The UCLA Bruins return to the court on Saturday night when they host the Washington State Cougars at 7 PM PST at Pauley Pavilion. The game will be telecast live on the Pac 12 Network. The Bruins (17-6; 7-2 in the Pac 12 Conference) are coming off a dramatic 59-57 victory over Washington while the Cougars (11-12; 2-8) are coming off a close loss to USC after leading by 7 in the second half. With Oregon losing its third game in a row on Thursday night, the Bruins find themselves in a tie for second place in the Pac 12, only one game behind Arizona, so this game against Wazzu holds huge significance for UCLA in its quest for the Pac 12 regular season title. Washington State finds itself at the bottom of the conference and there are serious questions being asked about Coach Ken Bone's job security. While the Cougars are languishing in last place in the Pac 12, the Bruins are under pressure to win this game as Coach Ben Howland also finds himself on the proverbial hot seat.
The game preview I wrote for the UDub game was terrifically off with regard to the score but pretty darn accurate when it came to the key to the game; Washington's propensity for turnovers. The Huskies finished with 19. Washington State is about as un-Washington as a team can be. If there is a team in the Pac 12 that is similar to Wazzu, it's probably Utah. Wazzu like to slow things down somewhat, although not like the days when a Bennett roamed the sidelines. The Cougars have a big post who can pull his man out to the arc and solid, albeit not great players around him.
The "big post" is senior Brock Motum (6'10" 245 lbs.). Motum is the leading scorer and rebounder on the team (18.2 PPG/6.9 RPG) and he is, quite frankly, the only top-level player on the roster. That's not to say that there isn't some talent on Bone's roster, only that he's the only one with the experience and development. Motum's performance is down a bit this season, if you can call those numbers "down" mainly because teams are keying on him, especially with the preseason dismissal of guard Reggie Moore. He is averaging almost 3 turnovers per game and his shooting percentage is down, especially from distance. He is, though, shooting 34% from behind the arc. However, Motum is much better offensively than Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski and USC's Dwayne Demon. The Wear brothers and Tony Parker (what limited minutes he plays) will absolutely have their hands full with Motum.
The other "scorer" for the Cougars is senior guard Mike Ladd (6'5" 195 lbs.). Ladd is an adequate shooter and decent rebounder, grabbing 5.8 RPG. His 11.7 PPG come from a variety of shots, including 33% from the three-point line. Ladd's scoring would be up considerably if h were hitting more than 60% of his free throws. Ladd is also a pretty good defender, which he'll need to be as it looks like he'll be guarding UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad for much of the game.
UCLA's bane has been the opposition's point guard play. UDub's Abdul Gaddy had a middling game on Thursday night against Larry Drew II. Part of that was because Gaddy was inexplicably (because of what USC and ASU showed against Drew) putting ball pressure on Drew and refused to drive much against Drew at the other end of the floor. Wazzu's point guard Royce Woolridge (6'3" 175 lbs.), a Kansas transfer, may not be as highly publicized as Gaddy, as quick as ASU's Jahaii Carson or as experienced as USC's Jio Fontan, but he is capable. Woolridge isn't particularly quick and he isn't a great shot but you can bet that Bone will do a better job of allowing Woolridge to play off of Drew and have him using ball screens to go at Drew. The UCLA point guard has a tendency to go under screens, thus leaving a great deal of room for the point guard to operate around the perimeter. It also give the point guard a lot of room to take three-pointers.
Wazzu's best athlete is sophomore guard DaVonte Lacy (6'3" 206 lbs.). Lacy averages 9.7 PPG, but like Ladd would average more if his free throw percentage wasn't so mediocre. He also tends to get lazy, settling for cruising around the perimeter and not really getting involved inside. He averages only 2.6 RPG. That might be what the proverbial doctor ordered for UCLA's Jordan Adams to get out of his shooting slump. In all honesty, he shouldn't have to work terribly hard on defense against Lacy so he can concentrate more on the offensive end.
Junior post D.J. Shelton (6'10" 250 lbs.) rounds out the starting five. He isn't much of a scorer but he does rebound well, averaging 6.1 RPG and having double-digit rebounds in the game against USC. Luckily UCLA has just faced a Washington squad that went with two big posts, one athletic and the other a load to deal with around the basket. Don't be surprised if Howland decides to put Kyle Anderson on Motum and use the Wears and Parker against Shelton's bulk. It depends on who Howland has more faith in as a defender because the better post defender should be on Motum, even if that leaves Anderson physically at a disadvantage against Shelton.
Bone really has been shortening his bench, with three players averaging well over 30 MPG and Lacy being right around 30. The bench consists of junior Will DiIorio (6'5" 190 lbs.), sophomore Dexter Kernich-Drew (6'6" 182 lbs.) and freshman Richard "Junior" Longrus (6'7" 232 lbs.). None of the three are playing much but keep an eye on Kernich-Drew as he's hoisted 77 three-pointers this season. He's only hitting 30% (actually a shade below), but if he gets hot whatsoever it will open things up for Motum.
Washington State is dangerous because of the two-man game that Woolridge and Motum could potentially play. Motum, unlike ASU's Bachynski, USC's Dedmon and UDub's Aziz N'Daiye, has the ability to run the pick and roll and the pick and pop. The post defender on Motum will have to be very aware of the slip off the screen of the point guard and the quick pop off the screen for a three-point shot. If UCLA's does anything to try and alter Motum's game, he's a good enough passer to find open teammates. The danger is that UCLA could try and compensate against Motum thus leaving Woolridge free to get into the paint against Drew. If the Bruin senior requires help with regard to drives, then Wazzu will dish to open shooters in Ladd and Lacy, etc…and don't think that the Cougars will go a collective 2-19 from beyond the arc.
On the defensive end, expect Bone to vary from a man to a zone, but having whoever is guarding Drew drop to around the three-point line. Once again, it is going to be imperative for the UCLA point guard to hit a couple of outside shots to loosen things up. Since Bone has been in the Palouse, his teams have always seemed pretty susceptible to weakside screening and shooters. Muhammad and Adams (more Muhammad) have been really good at using double screens to get open as they run baseline coming back to the ball side of the floor. That's how both of them often get open looks from deep.
Speaking of Adams, he's the key right now for UCLA. His shooting has been terrible the past couple of weeks and he's even finding it harder to use his guile to get into the lane. For UCLA to operate more at its optimum in the half court, Adams has to rediscover even an average shooting percentage from the outside. Think about it; if Adams even hits for 10 points, five below his average, the Bruins beat Washington on Thursday fairly easily. The whole Bruin squad shot poorly on Thursday, which actually makes it three poor shooting games in a row for the Bruins.
Washington State lacks the kind of athleticism to exploit UCLA. That means that they have to be really efficient on offense and smart on defense. They may defend smartly but Wazzu's been bit by one of two bugaboos almost every game. The Cougars either keep their turnovers down but get beat on the boards, or they win the battle of the glass but turn the ball over exponentially. Either would suit Howland and the Bruins. Wazzu also isn't a very good shooting team, both from the field and from the charity stripe. That isn't a recipe for beating the Bruins. UCLA absolutely needs this win as it gets ready to travel to the Bay Area next weekend for the next set of critical games.
Washington State 60