley. However, when Coach Ben Howland adjusted to those plays, the Huskies didn't have an answer and that enabled the Bruins to claw their way back and ultimately win on Abdul-Hamid's buzzer beater. The main point here is that Washington was unable to drive the ball to the rack consistently against UCLA's zone in the first match-up and their hot shooting at the beginning of that game tailed off significantly in that game's second half. If the Bruins can keep the Huskies out of the lane with regularity then that will also go a long way towards a Bruin victory.
This is a big game for both teams in the conference race (aren't they all at this point?) and the winner will take a big step to getting a possible top 2 or 3 seed in the conference tourney. In UCLA's case, it may be even more significant as the Bruins are only one game behind California for the top spot in the Pac-10, and the Bruins will be home next week against the Oregon schools. Tracy Pierson also wrote that in each of the past several seasons the Bruins have had moments where things really started coming together, or words to that effect. Pierson suggested that Thursday night at Wazzu might have been this season's "lightbulb" moment. The Bruins are going to find out if that's true in spades because they are playing on Saturday in a venue that has been particularly unkind to UCLA throughout Howland's tenure.
Look for the Bruins to give a great effort, but also look for UDub to give the same. That means the Huskies will be far more aggressive than they were in Los Angeles with regard to getting to the hoop. That probably means a big disparity in free-throw attempts and the Huskies hit 72% of their charity shots. The fact that Nelson, the warrior that he is, can't possibly play at 100%, only makes UCLA's task that much more difficult. If the Bruins had a couple of Wazzu-game efforts under their belt before this game then I might be tempted to pick the Bruins, but there is some doubt as to whether the Bruins can duplicate that effort. It should be a good game but it will more than likely be a bit more than the Bruins can handle right now.