The Washington State Cougars head south for a basketball game against the UCLA Bruins in Pauley Pavilion on Thursday afternoon (2 pm PT, FS1). Yes, that’s a regular season game in the middle of a weekday. Get your second screen ready, or fire up the DVR.
The Bruins are undefeated thus far in conference play but will be missing senior forward Chris Smith for the rest of the season. Still, UCLA has notched three wins without Smith and looks as dangerous as ever on offense.
Let’s look at the major players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Bruins.
When UCLA has the ball...
The Bruins distribute shots pretty evenly among all players on the floor, which is part of why Mick Cronin’s squad is so tough to defend. UCLA has been tops in offensive efficiency during Pac-12 play and ranks 10th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency.
That high efficiency is accomplished by doing most things well. UCLA doesn’t turn the ball over much, gets a solid number of offensive rebounds, has players that get to the free throw line, and makes 3s at a good clip. They are above average in 2-point percentage and avoid having their shots blocked.
Point guard Tyger Campbell is the spark. He has an impressively low turnover rate, coupled with an impressively high assist rate (assists 36.5 percent of teammate makes while he is on the floor). He is looking to make plays for others more often than not but will finish his drives at the rim, where he takes 30 percent of his shots. Campbell is also dangerous in the midrange. That’s where the plurality of his shots are taken, and he is hitting 51 percent on 2-point jumpers.
When he doesn’t shoot, Campbell will look to set up a trio of 6’6 wings in Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, and Jaime Jaquez.
Juzang is the most likely to put up a shot, and that shot will most likely be a jumper. He has hit 47 percent of his 2-point jumpers and 30 percent of his 3s—expect him to take either in equal measure happily.
Jaquez and Bernard are versatile scorers who can get to the rim and draw fouls or float around the outside to knock down open 3s.
Inside, UCLA will likely play just one true big at a time, rotating Cody Riley and Jalen Hill. Riley is the more offensively inclined, but both are threats to grab offensive rebounds and draw fouls.
The Bruins will be another big test for the WSU defense but shouldn’t necessarily dominate the inside. Stopping Campbell’s drives will be important, as will securing the defensive glass and closing out on shooters.
Matchups could be interesting. If WSU goes with the big lineup again, Efe Abogidi will likely be called upon to guard a player that is more of a wing than a power forward and that will draw him away from the basket. If Noah Williams is still out, that makes it tougher to defend UCLA’s army of 6’6 players. Getting Ryan Rapp and/or DJ Rodman back could certainly help.
UCLA has been putting up big efficiency numbers offensively, and WSU will need to slow that scoring down if it's going to upset the Bruins on the road.
When WSU has the ball...
Cronin featured some outstanding defenses at Cincinnati, and UCLA has taken a leap on that end in his second year at the school. The Bruins don’t force many turnovers, and they interestingly allow a high rate of 3-point attempts. That seems to be working, as opponents are knocking down less than 30 percent beyond the arc.
Inside, however, is a different story. UCLA allows 61.5 percent at the rim (239th nationally), which is not surprising given the small nature of its typical lineups. The Bruins also give up 43.1 percent on 2-point jumpers (326th).
WSU guard Isaac Bonton has been much more successful in finishing at the rim in recent games, picking his spots, and finding easier baskets. He may be able to do just that against UCLA. There also may be a heavy dose of inside looks for Abogidi or whoever is being checked by a 6’6 defender.
Given WSU’s potential height advantage on the inside, opportunities will be had on the offensive glass. UCLA is a solid but not great defensive rebounding team, and Smith was one of their best rebounders.
The Bruins don’t typically force many turnovers, so if WSU can hold on to the ball, there are good looks available. Working inside through the bigs, or via penetration from the guards, could find success. There will also be outside looks on offer, and hitting a decent percentage (around 35 percent) from 3-point range will be massively helpful.
The Bottom Line
Even without Smith, UCLA has an elite offense with weapons all over the floor. WSU could possibly be without its best on-ball defender, so the challenge becomes even greater to stop the Bruins. Success will come from stifling penetration, forcing tough shots at the rim, and limiting 3-point attempts.
Offensively, WSU has been trending up (yes, even counting Stanford, if you consider Stanford’s defense overall). The Cougs are making shots at a higher clip and have been good when taking care of the ball. Limiting turnovers is essential, as will be finding shots from close range.
KenPom predicts UCLA to win 85 percent of simulations, with an average score of 70-59. Given WSU’s historical record in Pauley, those seem like pretty good odds. If the Cougs are to be a postseason team, they need to get wins like this at some point, and UCLA is their best chance for a victory this weekend.