Game of the Week: #4 Washington State at #5 UCLA

January 11th, 2008

Game of the Week: No. 4 Washington State at No. 5 UCLA (Saturday, 2:30 PM, FSN)

Since conference play began a couple of weeks ago, the amount of quality games every weekend has increased dramatically. Every two hours or so, another couple of must-see games appear on the docket, leading to jam-packed Saturdays and Sundays of intense college basketball. However, on some weekends, one game overshadows the rest. That will be the case this weekend, when the west coast and Pac-10 take center stage. Two top-five teams clash as No. 4-ranked and undefeated Washington State takes on perennial power, No. 5 UCLA. Most people don’t get a chance to see WSU on a regular basis and UCLA normally only appears in the late-night slots, which makes this game even more interesting. Be sure to tune in; it should be fun.

Washington State Team Breakdown

Washington State came out of nowhere last season to make a run at the Pac-10 title and eventually earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the second round. The Cougars have continued their stellar play this season, running off 13 straight wins to open the season, including road wins over Washington, Baylor and Gonzaga. (When asked at the Pac-10 coaches’ teleconference this week about the difficulty of going undefeated, WSU coach Tony Bennett responded jokingly: “You have to ask the Patriots.”) The Cougars play outstanding defense and force teams to play at one of the slowest paces in the country. They are ranked No. 4 in defensive efficiency and No. 56 in offensive efficiency.

The Cougars are led by their outstanding backcourt of Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low. Weaver is one of the best defenders in the country and has the ability to create match-up problems at both ends of the floor with his size and length. Low has been compared by some to Steve Nash, and he is a high-energy player that always seems to be around the ball. He can create his own shot, and is also adept at finding his teammates. Taylor Rochestie also starts in a three-guard lineup. He is a very good three-point shooter and passer who doesn’t make too many mistakes. Nikola Kiprovica comes off the bench.

Up front, 6-10 junior center Aron Baynes has made a huge impact due to his vast improvement since last season. He is the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, and provides the Cougars with a legit inside presence that they didn’t get on a consistent basis last year. Robbie Cowgill is another efficient big man. He rebounds and defends well, and doesn’t commit unnecessary fouls. Daven Harmeling will come off the bench. According to Bennett, Harmeling gave them a lift against Washington despite his thumb being padded up. “Hopefully it’s even better this week,” Bennett said. Caleb Forrest also sees minutes.

UCLA Team Breakdown

UCLA has been one of the nation’s most consistent programs over the past few seasons, and this year seems no different. The Bruins are 14-1, with their lone loss coming by two points at home to Texas. UCLA owns victories over Michigan State, Davidson, Maryland, California and Stanford – the latter two coming on the road to open Pac-10 play. The Bruins are one of the best defensive teams in the country and look more explosive offensively than they have in recent years. They are ranked No. 17 in offensive efficiency and No. 7 in defensive efficiency.

UCLA owns one of the best perimeter groups in the country. Point guard Darren Collison is among the elite at his position despite being hampered by a variety of injuries and illnesses this season, most recently a hospitalization due to food poisoning. He is a very good passer and shooter who is also a dynamite defender. Josh Shipp is a big-time scorer on the wing who has the potential to have a break-out game at any time. He has scored in double-figures in all but one game this season, including five with at least 18 points. Russell Westbrook has been exceptional at both ends of the floor. He is very athletic who creates havoc with his length on the defensive end and can finish around the rim.
UCLA’s frontcourt is much more talented than it has been in both of its Final Four runs of the past two seasons. The main reason? Kevin Love, “the best freshman I’ve ever had,” according to coach Ben Howland.. The 6-9 big man is one of the most dominant post players in the country – so it’s no surprise Howland says Love isn’t getting the ball enough. “We need to get him more touches,” Howland said. “He’s so good with the ball in his hands and makes such good decisions.” Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a versatile forward who can do a variety of things at both ends of the floor, and is capable of producing the occasional big game or double-double. Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya are solid rebounders and defenders who can also get garbage points.

Game Analysis and Prediction

This should be one of the best games of the season. It might not captivate the viewer with fast-break baskets and high-octane offense, but both teams play outstanding defense and limit mistakes on the offensive end. Don’t be surprised to see these teams meet three more times – once more in the regular season, once in the Pac-10 title game, and then again in San Antonio at the Final Four. They’re that good. Washington State wants to slow the game down and force UCLA to guard them for an extended amount of time before running and executing its offense. On the other end, the Cougars like to “play right to the three-point line and pack it in,” according to Howland. “They don’t gamble, they’re physical and they contest every shot.” UCLA also plays outstanding defense, but with its ultra-quick backcourt of Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook, the Bruins can afford to pressure the ball more after the ball-handler passes mid-court. Offensively, UCLA has a variety of options, including plenty of players who can shoot the ball or penetrate to the basket, as well as Kevin Love down low. Given Love’s unbelievable passing ability, it would benefit UCLA to get him as many touches as he can.

If Washington State is to pull off the win on the road, it is going to need to do several things. In general, coach Tony Bennett said it best: “When you’re on the road, you really better play good basketball or you don’t have a chance.” More specifically, first, Aron Baynes and Robbie Cowgill need to contain Kevin Love down low. Neither player has a major problem with foul trouble, but they will need to wear Love down with their physicality. Love has trouble with conditioning; WSU has to take advantage of that. Second, Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low and Taylor Rochestie have to take care of the ball against UCLA’s steal-hounds in the backcourt. Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook will pick their pocket if given an opportunity. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Washington State has to control tempo and stop the ball. WSU doesn’t want to get into a running game, so they will need to limit UCLA’s fast-break opportunities. Josh Shipp loves shooting in transition and Collison might be faster than anyone in the country besides Tywon Lawson. Outlet passes from Love force teams to constantly pay attention defensively.

On the other side, UCLA needs to take advantage of its huge edge down low. Neither Baynes or Cowgill can stop Love one-on-one and UCLA has too many other options for them to consistently double-team him every possession. Love has not been getting enough touches and opportunities lately, and UCLA needs to do a better job of getting him the ball. Next, they will have to stay focused and not get impatient against Washington State’s defense. “They’re a very difficult team to deal with because of their patience and discipline at both ends of the floor,” Howland said. “Anyone who plays them has their hands full.” Weaver has the ability to single-handedly shut down anyone on UCLA’s perimeter, so the Bruins will need to limit his impact. Lastly, UCLA’s defense needs to force Washington State to shoot outside jumpers – outside of Rochestie and Low, who have hit a combined 48 threes, the Cougars don’t have any shooters.

In the end, this game will live up to the hype. Neither team gets blown out and both teams are too good to let the other team pull away at any point in the game. The difference will be the home-court advantage that UCLA has, as well as its edge inside with Kevin Love. Washington State will need a huge game from its bigs in order to pull the upset.

Prediction: UCLA 64, Washington State 61