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UCLA Basketball: On the Outside Looking In

Tonight's UCLA matchup with Arizona State begins the depressing effort to prove that UCLA is really a top four team in the Pac-12. UCLA still has won just one game outside of Los Angeles against Division I opponents this season. ASU represents a good chance for number two and this is a must win for UCLA to have any realistic and remote chance to get a top 4 seed and first round bye in the Pac-12 tourney. UCLA is 8-6 in the Pac-12, a game behind Arizona and Oregon in the loss column. Here is the latest on what they need to get in the third or fourth spot (Cal and Washington have locked up the top two):

Colorado, 18-8, 10-4 - Remaining schedule: Stanford, Thursday; Cal, Sunday; at Oregon, March 1; at Oregon State, March 3. Record against remaining opponents: 2-2.

Oregon, 19-8, 10-5 - Remaining schedule: at Oregon State, Sunday; Colorado, March 1; Utah, March 3. Record against remaining opponents: 1-2.

Arizona, 19-9, 10-5 - Remaining schedule: USC, Thursday; UCLA, Saturday; at Arizona State, March 4. Record against remaining opponents: 2-1. . . .

"We still have the Pac-12 Tournament," Bruins center Joshua Smith said. "That season's not over."

I am glad the players are saying they have not given up. It will be more important they show they have not given up. A realistic the scenario means the Arizona game is a must win. If UCLA does not beat Arizona, welcome to the first round. Even if they beat Arizona they need some help. The good news is with an Arizona win, UCLA wins the tiebreakers with both Arizona and Colorado based on head to head play. However, the most likely scenario requires UCLA to win their last four games to obtain a first round bye.

That is a tall order for this team whose symbol may be Tyler Lamb. Lamb by his own admission has been inconsistent and acknowledges the team's problems.

"I feel my play has been inconsistent," Lamb said. "As a team, we have been underachievers." . . .

The 6-foot-4 Lamb says he's his own harshest critic and he doesn't pull punches. "My numbers have been too up and down all year," he said.

One reason is health issues. Early in the season he had bursitis in his hip that left him feeling "like I was playing at 60%." Last week in practice he suffered a hamstring injury that is expected to take at least five more weeks to completely heal.

But Lamb deflects excuses. "Everyone has nicks this time of year," he said.

You really have to like what Lamb says. He does not make excuses for himself or the team. Though you have to wonder why Ben Howland is playing him so many minutes with all his injuries. That could be part of the reason for Lamb's inconsistent performance. Lamb to my mind has been the most surprising player of the year. Much improved on offense (though not consistent) but a serious disappointment on defense.

The article has some strange statements in discussing Lamb's defense. Howland saying Lamb guards the other team's best weapon, which is just wrong. That was the plan before the season but now it seems that Jones often has the other team's best guard/wing. Of course Chris Foster of the fishwrap who wrote the story is way off in another story on tonight's game.

UCLA has lost two of its last three games in Tempe, and needed overtime to scratch out a 73-72 victory last season. Those Arizona State teams were significantly more talented. The Sun Devils scored eight points in the first half in a 72-50 loss to Washington State on Saturday. Trent Lockett averages 13.1 points to lead Arizona State. UCLA won the first meeting, 75-58. Joshua Smith had his best game of the season, making eight of 12 shots and scoring 18 points. UCLA Coach Ben Howland said center Anthony Stover should be ready to play. Stover has sat out three games because of a foot injury.

As Nestor detailed yesterday, the Stover statement is wrong. Even the official UCLA injury report states that it was a coach's decision:

Sophomore center Anthony Stover missed practice on Feb. 10 and the California game (Feb. 11) with tendonitis in his left foot. He was able to practice for an hour on Monday (Feb. 13) and complete a full practice on Tuesday. He didn't play against USC (Feb. 15) or St. John's (Feb. 18) due to a coaches decision and is listed as probable for the Bruins' game on Feb. 23 at Arizona State.

Although Howland says he is going to play Stover and maybe even Lane more, I am not optimistic given his statement:

"We're trying to win each game at a time," Howland said. "I'm not looking ahead at anything further than the game we're playing."

Ah, Coach Howland, you should be able to beat ASU. You will need the "good" Lamb and the rested starters for Arizona on the road. As a coach you should look ahead, the players no. But you must.

For its part ASU will be better this time. Many of their players will be back from suspension that missed the first UCLA vs. ASU game. Starting with the now PG Chris Colvin. Colvin is a true point guard, while not exactly a great one with as many assists as turnovers but unlike last game when the Bruins pressed the walk-on backup PG, Colvin is for real.

The next player back is Kyle Cain. ASU's second leading rebounder and only inside player that is also an athlete. Again, Cain is not great but he is a legimate power forward, something ASU lacked the first time they played ASU when they had to play two centers together at times.

Really ASU has one very good player in 6'4" Trent Lockett. Lockett does it all for ASU. He is their leading scorer, rebounder, three point shooter, backup PG, leads in steals, etc. Lockett is a good player who plays hard.

ASU does have two centers in 7'0" Ruslan Pateev and 7'2" Jordan Bachynski. They are virtually interchangeable bigs who play like you would expect nonathletic big men to play. They both can score close to the basket but are not athletic enough to take maximum advantage of their size.

The rest of ASU is mostly a bunch of jump shooters led by Jonathan Gilling. Gilling single handedly kept ASU in the first game against UCLA when he went 5-6 from three. These guys are not tough just have to get a hand in their face.

A must win game, will the Bruins show up and play hard? Or have they given up on the season? Tonight is not a true test as this is still a bad ASU team. But as this is not exactly a good Bruin team, nothing can be taken for granted.

Go Bruins.