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As a Stanford fan, you have a mixed outlook on this game. UCLA was just thrashed at home by the same Arizona squad that Stanford manhandled, but the Bruins are 9-4 overall (5-1 in conference) and without question headed in a new and better direction under Ben Howland. Their defense is the best seen in Westwood in a decade, which is an amazing feat given the slack coaching and training they had received during the previous Bruin regime. The gurus in Vegas have pegged this game to be a Stanford win by 13 to 14 points, but let us also remember that the Bru-Crew have taken three of the last four at Maples. Each year they have been a team in disarray visiting a vastly superior Stanford squad, and the only loss in those four games was a nailbiting one-point decision last year.
Another cause for concern is the recent memory of what the beleaguered Bears from Berkeley did in Maples last Saturday. Young and erratic, they still played tough and consistent defense that stymied the Stanford offensive machine in many stretches of the game. There is little objective evidence to believe that UCLA cannot do the same, with perhaps equivalent athletes and clearly superior coaching. Stanford may be 14-0 and riding high as the consensus #2 team in the nation, but the offense is not exactly magical. The Cardinal rank just fifth in the conference in scoring average, and hopes for improved long range shooting have netted a mere 35.6% from three-point range.
Good defense can often stop a sound offense, so tonight will be about execution for the Cardinal. The bad news is that Chris Hernandez & Co. will have to work their offense around a set of defenders who are long and athletic. The starting UCLA backcourt goes 6'6" and 6'7", while the team's two centers both go 7'0".
The center position is probably the topic of most discussion in Westwood these days, as early season darling Michael Fey (Soph. - 7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) has hit a ridiculous slump in both scoring and rebounding, coming up with a collection of bagels his last few games. Though he has the makings of a good big man for the UCLA program, Howland has ended his patience and will instead start Ryan Hollins (Soph. - 4.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Hollins is quicker laterally and gets off the floor faster, which has given him flashes of excitement in the paint. His current liability is his lack of a low-post scoring sense, which could present him with problems against Stanford's excellent post defenders.
At the power forward position, the much-maligned T.J. Cummings (Sr. - 13.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is enjoying quite a bit of success. He was academically ineligible at the start of the season but has played in the last nine games and started eight. He still remains a forward with the scoring range (and mentality) of a wing, who loves to shoot from midrange or outside. The good news for him is that in Ben Howland's offense, the power forward is preferred to hang out in the high post, for scoring and passing. A corollary effect is that with Cummings' offensive success and acceptance by the coaches, he has also found defensive improvement. He has put up some good rebounding numbers and is much more disciplined in his defense.
The small forward position brings the one newcomer to Stanford fans, as prep All-American Trevor Ariza (Fr. - 13.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) dazzles with his athleticism. I saw Ariza several times as a high schooler, and even then he had the left and quicks of a college player. His head may not be right, but Howland is a good guy to beat him into shape. In the meantime, you will probably see his highs and lows tonight. He will silence the Maples crowd with a slashing drive to the basket or a thundering dunk, but he will also make you grin with some characteristically freshman mistakes. Look for his youthful aggression to occasionally get the best of him on both offense and defense. Turnovers are another concern for him. But he can make plays and he can defend, when he wants to.
The shooting guard starting tonight is Dijon Thompson (Jr. - 14.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and is the Bruins' leading scorer. He was struggling from the offensive end early in Pac-10 play but the last few games has turned things around. At his size (6'7"), the long junior can get shots off whenever he wants, which will be a serious challenge for the 6'4" Matt Lottich. If there ever was a game to give Nick Robinson the reserve minutes at the guard spot, this is it. Also worth nothing that Thompson is not proficient at putting the ball on the floor and creating. He is prone to turnovers, so it is worth putting ball pressure on him and keeping a hand in his face.
At the point guard is 6'6" Cedric Bozeman (Jr. - 9.4 ppg, 5.6 apg), who like Cummings has enjoyed a tremendous turnaround with the new coaching staff. Bozeman had been all hype his first two years at Stanford, and delivered nary an iota of the promise from his All-American high school profile. Now the rangy point guard is a solid leader on the offensive end and a fantastic on-ball defender. His length helps keep him in front of guards who want to drive on him, and he has enough quickness to aid his recovery. Bozeman's one liability is probably his outside shot. He's a good reason to throw some zone at UCLA in this game.
Key reserves include Ryan Walcott, the unloved redshirt junior point guard. He spells Bozeman for a minimum of minutes each game and barely keeps the UCLA machine oiled. Don't expect him to force anything, and with his 0-for-8 outside shooting this season, you can probably cheat off him on defense. Brian Morrison is the one guy on this roster who could be an explosive help off the bench in the backcourt, but he pulled a hamstring this season and foolishly reinjured it while under orders to rest. Unless we are deceived, he is unable to play tonight. The other backcourt help comes with junior point guard Janou Rubin, who exploded for Pac-10 Player of the Week honors earlier in the year but has gone inside a shell. Rubin is intrinsically a good defender and good shooter (8-for-15 from outside this year), but lacks any offensive confidence currently.
Inside the key reserve will be the recently demoted Fey, but also look for Josiah Johnson to help them out. Though he has been a non-factor his first three years in Westwood, the redshirt junior is rebounding surprisingly well in his limited reserve minutes.
All in all, this game could be a grind. Despite the stereotypes, Stanford has better quickness and will actually want to up the tempo. UCLA was scorched in transition by Arizona last week, and the Card should be trying to push the ball in this game off defensive stops and rebounds. The question on offense will be how Stanford executes against a very disciplined man-to-man defense.
Remember to get to Maples Pavilion early tonight for the 5:30 pm (PST) tip-off. We'll report back with the results, notes and quotes!
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