Ready or not, UCLA's 2016 Pac-12 campaign tips off tonight at 8 PM in Seattle against the Washington Huskies. With an afternoon game against Washington State scheduled for Sunday, the Bruins have the perfect opportunity to open the Pac-12 season with two straight wins for the first time during Steve Alford's tenure. More importantly, a sweep of the Washington schools this weekend would become the first road trip sweep of the Alford era.
The Huskies head into the Pac-12 season with an 8-4 record. They've played what I would generously call a soft nonconference schedule, with just one game against a ranked opponent--Gonzaga--which the Huskies lost by 16 points. Washington's best nonconference win came in the season opener in China against Texas. The Huskies won 77-71. However, less than two weeks later, Washington and Texas met again in a second round game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and on that occasion, Texas was the victor by a 12 point margin.
Washington's worst defeat of the season was a 83-78 loss to UC Santa Barbara (4-7) on Monday in the Huskies' final nonconference game. For what it's worth, Washington dropped to #114 in the KenPom rankings after that defeat, which puts the Huskies ahead of only one other Pac-12 team in the rankings--Washington State at #118. Again, it's hard to imagine a better way for the Bruins to start their Pac-12 season.
However, before you jump to the conclusion that the Bruins will stroll to victory tonight, the Huskies like to play at a high tempo, and the Bruins haven't flourished against high tempo opponents this season. Steve Alford's favored big-big lineup isn't well-suited to an opponent that likes to run, and the Bruins' transition defense has ranged from mediocre to horrendous so far this year.
Fortunately for the Bruins, the Huskies aren't a great perimeter shooting team (32.1% on three-pointers), and don't get a lot of scoring from their big men. And in spite of the fact that Washington has plenty of size with half a dozen players 6'8" or taller, the Huskies aren't a particularly strong rebounding team.
So what do the Huskies do well? For starters, they create turnovers; Washington's opponents have turned to ball over nearly 19 times per game on average. Also, Coach Romar does a good job of allotting playing time to his big men to keep them fresh and to protect them from fouling out. The latter consideration is particularly important since Washington's bigs commit a lot of fouls. If you enjoy watching Tony Parker shoot free throws, you're quite likely to enjoy tonight's contest.
On offense, the Huskies rely heavily on senior guard Andrew Andrews. He's averaging nearly 20 points a game, he shoots nearly 40% from beyond the arc, he knocks down his free throws at an 83% clip, and he leads the team in assist-to-turnover ratio. The 6'2" guard even leads the Huskies in rebounding.
Although he doesn't start, freshman guard David Crisp could pose problems for UCLA. He's a willing three-point shooter (38%), averaging over 5 attempts per game and 10.3 points per game.
Freshman guard Dejounte Murray (6'4.5") starts alongside Andrews. He's a tough defender and a strong rebounder as well as being the Huskies' second leading scorer at 13.6 points/game.
Coach Romar starts a trio of freshman forwards. 6'5" Matisse Thybulle tends to drift out to the perimeter quite a bit with roughly half of his shots from behind the three-point line. Like Andrews, Thybulle averages nearly 40% on his three point attempts.
Freshmen Marquese Chriss (6'9") and Noah Dickerson (6'8") will be called upon to stop Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh. Dickerson is the better rebounder of the pair, while Chriss has a substantially more advanced offensive game. Chriss averages 12.4 points per game.
Expect to see a lot of 6'9" junior Malik Dime tonight. He's the Huskies' best interior defender, a terrific shot blocker, and probably the best rebounder of the Huskies' big men. Dime is probably Washington's best hope of Tony Parker in check unless Parker takes care of that himself by getting into foul trouble.
I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bruins approach this game with a defensive strategy similar to the one employed against Kentucky--play a compact zone, stop dribble penetration, and force players like Dejounte Murray and David Crisp to knock down perimeter jumpers. UCLA should win the battle of the boards, especially if the Bruins' guards get bodies on Andrews and Murray.
In my opinion, the Bruins should avoid playing the Huskies' uptempo game. Against Washington--in fact, against any of UCLA's opponents, the Bruins need to run their offense through their big men. The Bruins are at their most effective when they play inside-out'; when the guards bring the ball up the court and shoot from distance after a perimeter pass or two (or zero), UCLA's offensive rhythm suffers. And particularly against a team like the Huskies that wants to run, forcing shots early in the shot clock plays into their hands.
If the Bruins play smart, disciplined basketball tonight, they should win comfortably. If they instead try to run with the Huskies, we're likely to see a sloppy basketball game that could go either way.