Crunch time has officially arrived for the UCLA men's basketball team and Coach Ben Howland. An 18-6 (8-3 in the Pac 12) Bruin squad took care of business at home last weekend, defeating Washington by 2 and Washington State by 14 (in a game that wasn't all that close). That was what the Bruins were supposed to do. Now, they find themselves, through some results that have gone their way in the conference, tied for first in the Pac 12. However, championships are won on the road and that's where the Bruins find themselves this week as they travel to the Bay Area to face California on Thursday night and Stanford on Saturday afternoon. Both games will be televised nationally on the ESPN networks, with the Cal game televised on ESPN2 at 6 PM PT and the Stanford game on ESPN at 1 PM PT.
The possible outcomes of the two games (a sweep, a split and two losses) will have huge implications on both UCLA's Pac 12 title chances and it's NCAA hopes. A sweep will mean that the Bruins will entertain a very realistic shot at winning the conference. Further, it will also mean that in terms of the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins will be playing out the season to try and enhance their seeding. A split probably means that UCLA is still in the Pac 12 title conversation and a still unsecured NCAA bid, while losing both not only will realistically end UCLA's conference title hopes, it will also place the Bruins squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Much has been made over Howland's tenure of his ability to prepare his teams for Thursday games as opposed to the Saturday contest. Let's assume for the sake of argument that holds true (although the last two weekday games, USC and UDub have not exactly seen the Bruins at their best), then the next thing to look at is the match-ups, specifically, which team of a two game set that the Bruins match-up best against. The Bay Area teams are really a toss up in terms of how the Bruins will potentially fare. The Bears hold a huge edge over the Cardinal in the backcourt while Stanford has the frontcourt edge. Further, both teams are playing well right now, certainly better than January when the Bruins opened their conference slate by sweeping the two at Pauley in relatively easy fashion. Cal, in particular, is starting to gel, having defeated Arizona in the desert last week after beating Oregon the week before that.
Speaking of the NCAA bubble, the Bears, after winning at Arizona, have gotten themselves squarely back on it. As big as Thursday's game is for the Bruins, it may be even bigger for the Bears. With a record of 14-9 (6-5 in the Pac 12), Coach Mike Montgomery and his players have got to know that beating UCLA is a must if the Bears want to go dancing in a month. The fans of the Bears will know it, too. The homecourt advantage for the Bears at Haas Pavilion, already a significant one, may be off the charts on Thursday.
When these teams faced off against each other in January, the Bruin offense was clicking pretty well. While they only shot 45% from the floor for the game and were outrebounded by 8 (what else is new?), the Bruins got to the free throw line 31 times to Cal's 8. You can just about bet the mortgage on that not happening on Thursday. It's not just because Pac 12 officials tend to favor the home team, it's that Montgomery's game plan will more than likely change from the first game.
In that first contest, the Bears were guarding the Bruins pretty closely, especially UCLA's Larry Drew II. That allowed Drew to work his offense comfortably to the tune of 9 assists and zero turnovers. Montgomery is a smart coach and with four days to prepare for the game, the guess here is that his point guards, junior Justin Cobbs (6'3" 190 lbs.) and senior Brandon Smith (6'0" 180 lbs.) will be sagging off Drew quite a bit.
Cobbs is going to present a problem for the Bruins on the other end of the court. He is second on the team in scoring 14.6 PPG and he has the ability to break down Drew and Norman Powell and get into the lane. Cobbs is precisely the kind of player that can run the pick and slip or the pick and pop to perfection, utilizing screens and being able to finish if in the lane or dish off if double-teamed. It's the kind of offense that Arizona State and USC used to simply shred the Bruin defense. This will be the match-up of the game as the Bruins have proved that it is good point guard play that really bothers them, regardless of how overmatched they are in the post. There are some hopeful signs; Cobbs has been turning the ball over (which is something the Bruins thrive on), including 6 against the Wildcats last Sunday. Further, Cobbs' shooting has been erratic, although he had a very good shooting game against Arizona. Plus, Cobbs tends to look much better at Haas than on the road. If the Bruins can get Cobbs in early foul trouble, that would go a long way to helping the Bruin cause. Smith is nowhere near the player that Cobbs is, especially on offense, taking very few shot attempts since his return to the line-up a few weeks ago. If Cobbs is closer to Jahii Carson and Jio Fontan (with more size) then Smith is closer to Washington State's Royce Woolridge, who the Bruins were able to keep in check last Saturday night.
The other area of the floor that has presented UCLA with issues is clearly the low post. The offense that UCLA is getting from the Wear brothers, especially Travis, and Tony Parker is more than adequate. However, until they collectively shut down Wazzu's Brock Motum last weekend, the Bruins really have struggled with opposition post players. Now the Bruins will face another tough one in junior Richard Solomon (6'10" 235 lbs.). Solomon is in the mold of USC's Dwayne Dedmon in that he is athletic and can hit jumpers out to roughly 8-10 feet. That makes him and the ball screen dangerous. His ability to hit some mid-range jumpers could force the Bruin post defenders to lean back towards him on the ball screen, thus loosening things up even more for Cobbs.
If Solomon isn't having a good shooting night then Montgomery can turn to sophomore David Kravish (6'9" 221 lbs.) who is conceivably a much better mid-range shooter than Solomon. Having Kravish be the ball screener isn't a perfect situation for the Bears, but it would allow them to utilize the pick and pop more than they would by using Solomon as the ball screener. Kravish is actually showing statistically better than Solomon in multiple categories, including rebounding (6.7 RPG against Solomon's 6.4) and blocks. Kravish finished with 12 points at Pauley Pavilion last month but he was a non-factor for much of the game. However, like Cobbs, Kravish tends to play better in Berkeley than he does away from home.
The Bears truly have little depth and it really shows in the frontcourt. After Solomon and Kravish, Montgomery relies on one player to plug the gap in minutes, senior Robert Thurman (6'10" 265 lbs.). Thurman works hard but is very limited athletically. He badly hurt the Bruin last season but was ineffective at Pauley in January. If the Bruins see a great deal of Thurman on Thursday then that should work in the Bruins' favor.
Okay, now that I've gotten through the tough style match-up, let me introduce the toughest match-up in the conference right now; junior wing Allen Crabbe (6'6" 210 lbs.). After going off for 31 points against Zona on Sunday, Crabbe is now averaging 19.8 PPG. He's been doing it in multiple ways, too. He is hitting from distance, driving to the rack and hitting his free throws when he gets to the line. He's grabbing 5.6 RPG and is clearly the best player on the Cal roster and arguably in the Pac 12. Here's the dangerous part; if Cal successfully runs the ball screen offense with Cobbs, etc., and Cobbs decides to dish, he'll more than likely be dishing to Crabbe. Imagine him running at the Bruin defense in a one-on-one situation with that one defender probably trying to recover from help and the rest of the Bruins unable to consistently rotate over. In the first match-up of these two at Pauley, Crabbe didn't have a "great" game and still scored 21. Granted, the Bruins generally did a good job on Cobbs and the Bear posts in that game, but Crabbe has gone into "jump on my back and I'll carry you" mode. Hopefully Shabazz Muhammad looks at his match-up with Crabbe as more than a score-fest, but rather a chance to defensively prove his chops.
The final starter is freshman Tyrone Wallace (6'4" 186 lbs.), who has become a jack-of-all-trades for the Bear, playing any of the 1-3 positions on the floor. In fact, if Smith can't run the offense effectively, don't be surprised if Montgomery doesn't hesitate early to let Wallace run the point and move Smith offensively to the ‘2'. Wallace is an adequate shooter, rebounder and a pretty good defender. If Wallace does run the point with Cobbs off the floor, it will be interesting to see if UCLA's Jordan Adams can effectively defend the ball screen. Adams is sneaky with his arms and ability to read the play.
The ability of the Bruins to defend the inevitable ball screens will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. That sounds odd considering that the Bruins clearly try and outscore opponents, but the Wazzu game last weekend proved that if the Bruins work at a decent level and consistently on defense, they'll turn their opponents over and get easy baskets, which ultimately what Howland's early offense is trying to do. And turnovers may prove to play a huge part in this game. UCLA has taken on the identity of a team that doesn't force bad shots (as evidenced by their shooting percentage defense) but that forces turnovers. Cal has 45 turnovers in their last three games and 296 on the season. That's 15 TPG the last three and 13 TPG for the season. The first time these teams met the Bruins only forced 11 turnovers, but they forced Cal into less than 40% shooting and they had those 31 free throw attempts. Assuming Cal will shoot better than 40% and the free throw discrepancy won't be so pronounced, then the turnover number will be significant. If the Bruins force more than 15 TOs then they have a real chance to win. Force less than 10 and the Bruins will probably lose handily.
Which Bruin team will show up mentally on Thursday is up for debate, and quite frankly, your guess is as good as mine. It isn't hard to predict, though, that Cal will be ready to play and the fans will be there in earnest. The homecourt advantage, coupled with Cal's starting five, which I think is the best starting unit in the Pac 12, will probably prove to be too much for the Bruins this time. On a neutral floor, like in Las Vegas, I think that UCLA takes advantage of Cal's lack of depth, but with the game at Haas, that should offset the turnovers and lack of depth. Finally, Cal is coming off a huge win. Normally, if that had happened on a Thursday you could see Cal suffering an emotional letdown on the weekend. The guess is that the space between Sunday in Tucson and Thursday will be enough time for Montgomery to get the Bears refocused.
The Bruins really need at least a split this weekend. A sweep would be wonderful (because then the Bruins can start to think about a protected seed in the NCAAs), but they must avoid being swept. It may come down to Saturday's game at Stanford.California 73 UCLA 70