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March 2, 2007In its last regular season contest of the year, second-ranked UCLA, fresh off securing the school's second consecutive outright Pac-10 title, makes the cross-state jaunt into Seattle to take on a Washington Huskies team which has gone 16-2 at Hec Edmonson Pavilion this season.
UCLA appears to have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the West Region for the NCAA tournament and remarkably hold a commanding three game edge over second place Washington State in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball.
While it may seem like the Bruins don't have too much to play for and that there could be a natural letdown following the emotional win in Pullman on Thursday, stepping off the gas pedal a bit isn't exactly something you'd expect from any Ben Howland group, particularly this one.
The Bruins are the best team in college basketball right now. While remaining in the top 5 in the polls throughout the season, most national 'experts' have continually ignored UCLA as a legitimate or favored title contender, instead proclaiming Florida, North Carolina or even Ohio State as the frontrunners.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the Bruins have been the most consistent team in the country throughout the season; a fact which is reflected in the RPI numbers which have stated since early December that UCLA is head and shoulders above the competition.
While there has been some doubt regarding the ability of this team to execute on the offensive end; doubt which leads Bruin fans to think that perhaps this isn't the year of the 12th title, the team has responded over the past few weeks with spectacular displays of offensive efficiency.
Right now UCLA is playing the best basketball of the Howland era, and it is difficult to imagine this group dropping a game with everything running so smoothly at this juncture.
But here sit the Huskies, two months removed from a big time blowout loss at Pauley and right at the end of a season filled with unrealistic expectations and lofty goals not attained.
They started the year ranked in the top 20 in both polls and will finish up in the National Invitation Tournament, mainly because they don't defend and because sophomore point guard Justin Dentmon has not figured out how to play the position successfully.
The pieces are there for the Huskies with Jon Brockman and Spencer Hawes inside, a terrific young slasher in Quincy Pondexter and shooters like Phil Nelson and Ryan Appleby, but there is no structure within their offense and no one with the understanding or the ability to get the ball to any of these weapons in an effective manner.
The last time these two teams met, UCLA held a comfortable lead for the majority of the contest, and Howland may have left some of his starters in a bit too long for the taste of Washington fans and coaches.
While at the time that seemed like something which may come back to haunt the Bruins on this final weekend of the regular season, and even though the Huskies are coming off an impressive 15 point victory over a good USC team on Thursday, it's hard to imagine UCLA dropping a game right now, particularly one to a team which is so undisciplined and so young.
These are the types of squads which the Bruins have been feasting on this season. Groups that don't defend and don't take quality shots against UCLA's terrific pressure end up getting blown out.
We've seen it with Arizona and Cal, and of course in that first meeting between Washington and UCLA on the last day of 2006. While a lot of external factors may point toward a Husky upset, the opinion here is that UW just doesn't have the ability to slow down this Bruin squad.
It should be a delightful aesthetic change from Thursday evening, as both teams will undoubtedly go up and down on Saturday morning. Last time the Bruins scored 96 on Washington, and while one would anticipate a zone look from Lorenzo Romar which will cut down on that pace, UCLA shouldn't have too much trouble scoring nor disrupting the rhythm of UW's offense on the other end.
Kind of going out on a limb here considering the circumstances, but look for a resounding Bruin victory in this one. There isn't a tougher team in the country than these Bruins, and you can bet that they'll be mentally prepared for this game in spite of the outstanding issues.