UCLA may be facing a short-handed Arizona State team in their Pac-12 game Saturday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim, but coach Ben Howland is taking nothing for granted.
The Sun Devils are traveling with only six scholarship players because starting point guard Keala King, starting forward Kyle Cain and reserve guard Chris Colvin have been suspended for unacceptable conduct, but that didn't stop them from defeating USC, 62-53, Thursday night at the Galen Center.
"Arizona State proved real clearly last night that maybe this thing has brought them together more," Howland said. "We’re going to have to play really well tomorrow to beat them. I know that and I think our team knows that."
King is averaging a team-high 13.7 points while Crain averages 8.5 points and Colvin 5.4. In their absence Trent Lockett moved to point guard and junior forward Carrick Felix had a career-high 22 points as Arizona State used a starting lineup of players that measured 6-6, 6-7, 7-0, 6-5 and 6-4. Sophomore Jordan Bachynski, a 7-2 center, is the only other scholarship player available for the Sun Devils.
"They’re really big right now," Howland said. "They have those three kids that are going to miss tomorrow’s game as well. So they’re huge and really have great length. It makes it different because our matchups are so hard."
The other thing that makes Arizona State difficult is their zone defense. The Sun Devils (5-9, 1-1) are holding opponents to 40.1 percent from the field which ranks second in the Pac-12.
"They do a good job contesting every shot," Howland said. "They’re matching up. They have man to man principles within the zone. It’s a hard defense to play against."
UCLA (8-7, 1-2) is coming off of a 65-58 victory over Arizona, which defeated a full-strength Arizona State, 68-51, last week. The Bruins are looking to even up their conference record, which would actually get them right back into the thick of the conference race.
On Thursday, California, Stanford, Washington and Arizona all lost, leaving Colorado as the lone undefeated team in the conference and the league title race very much wide open. Those teams all lost on the road and Howland, whose team lost two road games last week, said that will be the challenge in the conference this season.
"There are home games and road games," Howland said. "Every team at home won last night except USC and so that’s not that big of a surprise. And now you’re going up into the mountains and you’re going to Utah and Colorado, take the oxygen."
Howland said the Pac-12 title winner could be a team that finishes 13-5. Washington in 1984-85 and California in 2009-10 are the only teams to win the conference with five losses since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978.
"Yeah, I do," Howland said when asked if he thought a five-loss team could win the Pac-12 this season. "It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I don’t think it’ll happen. I still think it’ll probably be four, but who knows?"
The Bruins have a pair of very winnable games coming up with Arizona State and then a game at USC (5-11, 0-3) before a difficult road trip to Oregon State (11-4, 1-2) and Oregon (11-4, 2-1) Jan. 19 and 21 which will likely determine if the Bruins can stay in the conference title race.
Presuming, of course, they don't take a short-handed Arizona State for granted.
Forward De'End Parker is on an excused absence to be with his ailing mother in the Bay Area. She had open heart surgery earlier this year and has had some complications, Howland said. Parker has a knee injury and has not played since Nov. 15. "Because he’s not healthy and not playing I just decided it was OK for him to stay at home and be with her," Howland said. "He’s supposed to be back in school on Monday."
Freshman Norman Powell has had some acrobatic dunks over the last couple of games, but his shooting percentage is way down after scoring a career-high 19 points Dec. 20 against UC Irvine. Powell was one for six Thursday against Arizona making him four of 22 (18.1 percent) over the last four games. He was shooting 47.1 percent before his current slump. "For him typically, it’s just good shot, bad shot and recognizing when he’s open," Howland said. "When he’s open, he’s a good shooter."
Lazeric Jones will continue to play more minutes at shooting guard than at point guard, Howland said. Jones, the team's leading scorer at 13.5 points a game, is also leading the team with 149 shots attempted and Howland feels that Jones is a better fit at off guard. Jones played there for the first time on Thursday against Arizona and had 13 points on a team-high 16 shots. Jerime Anderson ran the point most of the game. "We executed a lot better offensively than we have been," Howland said.