By KS Wong
Bruin Basketball Report
No. 5 ranked UCLA returns home to Pauley Pavilion to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils in a Thursday night match-up.
The Bruins (18-2, 8-1) are coming off a successful road trip in Oregon sweeping aside the Ducks and Beavers on their home floors. Current Pac-10 Player of the Week Kevin Love compiled a massive total of 42 points and 37 rebounds over the two contests.
Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and center Lorenzo Mata-Real are expected to play on Thursday. Both players are recovering from concussions they suffered in the USC game. Mbah a Moute missed both games in Oregon last week.
Arizona State is 14-5 and 4-3 in the Pac-10 under second-year coach Herb Sendek. After breaking into the top 25 rankings with a ten game winning streak and starting 4-0 in conference play, Arizona State has lost three straight games, including disheartening losses last week at home to both Washington schools.
Washington State defeated the Sun Devils, 56-55, on Saturday. Trailing by eight with less than three minutes left, the Sun Devils scored seven straight points to cut the deficit to one. But their comeback bid fell short when freshman guard James Harden missed a runner with two seconds left and time ran out.
Arizona State’s success is predicated on its stifling defense. They play primarily an aggressive 3-2 match-up zone and will mix it up at times with a man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone.
Their defense forces teams to shoot over the zone and they also aggressively play the passing lanes. And they've had success, the Sun Devils rank 21st in the nation in scoring defense allowing a meager 59.7 points on 39.7% shooting. In addition they lead the Pac-10 in steals with 7.05 a game.
Coach Sendek utilizes a Princeton-type offense complete with motion, screens, and back-door cuts. One aspect of the offense is it creates open three-point shooting opportunities, but as a team the Sun Devils have struggled with their three-point shooting since the start of conference play - hitting less than 30% from beyond the arc. Against the Cougars, they were just 2-14 on three-pointers.
With 6’9 center Jeff Pendergraph as the only starter taller than 6’4, Arizona has had difficulty controlling the boards. In Pac-10 play they are being outrebounded -2.4 per game. Washington’s Jon Brockman grabbed 16 rebounds including 5 off the offensive glass against them last week.
The Sun Devils field one of the youngest lineups in the nation, starting three true freshmen, one sophomore, and one junior.
Freshman James Harden (6’4, 218), a former Artesia HS standout, leads the team with a 18.8 point scoring average while shooting 54.6% from the field and 42% on three-pointers.
The left-handed guard has become the team’s first option on offense. His outside shooting forces defenders to respect him on the perimeter and his quick first-step and veteran-like moves (he just turned 18 in August) around the basket has made him a consistent scorer inside. His caginess in the paint has allowed him to get to the free throw stripe 216 times and he’s already had ten 20-point game performances.
Harden, a McDonald All-American last year, was recently named to the Wooden Award Top 30 Midseason watchlist. In addition to his offensive prowess, he leads the conference in steals with 1.89 and pulls down 5.3 rebounds per game (2nd on the team).
In the key match-up of the game, UCLA’s Russell Westbrook will have the primary assignment of guarding Harden. Westbrook has admittedly not been as focused on defense the past few games – allowing players to get by him too easily, but he will need to regain his early season form if he is to stop the high-scoring Harden. He needs to prevent Harden from getting into the paint where he can break down the Bruin defense, and try to deny Harden from getting the ball or at least force him into tough shots.
In recent games the Sun Devils have got into the habit of getting the ball to Harden and then watch him try to score, something Sendek warned his team to guard against doing against UCLA.
One thing to keep an eye one, Harden has been slowed recently by a nagging groin muscle pull which bothered him in both Washington games.
Returning starting center Jeff Pendergraph (6’9, 230, Jr) is second in the conference in field goal shooting 62.2% and averages 13.4 points per game. He is averaging 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
A streaky-type player, Pendergraph has the physical ability to dominate the game on both ends of the court. He has a solid turnaround jumper and midrange game and finishes strong around the basket.
On defense, when he has it going, Pendergraph can own the paint utilizing his length and leaping ability. But there are times during the game when Pendergraph can disappear on the floor.
He also has a tendency to be foul prone. Last season against UCLA, Pendergraph was on the bench for long stretches in games due to early foul trouble. Pendergraph will be matched up against Kevin Love.
Love seemingly has improved with each and every game. His low-post offensive moves can be troublesome for Pendergraph to defend against or to stay out of foul trouble. Last season against UCLA, Pendergraph spent much of his time on the bench due to early foul trouble.
On Tuesday, Pendergraph said of Kevin Love, “He is not out there just setting screens like the typical UCLA big man. He is a focal point of their offense."
Freshman Ty Abbott (6’2, 200) starts at one wing. A prolific outside shooter who gives the Sun Devils a key third scoring threat, He is averaging 11.2 points a game.
Abbott’s shooting has tailed off recently and some postulate he has hit the proverbial freshman wall. Last week Abbott was just 3-15 on three-pointers, up until that game, he had been shooting over 40% from beyond the arc.
Josh Shipp will try to extend Abbott’s shooting woes but he’ll need to do a good job of closing out quickly on Abbott on the perimeter.
Josh’s little brother, Jerren (6’3, 214, So), starts at another guard spot. Jerren Shipp is averaging 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. He is struggling from the field this season, shooting just 38.9%. A solid player who does not make a lot of mistakes (0.8 turnover), his hustle on both ends of the court helps to make the team better.
At point guard is freshman Jamelle McMillan (6’1, 165), his improved play moved him into the starting line-up. He splits time with last year’s starter Derek Glasser (6'1, 180, So). McMillan is averaging just 2.4 points and 2.8 assists a game while Glasser is averaging 5.2 points and 4.2 assists.
McMillan gives the Sun Devils more speed on the perimeter than Glasser, although Glasser is capable of holding his own, especially in Sendek’s style of offense.
Eric Boateng (6'10, 245, So), a transfer from Duke, gives the Sun Devils some size off the bench. He is averaging 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds a game. He's had problems handling the ball inside at times resulting in turnovers.
Other players off the bench are two who started for the Sun Devils last season, Christian Polk (6'3, 175, So) and Antwi Atuahene (6'3, 205, Sr). Both players give the team solid play in reserve and can step into the lineup when needed.
The Bruins struggled scoring against the Sun Devil's aggressive match-up zone last season, averaging just 63.5 points in the two games. UCLA has played better against zones recently but none of the zone defenses they've faced are on par with the Sun Devils.
Arizona State has the ability to put up more points than teams of recent years. Their freshmen have injected the roster with more offensive weapons and options - and James Harden is for real.
Still, Kevin Love and company may be too much of a load inside for the undersized Sun Devil team. With players, such as Abbott and Shipp, struggling with their outside shooting, if the Bruins (Westbrook) can check Harden, UCLA, at home in Pauley Pavilion, may be just too much to overcome for such a young Arizona State squad.
(photo credit: ASU Athletics)
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