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March 3, 2012

UCLA in a Dawg fight to wrap regular season



What a week it has been. The SI story on Ben Howland and UCLA's problems in basketball over the last several years; the responses by the University (academic if you will) and by some former players (strongly supportive); and then the reaction of the current team members Thursday night at the expense of poor, depleted Washington State (explosive, to say the least).

One stat matters most from Thursday night: 26 assists in 32 baskets. Now that is the epitome of team basketball.

Of course there is no silver lining in modern UCLA basketball that doesn't also come with a rain cloud. That would be the injury to Joshua Smith, who hurt his right calf during the Washington State, but returned to action and is expected to play later this morning.

While Smith leads the nation in fouls per minute on the court - not your most desired statistic - his presence will be vital before the end of the Pac-12 tournament - next week - which is the be-all and end-all for 2011-12 UCLA men's basketball.

But before we can get to the Conference Tournament, there is one final game to play. One last time up at the LA Sports Arena. One last home game away from home for the Bruins. The opponent will be Head Coach (and former Bruin Assistant) Lorenzo Romar and his Washington Huskies.

Tip-off comes early - to satisfy the schedule of CBS-Television which will once again carry the Bruins' game starting at 11:00am PST. It is to be hoped CBS won't once again cut away well before the end of the national feed to show late stages of a mismatch of Eastern teams and then the pre-game chat leading up to its featured 1 pm EST game.

Washington bested the Bruins in Seattle on February 2nd but despite their strong home court advantage, it took a come from behind effort for the Dawgs to survive the Bruins 71-69. This was a game a more mature UCLA team might easily have won. The Bruins held a ten point lead, 63-53, with 7:05 left on the clock only to see the Huskies outscore them 18-6 down the stretch to win the game.

A razor-thin margin escape at home shouldn't give the Husky faithful a whole lot of confidence they can repeat the victory dance against the Bruins in Los Angeles. However, going into the game atop the conference with a chance to lock up the top seed in the Pac-12 tournament does.

Washington is 20-8 overall and as noted is in first place in the Pac-12 at 13-3. UCLA of course stands at 17-13, 10-7. The Bruins can finish 11-7 with a win Saturday which might, depending on how the rest of the games wind up this weekend, move the Bruins into fifth place for the regular season.

The Huskies have competed hard to earn their place alongside California atop the conference. As a reminder, UW has several players who can be "go to" guys when the game is on the line. It starts with Conference Freshman of the Year candidate Tony Wroten.

Wroten, a 6-5, 205 pound guard, leads the Huskies in scoring, with 16.7 points per game, and in steals with 56. Wroten does just about everything well also registering 4.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. The only problem area for Wroten is on the free throw line where he averages only 58.1 percent.

Sophomore Terrence Ross (6-6, 195) is averaging 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game and has 28 blocks on the year, second best on the team in all three areas.

Junior Aziz N'Diaye (7-0, 260) is the man in the middle for the Dawgs. He leads the team in rebounding with an average of 7.7 per game and in blocked shots with 31 on the season.

The Huskies have solid depth and also features sophomore C.J. Wilcox (6-5, 185) who averages 13.8 points a game and 6-3, 185 pound junior Abdul Gaddy, 7.9 points and a team leading 4.7 assist per game.

Washington is second in the league is scoring at 74.9 points per game while UCLA is eighth at 68.9. Given their running style, it's not surprising to find that Washington is eleventh in scoring defense allowing 69.8 a game while UCLA is sixth at 63.5.

Of course what matters is not how much you score or give up but the difference between the two figures. Washington's scoring margin +5.2 puts them in seventh place in the league while UCLA sits at number six with a +5.3 scoring margin.

Washington as a team shoots free throws at 62.2 percent which leaves them in eleventh place in the league while UCLA sits at number nine at 66.4 percent. As a team Washington shoots 44.6 percent from the field for seventh place and UCLA shoots 46.4 percent which is good enough for fourth. When it come to three point shots Washington shoots 33.4 percent and it puts them in tenth place in the league. UCLA shoots 37.2 percent and is in second place in the Pac-12.

On the defensive side, Washington holds the opponent to 41.7 percent from the field, good for fifth place in the conference. UCLA allows opposing teams to shoot 42.5 percent which is sixth. Washington is fourth three point shot defense at 33.1 percent while the Bruins are tenth at 37.6 percent.

Washington is a very strong rebounding team and is first in the conference grabbing an average of 40.1 a game. Despite the Bruins' front court size, UCLA is only seventh with an average of 34.4 boards a game. When it comes to rebounding defense the stats flip-flop. UCLA sits at number four in the league allowing teams only 31.3 while the Huskies sit in eleventh place allowing 35.2 per game.

Of course once again this reflects style of play - the faster you play, the more times the ball goes up, the more rebounding opportunities become available. Washington still leads the Bruins in rebounding margin at +4.9, good for second in the conference, while the Bruins are in fifth place at +3.0.

UCLA is the conference leader in blocked shots averaging 4.52 per game and the Huskies are third with 4.11.

UCLA is averaging 14.6 assists per game, up to third place after the explosion in assists Thursday night, while the Huskies average a seventh best 12.93. UCLA has a 1.23 assists to turnover ratio, second best in the conference, while Washington is seventh at 0.97.

UCLA is in second place in the Pac-12 with an average of 7.69 steals per game and Washington is third at 6.79.

Gaddy is third in the conference in assists while Anderson and Jones of UCLA stand fourth and fifth. Gaddy is second in assists to turnovers ratio at 2.27 while Anderson is third at 2.25 (Jones is eights at 1.64; Wroten 14th at 0.92).

It's truly an interesting match-up. N'Diaye will have to hold the middle against the Bruins' inside attack. Both teams will have to take extra good care of the ball as both sides have serious ball-hawks. The Bruins will have to improve on past performances in terms of rebounding.

Washington will no doubt try to force the pace - an all-out running game figures to give an advantage to UDub. The Bruins as always will look to run when they have an advantage but will hold it up and slow the game down otherwise.

Energy on the court, going hard after every loose ball, will be a key, but so will patience and looking for the best shot rather than individuals trying to force the action.

As befitting a game at the end of the season, it's a game either team can win though the home court would seem to us to give the advantage to the Bruins.

And then there's the wild card … will Joshua Smith be able to perform at full strength and help the home team's cause on Saturday?


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