Thursday, December 28, 2006

Game of the Week: #14 Washington at #1 UCLA

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Game of the Week: #14 Washington at #1 UCLA (Sunday, December 31st, 5:00 PM, FSN)

Conference play is here. Sure, there were intra-conference games spotted randomly throughout early December and pre-Christmas, but those were just appetizers. January usually marks the true start to conference play, and in turn, the meat and potatoes of the college basketball season. This year, many major conferences are starting their league play this week, including the Pac-10 officially starting Thursday. This weekend continues that theme, as there are plenty of good games on the docket, some conference games and others key non-conference match-ups. Nevada heads to Gonzaga, Northern Iowa faces off against Wichita State, Wisconsin goes on the road to Georgia, to name a few. But the best game of the week? Two of the Pac-10’s best face off when Washington heads to UCLA in an important conference tilt. We will learn a lot about both teams on Sunday night.

Team Capsules

Washington reached the Sweet Sixteen last season, and Lorenzo Romar and the Huskies picked up right where they left off. They opened the season with seven straight wins, including a victory over Northern Iowa, before falling to Gonzaga on the road. However, they bounced back to destroy LSU by 16 at home last week. Although the Huskies are 10-1, they haven’t left the state yet and have played a relatively easy schedule. Washington leads the conference in scoring, putting up 88 points per game (good enough for fourth in the country), but they have also given up the most points, allowing 74 a contest. Ken Pomeroy has the Huskies as the 45th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 62nd-most efficient defensive group.

UCLA is coming off of a 2006 Final Four appearance, and even with the loss of three starters, the Bruins have not missed a beat. Ranked #1 in the polls, the Bruins have started 11-0, including a Maui Invitational Championship and victories over Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, and Michigan. They have only two wins by less than 13 points, and have been dominant for the most part. The Bruins average just under 79 points per game, and are also one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country, giving up less than 60 points a contest. According to Ken Pomeroy, UCLA has the 7th-most efficient offense and the 8th-most efficient defense in the country.

Washington Team Breakdown

Washington is a program on the rise, and seems like they are able to continue their winning ways no matter who they lose to the NBA and graduation. Heading into this season, they had lost several key contributors, including All-American Brandon Roy. Lorenzo Romar has this team ready to play anyone, though. Their offensive is explosive, especially in transition, and their defense thrives on turnovers and pressure.

Washington has one of the best—and youngest—frontcourts in the country. It all starts with the freshmen duo of Spencer Hawes and Quincy Pondexter. Hawes is an extremely difficult match-up due to his all-around talent and size. The 6-11 center is tough to stop on the offensive end and is an outstanding shot-blocker. Hawes is also a good passer and rebounder. He started slowly this season, but is rounding into form lately, including a 23-point, 12-rebound performance against Glen Davis and LSU. He has scored at least 20 points in four of his last five games. Pondexter is an unbelievable athlete who is thriving in Washington's up-tempo style. He is very good at getting to the basket and has a developing perimeter game. He is also a decent passer. Early in the season, he looked like more of an impact newcomer than Hawes, and has been a consistent contributor throughout the year. Rounding out the starters is sophomore Jon Brockman. The 6-7 forward is an excellent complement to Hawes in the post. He is an excellent rebounder and a banger down low who has potential as a scorer. He is averaging a double-double currently, including a 19-point, 14-rebound outing against LSU and a 25-point, 12-rebound performance in the season opener against Pepperdine. Providing depth is Phil Nelson and Hans Gasser. Nelson is a very good outside threat who can get hot from behind the arc. Gasser gets backup minutes in the paint and provides solid scoring and rebounding.

Their backcourt is not as well-known as the frontcourt, but it is good nonetheless. Justin Dentmon leads the way. The 5-11 point guard is a good ball handler and does not turn the ball over often. Dentmon is also a good passer and a very solid rebounder who plays tough on-ball defense. He has improved greatly since last season, contributing in a variety of areas. He had an 11-point, 11-assist performance against Southern Utah, and has scored in double figures six times. He is fifth in the conference in assists. Freshman Adrian Oliver starts next to Dentmon. He started the season coming off the bench, but his production makes it hard to keep him off the court. He can score the ball well, but is also a good passer and rebounder. He had 14 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in a win over Easter Washington earlier this season. Ryan Appleby provides very good depth in the backcourt. He started earlier in the season after playing in the sixth man role last year, but seems more comfortable coming off the bench. He is a phenomenal outside shooter who is also a decent passer. He had six threes in a game earlier this season, and also had eight assists against Gonzaga. Brandon Burmeister is an excellent shooter who gives good minutes backing up the guards.

UCLA Team Breakdown

UCLA lost three starters from their National Championship runner-up team from a year ago, but have bounced back very well. Jordan Farmar was a first-round pick, while Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman were major contributors. However, Ben Howland pieced together a quality group and the Bruins might be even better than last year. Their defense is outstanding as usual, and they have several scorers that can get points on the offensive end.

Leading the way up front for the Bruins is sophomore Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The Pac-10 Freshman of the Year a season ago, Mbah a Moute is a versatile player that can do nearly everything on the court. He is an outstanding rebounder, both offensively and defensively. Moreover, he is extremely efficient shooting the ball and is a decent passer. He is also one of the best defenders in the conference. He has two double-doubles this season, but has contributed in all sorts of ways. He had 13 points and 7 steals against Michigan, and 24 points and 11 rebounds against BYU. If he develops some consistency offensively, look out. Wing Josh Shipp has been a consistent scorer for the Bruins. He played in only four games last season due to a right hip injury, but is healthy this year. He is an excellent scorer and shooter who will is a very good second option on the perimeter. Shipp is also an underrated rebounder. He has scored in double figures in seven straight games. He hit six threes in a game earlier this year. Down low, Lorenzo Mata gets most of the minutes. He is on the team in rebounding and had 16 in an outing against UC-Riverside. He is also a good shot-blocker but does not have much of an offensive game. However, he had 12 points against Kentucky and can get putbacks and garbage points inside. Alfred Aboya gets time backing up Mata in the paint. He is a decent inside scorer and rebounder. Freshman James Keefe also sees minutes.

The backcourt has developed into one of the best in the Pac-10, if not the nation, this season. The key to the quick start for the Bruins has been Darren Collison’s ability to replace Jordan Farmar at the point. He is among the nation’s leaders in assists, and has scored in double-figures in all but one game so far. Moreover, he is an outstanding defender, and is averaging just less than three steals per game. He takes care of the ball and is extremely quick at both ends of the floor. His defense has been the key to the stingy defense that the Bruins are playing, and his playmaking ability make UCLA difficult to stop. Starting next to him is Arron Afflalo, one of the best two guards in the country. He has developed into the go-to-guy for the Bruins, leading the team in scoring. He has scored in double-figures in every game but one this season. Afflalo is one of the best shooters and on-ball defenders in the country. He has the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Look for him to make a run at Pac-10 Player of the Year honors. Shooter Michael Roll and freshman Russell Westbrook provide quality depth off the bench. Roll is an outstanding shooter, while Westbrook is quick and can give Collison a breather.

Match-up Analysis

This will be an interesting match-up between two of the Pac-10’s best and two teams that will likely make noise come March. UCLA likes to slow the game down in the half-court, while Washington would much rather get out and run to get points in transition. The Bruins’ lockdown defense and offense that takes care of the ball will make life difficult for Washington. On the other hand, the Huskies have the inside game to give the Bruins frontline problems. The keys for Washington will be to take advantage of their superior size and talent down low. Spencer Hawes is a dominant big man who should be able to have a field day against Lorenzo Mata down low, while Jon Brockman is a physical player who can take Luc Richard Mbah a Moute out of his game. In the backcourt, Adrian Oliver and Justin Dentmon can’t turn the ball over against the pressure of Darren Collison and the defense of Arron Afflalo. Collison is a one-man press that can disrupt a team’s offense by himself. If he takes Dentmon out of the game, Washington will struggle at both ends.

For UCLA, their biggest key will be their ability to stop Hawes and Brockman down low. Mata is a good shot-blocker who needs to keep Hawes from having a big game like he did against LSU. Mbah a Moute has more athleticism than Brockman, and needs to take advantage of that. Moreover, UCLA has far superior guards and need to demonstrate that. If Collison can constantly get into the lane so he can pitch it out to Josh Shipp and Afflalo, it could be a long day for Washington. Moreover, watch for UCLA to keep the game in the half-court, forcing Washington to defend their multiple options. Additionally, a half-court game will make Washington play where they are not as comfortable. If Washington adapts to the slow-down style, they could make it a game. However, I don’t see that happening. UCLA is too experienced—and essentially too good—for the Huskies.

Prediction: UCLA 72, Washington 59

Prediction Record: 3-1

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