Who Are You: UCLA

Kevin Danna brings his insights and observations heading into Thursday night's home contest versus the UCLA Bruins, the first Pac-12 Conference game for each storied program.

The conference season is now upon us. If only it started at the beginning of the month.

That's when the Stanford Cardinal were playing their best basketball - destroying Seattle on the road and coming back from 12 down in the second half to beat ACC's North Carolina State.

That's also when UCLA was arguably at their worst. Two wins and five losses for a Bruins squad that was lacking serious direction.

Looks like blue and gold has found its way right in time for the Pac-12 season to start, as the Fighting Howlands take their self-proclaimed "Bruins Road Show" to The Farm on Thursday in both teams' Pac-12 opener (they play zero games on campus this year thanks to Pauley being renovated, splitting time between the Sports Arena in Los Angeles and the Honda Center in Anaheim).

The Bruins come into this game riding a five-game winning streak to finally get on the right side of .500 at 7-5, and a major reason for the turnaround has been the departure of Reeves Nelson. I loved this kid's game, but he was just too much for the coaching staff to handle (I'm sure UCLA's staff isn't in the minority). Without the distraction that was the Modesto kid, the Bruins have not lost.

Granted, they've beat a ton of low and mid-majors, but it's more than what you could have said about the November Bruins, who lost to a bottom-half WCC school (LMU) in addition to a Sun Belt side (Middle Tennessee State - however, the Blue Raiders are 11-2).


Their last win was against a solid Richmond side that went to the Sweet 16 last year and took their talents to South California (though I believe that LA would not be included in this mythical state) with a winning record. After falling behind early, the Bruins employed a zone as all UCLA fans emitted a collective "FINALLY!" that frustrated the Spiders into 33 percent shooting for the game (the zone, not the "FINALLY!").

For his efforts over the last week, Lazeric Jones was named the school's Muscle Milk Student Athlete of the Week, for whatever that's worth. More importantly, he has
been the team's leading scorer, averaging more than 13 points per and leading the team in dimes at almost four on average.


The Cardinal might get a HUGE break, as Jones sprained an ankle in practice on Monday night, leaving his status for Thursday's game up in the air. Also questionable for the December 29 clash is Norman Powell, UCLA's sixth man and widely considered one of their best athletes. He, too, sprained an ankle. (editor's note: The LA Times via UCLA reported both should be ready for the game, but you never know…)

Those potential scratches probably mean the Bruins go bigger should Jones and Powell be unavailable.  One would surmise that both David and Travis Wear would start if this is the case. Travis, in 22 minutes off the bench, dropped in 14 points against Richmond, and he has started more than half of UCLA's games this year, so he is MORE than capable of stepping in to that starting lineup. 

A couple of other bigs to concern yourself with as a Cardinal faithful. One of them is Anthony Stover, a dude Stanford showed serious interest in during his recruiting process. I personally remember his visit on Senior Day 2008 - a 60-53 come-from-behind grinder over the Cougs - as I had to hurriedly wash the golf cart and make sure a bunch of pizzas got to the right spot (Hank Luisetti statue by the 6th Man entrance) while trying to do a thousand other things with one of our other managers arriving three hours late. Not to throw anyone under the bus, of course, but that was perhaps the most hectic and intense day of my life. Thank God Stanford won that game, or else it would have been a whole lot uglier.

Anyways, Stover talk. The young man still doesn't have much of an offensive game to speak of, but he is becoming very valuable for the Bruins on defense, as his 1.3 blocks per game rank second on the team, behind only…

Josh Smith. Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments in the conference this year, Josh has seen his numbers drop a little bit from a freshman campaign that saw him go for ten and six on average. He just hasn't been able to get his weight down and has admitted that he has been rushing things on the low block.

That doesn't mean much to me, though. As good as Stanford has been defensively these past couple of years, some guys have a penchant for getting right against the Card (Howard in last year's Butler game, Aldridge in this year's Butler game, etc.). And in Maples Pavilion last year, Smith was no exception to the trend, going for 13 points and nine rebounds off the bench (he didn't play in the Pauley game). Just because he hasn't performed up to expectations this year doesn't mean he can't go off on Thursday. He bounced back for a solid second half in the Richmond game (check out this nice dunk off a drop-step: YouTube Clip ), so he might be due.

Had this game happened four weeks ago, I would have said, "Stanford by 20." Now? I'm not so sure. UCLA has looked a lot better now that the "bad apple," so to speak, has been thrown in the compost bin. If you want to play the common opponents game, there has been one: UC Davis. Stanford beat the Yale Blue and Gold by 21 on the road, whereas the Bruins beat the Aggies by 43 at home. So take that for what it's worth (absolutely nothing in my book).

Also, UCLA has had Stanford's number for as long as I've been around The Farm. Going back to my freshman year (2005-06), the Bruins hold an 11-2 advantage over Stanford.

But this appears to be a different Stanford team. Two games better at this point this year than in 2010-11. A little more swagger and defensive intensity. A more fluid offense. If the super sophomores Bright, Brown and Powell play up to their potential, and Owens is able to translate his non-conference success against a guy with one of the biggest upsides in the post in the Pac-12, the Cardinal can win somewhat comfortably.

Johnny Dawkins is 1-2 in conference openers. Getting to .500 in such games would be a huge step in the right direction for the 2011-12 squad.
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