The Washington State Cougars hit the road to face the UCLA Bruins in Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night (8 pm PT, Pac-12 Network). The Cougs are looking for a two-game sweep of the Bruins in a place that WSU has won just three times in 61 tries.
WSU took down UCLA in overtime back on the opening weekend of Pac-12 play for its first conference win of the season. The Cougs have had four more conference wins since that time, but none of those came on the road.
UCLA has been hot as of late, taking out Colorado and Utah at home before upsetting Arizona on the road. Overall, the Bruins sit at 13-11 (6-5) in head coach Mick Cronin’s first season at the helm.
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When WSU took down UCLA last month, it limited the Bruins to just 0.91 points per possession—their second-lowest in league play. In that game, the Cougs were able to limit one of UCLA’s major offensive strengths—defensive rebounding—and exploit its biggest offensive weakness—turnovers. UCLA were also held to below its typical 3-point percentage output.
Where UCLA did have some success was inside the 3-point line—the Bruins hit 49 percent of their 2s. That was largely driven by Chris Smith, a matchup issue for WSU at 6’9. Smith hit 7 of 13 on 2-pointers on his way to a 22-point, 12-rebound day.
Smith is UCLA’s best offensive player, and it’s not particularly close. His role has expanded in Pac-12 play, as he has become a much more efficient player in his junior season. Smith is a versatile forward that can hit outside shots as well as put the ball on the deck and get to the free throw line.
WSU was fortunate to have Smith’s minutes limited by foul trouble last time out, limiting him to just 26 minutes with the overtime period. The Cougs proved they can still stop UCLA even when Smith is scoring efficiently, but making things tougher on him would certainly help.
Dribble penetration has been an issue at times for the Cougs, and Prince Ali caused trouble in that regard for at least the first half of WSU’s win. UCLA’s offense was significantly worse when he disappeared in the second half. Whatever WSU figured out at halftime then would certainly help this time around.
Jalen Hill will also be tough guard on the inside, particularly on the glass. At 6’10, he is UCLA’s best offensive rebounder and gets to the free throw line at a very high clip. Jake Kyman plays sporadically, but has been very dangerous when he gets going from deep. If he comes in, he’ll be hoisting.
When WSU has the ball, they also may be launching from deep with great frequency. UCLA is one of the worst teams in terms of 3-point defense nationally, and also has been the worst in Pac-12 play.
The Bruins have improved on defense lately, but have also had some games when they’ve been blitzed. That is often driven by a big day on 3-pointers from their opponents. The Cougs have been shooting well from deep lately, and hitting from long range would be a major difference maker.
UCLA has also been the worst at allowing free throw attempts in conference games. WSU has not been able to get to the line with much consistency, but it might be smart for Isaac Bonton and CJ Elleby to look for some contact on drives, as the Bruins seem eager to provide it.
Despite a size disparity, WSU was able to do well in finding open looks on the inside last time out—particularly from Bonton and Tony Miller. It will be interesting to see if Miller, who is back from injury but has yet to play much, will get some extended run.
Overall, the Bruins defense seems to be rounding into form later in the season, so it might be a little tougher to score this time. However, Elleby was ice cold that weekend, and a better effort from him might neutralize UCLA’s gains.
Still, WSU has yet to win a road game in league play, and they have played objectively bad in each of their Pac-12 games away from Beasley Coliseum. Is this the game that changes? If so, it will probably involve a bunch of UCLA turnovers, some excellent WSU rebounding on the defensive end, and some hot shooting on the outside.