Washington Huskies (13-6, 5-2) at UCLA Bruins (12-8, 3-4), Thursday January 28th 7:00pm, Fox Sports 1.
Entering play tonight the Huskies will be tied for 1st in the conference with Oregon at 5-2. Utah and Colorado are right behind at 5-3. As nice as Washington's hot start to the Pac-12 schedule has been, the narrative could turn by the end of this week. Lose at UCLA and USC and Romar's team will fall to 5-4, likely good for 5th or 6th in the standings.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are desperate to make a home stand against the Washington schools in order to claw back to the very 5-4 record the Huskies fear. Despite victories over Kentucky and Arizona, UCLA is 12-8 overall and 3-4 in conference. Only WSU and ASU have been worse at 1-6.
You may remember that the Huskies defeated UCLA 96-93 in double overtime to open conference play on New Year's Day. Coach Alford's team has lost three out of six games since that day, with only 75-89 drubbing by USC happening at Pauley. Besides the USC defeat, the only other loss taken at Pauley happened in overtime against Monmouth to open the season.
UCLA has generally been a much, much better team at home, which is both unsurprising and unfortunate for the Huskies. Meanwhile, the Huskies have relatively little experience on the road, having lost badly to Arizona before beating the lowly Sun Devils on their first and only true road trip of the year.
Projected Starting Five: G Bryce Alford (Jr., 6-3, 180), G Aaron Holiday (Fr., 6-1, 185), G Isaac Hamilton (Jr., 6-4, 185), F Tony Parker (Sr., 6-9, 260), Thomas Welsh (So., 7-0, 245).
Key Bench Players: F Gyorgy Goloman (So., 6-10, 215), G Noah Allen (Jr., 6-6, 215), G Prince Ali (Fr., 6-3, 190), G Jonah Bolden (So., 6-10, 215).
When the Huskies last faced the Bruins it was mostly last-second magic from Bryce Alford that kept the game agonizingly close. Alford is still doing his thing, and will still be available to jack up 5-10 three-point attempts, but Isaac Hamilton has been just as important as a scorer in Pac-12 play.
One key to the recent UCLA losses to USC and Oregon: In both games, neither Alford nor Hamilton managed to score more than 10 points.
Alford has been notably cold from beyond the arc as of late, hitting 3-17 attempts in his last three contests (1-2 record over that stretch), but his passing has been much better. He has dished 18 assists to 4 turnovers over that same three-game span.
Hamilton has actually been the better shooter in the last couple weeks. Here's hoping they aren't both hot tonight.
Aaron Holiday has had an underrated freshman season. He scores in double-digits, including really efficient three-point shooting, he is second to Alford in assists, and he leads the team in steals.
In fact, Holiday has steadily become a more and more crucial part of UCLA's offense since the Bruins lost in Seattle. He has scored in double digits every single game since then, including a season-high 19 in Eugene on the 23rd.
Together, Alford/Holiday/Hamilton is a stacked backcourt, at least offensively. It's a bit of a pick your poison situation when the ball is moving freely, and that's all the more likely to happen at home.
Tony Parker has carved out a nice senior season, setting career-highs in minutes, points, rebounds, and blocks. He is still a big bruiser with no shooting range, but boy can he throw his body around in the paint. It's a concern given Washington's penchant for foul trouble and the general lankiness of our bigs.
Speaking of lankiness, Thomas Welsh stands 7-0 and is still listed 15 pounds lighter than Parker's suspiciously lows listed weight of 260 pounds. Welsh is also a reliable scorer and rebounder who has taken an obvious step forward from last season.
In terms of basic box score scouting, the Bruins looks really good. Every starter scores in double-digits, the guards can all shoot threes and contribute to running the offense, and the bigs have obvious size advantages and rank near the top in the Pac-12 in rebounding.
And sometimes they are really good. These Bruins knocked off Kentucky, defeated Arizona, and beat Gonzaga on the road. None of those wins looks as impressive now as they did at the time, but the UCLA teams that played on those days appeared clearly capable of better than a losing record in the Pac-12.
It's tempting to say that the team is inconsistent, but in reality the problem has consistently been defense. It's an extremely basic stat, but it's still telling that the Bruins rank 300th out of 351 schools in points scored against per game (77.7).
UCLA scores with relative ease night in and night out, and big wins over teams like Kentucky have come on the rare nights when they are able to cobble together a good defensive effort. Wins usually have to be close because UCLA opponents are going to score 75-85 points on a normal night.
Washington has had the same problem getting stops in conference play, but they have pulled off the offensive heroics necessary to win close high-scoring games.
That makes this game as important to both teams as it is difficult to predict from my couch.
I suppose I will go with the Bruins simply because this one is being played at Pauley. I think the venue gives UCLA a better chance of showing up defensively and the Huskies a better chance of experiencing cold shooting for at least a significant stretch of the night. Plus Parker and Welsh should be in good position to take advantage of foul trouble forcing the Huskies to play small.
Here's hoping I'm wrong and the Bruins come out deflated from another tough loss at Oregon instead of fired up to grasp at one of their last chances to turn their season around.
Prediction: UCLA 85, Washington 81