Wednesday, December 27, 2006

UCLA vs. Washington St - Game Preview

By Bruin Basketball Report

The Pac-10 season finally arrives as UCLA faces off against the Washington St. Cougars this evening at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA is entering Pac-10 conference play with a lot of momentum.  The Bruins (11-0) are off to their best start since the 1993-94 season when they went 14-0, and last Saturday played one of their best all-around games of the season trouncing Michigan, 92-55.

The Cougars are also starting conference play with a full head of steam.  In their last contest, they held a very good San Diego St. team to twenty points below their season's average winning 64-54.  New Head Coach Tony Bennett, son of former coach Dick Bennett, has the Cougars rolling with an 11-1 record including a victory over Gonzaga in Pullman. 

Like his Dad, Bennett is still coaching a Princeton-type offense based upon a lot of motion and cuts, however, the younger Bennett has opened up the offense a bit and the Cougars are averaging ten more points a game this season.

In the past, the Cougar teams would take up most of the shot clock before even glancing up at the rim, much less take a shot.  This year Bennett has given his players the green-light to shoot the ball earlier in the clock if they have a high-percentage shot available to them.  In addition, the Cougars are pushing the ball up after missed shots, and even after made baskets, in order to find easy scores in transition.

But the Cougars are still about ball-control, high-percentage shooting, and solid defense, they realize they can't beat most teams, who are likely more athletic, in a wide-open game and instead try to outlast them at the end.

Not surprisingly, they are one of the top teams in the nation in committing the least turnovers averaging only 12.1 per game.  The Cougars have always been proficient at three-point shooting and this year's team is no different averaging 38.7% from beyond the arc.

Washington St. still plays a pressure man-to-man half-court defense.  They are leading the Pac-10 conference in scoring defense allowing just 58 points a game on 40.6% shooting.

The Cougars are a veteran club with players who understand the intricacies of the complex offense they run.  They start one of the conference's top backcourts in Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver.

Point-guard Derrick Low (Jr, 6'1, 186) was injured most of last season and wasn't able to regain his All Pac-10 Freshman form when he rejoined the team in February, however, he has come back this season with vengeance  leading the Cougars in scoring averaging 15.5 points a game on 50.7% shooting including 44.3% from three-point distance.

One of the biggest benefactors of a more open Cougar offense, Low has scored over 20 points in three games including 28 against UAB.  Although Low's assist totals are down this season (1.6) , the Cougars still run their half-court offensive sets through him at the point.

Weaver (Jr, 6'5, 185) is a solid all-around performer.  He is averaging 10.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and leads the team in assists with 3.8.  Weaver prefers to get his shots off cuts using his athleticism and length to get into the paint.  He is the Cougars' best defender and will try to slow down UCLA's leading scorer Arron Afflalo.

Forward Harmeling (6'7, 216) is a red-shirt sophomore who is giving the Cougars solid offensive output.  He is averaging 8.5 points on 52.4% shooting including 37% from three-point distance.  He scored 20 points on 4 of 9 three-point shooting to key the victory over Gonzaga.

At the other front court spot the Cougars start Robbie Cowgill (Jr, 6'10, 207).  He is averaging 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.  Cowgill is not a good low-post scorer but he has a solid understanding of the offense and sets good screens and passes well within within it.  Despite his rail-sized upper body, Cowgill is a solid low-post defender and good shot-blocker.

Its uncertain who the Cougars will start at the fifth spot.  With a good amount of depth on the roster, they've used numerous combinations based upon match-ups.   

At times Bennett has gone to a smaller lineup starting point-guard Mac Hopson alongside Weaver and Low in the backcourt, but he has also gone with a bigger lineup starting either Ivory Clark , Nikola Koprivica or Aron Baynes.

Most likely against UCLA, Bennett will go with a bigger lineup in order to create a more favorable match-up in the backcourt by forcing Arron Afflalo, UCLA's best defender, to guard the bigger Weaver instead of their best scorer Low.

Ivory Clark (Sr, 6'5, 212) is a rugged under-sized interior player whom Coach Bennett prefers to come off the bench.  He is the team's third-leading scorer averaging 9.4 points and second-leading rebounder with 5.0.

Nikola Koprivica (Fr, 6'6, 211) is a freshman from Serbia.  He has been playing major minutes recently scoring 11 points in the victory over San Diego St.  Koprivica is shooting over 36% from beyond the arc.

Center Aron Baynes (So, 6'10, 247) has struggled coming back from major ankle surgery over the summer and has played limited minutes.  He has played in only 7 of 12 games averaging 3.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in 12 minutes a contest.  Baynes gave the Bruins problems last season in Pullman scoring 10 points and grabbing 8 rebounds

Point-guard Mac Hopson (So, 6'2, 175), a transfer from Idaho College, has been solid from beyond the arc shooting a magnificent 60%.  Hopson is averaging 6.6 points and 3.4 assists in 22.4 minutes a game

Despite both teams sporting higher scoring averages this season, the game should be a hard-fought battle between two defensive stalwarts.  The Bruins are allowing only 59.8 points on 41.1% field goal shooting themselves.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland has his team prepared for this next phase of the season.  He has made sure his players understand that the purpose of early non-conference games was to prepare them for the Pac-10 conference season. 

With the conference so very strong this season, every conference game will be crucial.

"Whoever wins the Pac-10 this season," Howland said, "will get the number one seed in the NCAA tournament at the end of the year."



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