6 PM PST -- Friel Court at Beasley Coliseum
Kenpom.com prediction: Bruins win 56-52 (56 possesions, 68 percent confidence)
As Grady already detailed, we really need to get one of the two games this weekend. Tonight represents the stiffest challenge, as noted by the kenpom.com prediction.
However, these Bruins aren't the same Bruins of the last few years. Their adjusted defensive efficiency still looks good at 33rd nationally, but that was built on a lot of overmatched opponents in the nonconference schedule. Since entering Pac-10 play, the defense has only held opponents to a pedestrian 99.7 efficiency -- good for just fifth in the conference -- and that average includes holding Oregon State to 77.0. (What's efficiency?)
UCLA still extends its defense on the perimeter -- they still thrive on turnovers as much as ever -- but without Kevin Love, Lorenzo Mata-Real and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute roaming the paint, they just don't have the interior defenders they used to. In Pac-10 games, they're No. 8 in the conference in 2-point field goal defense, and No. 8 in the conference in free throw rate allowed.
And that's why I'm higher than most people on the Cougs' chances offensively tonight. Granted, the Cougs are certainly no offensive juggernaut, but these Bruins simply aren't as stingy as past Ben Howland teams. In the areas where UCLA can be had, WSU is currently No. 2 in the Pac-10 in free throw rate in conference games, and the Cougs have been doing a much better job lately of getting a larger percentage of their points inside the arc.
The key will be making sure you get those opportunities by not turning the ball over, which has been a constant bugaboo for this team. The Bruins' defensive efficiency bears a -.54 correlation to opponents' turnover percentage, which is pretty darn significant. If we remain focused and take care of the ball, we have a real shot at scoring points tonight.
Although the defense has been down, the reason the Bruins have been able to survive what has been surprisingly mediocre defense is because at times, this team can be an absolute offensive juggernaut. They shoot the ball extremely well, as Howland generally has no less than four above average shooters on the floor at any one time. They have the highest effective field goal percentage in the conference in Pac-10 play, and 37 percent of their points in conference play have come from beyond the arc. That's nine percent higher than their overall season average. As the defenses they face have gotten better, they've shot -- and made -- more from outside.
Of course, that's a scary thought for the Bennett pack defense, which can be vulnerable to long-range shots. That's why I think tonight's most important player on defense is DeAngelo Casto. You cannot underestimate the value of a shot blocker when playing a perimeter-oriented team. That doesn't seem logical, but a legitimate inside presence allows the Cougs to really extend the defense on the shooters because they fear an easy dribble-drive for two a lot less.
Arizona State showed just how much you can slow down this UCLA offense when you keep them from making outside shots. While they do still like getting points in transition, the Bruins just don't get the easy points on the offensive glass they used to -- they're only seventh in the Pac-10 in offensive rebounding percentage in conference games. If Casto and Baynes --- who is an underrated shot blocker in his own right and an exceptional defensive rebounder -- can stay on the floor for big minutes and the guards can really contest the outside shots, we've got a real chance at holding UCLA in check.
But will we hold UCLA in check? The odds say no. And we might not be getting them at the best time, coming off the loss to ASU. But I think this matchup is much more favorable for this group of Cougs than most people are willing to recognize. Let's hope we can somehow, some way, turn it into a win.