Maybe Dan Guerrero can hire Steve Lavin on a contract basis.
For all the misery and chaos that pervaded the final tumultuous years of the "Laugh-in" Era in Westwood, the former UCLA head coach did manage to overachieve to the highest degree at Maples Pavilion. Certain to be fired, with his back each year against the wall, Lavin brought his Bru-Crew into Stanford's house and did the unthinkable. Three straight years they upset Stanford in Palo Alto, with two of those wins unseating the Card from their #1 national ranking. Last year, UCLA lost but only by a single point after several shots came unkind off the iron.
So how does Ben Howland come into this program and so clearly improve the discipline, execution and defense of the team... but get manhandled in a 62-47 defeat that easily could have been a 25-point loss? Ironically, the better coached present-day team runs an offense as intended by their leader, which makes for an opponent which Stanford can properly scout and gameplan.
"They actually ran what we scouted during the week," deadpans junior center Rob Little.
You just have to chuckle at that. The helter skelter teams of the Lavin Years might have had a better chance to beat Stanford precisely because of their failings - erratic and unpredictable. That is not to say that Ben Howland is inherently set up to lose to Mike Montgomery into perpetuity; instead, Howland is trying to run offense and defense the way it should be coached. He simply doesn't have the players mentally equipped to carry out his orders well enough.
And much to his dismay, he does not have the physical tools at his disposal to match up with Stanford's brawn. You may have been concerned at the ultra-narrow rebounding margin your Cardinal displayed last Saturday in the Cal game, including a mere three total offensive boards in the 200 minutes of play, but this game against the Bruins was a rebounding clinic. On Stanford's very first offensive series - in the first 40 seconds of regulation - they matched the total offensive rebounding of that Cal game. By the end of this contest, the Cardinal had amassed a dominating 16 boards on the offensive end. By contrast, UCLA pulled down just 17 defensive rebounds on that same glass. Stanford won the total rebounding tally by a 36-25 margin. In the decisive first half, they pounded the weaker Bruins 20-9.
To listen to Ben Howland in the post-game press conference, you could feel the combination of anguish and admiration. His teams at Pittsburgh were predicated upon strength and physical play, not unlike what Mike Montgomery has done through the years at The Farm. So clearly full of disdain for the meek physical players he has today in Westwood, Howland spent nearly half of the press conference hailing the strength of Stanford's players.
"We were beaten tonight by a clearly superior team in every facet of the game," the first-year coach declares. "It was most evident it how strong they are physically. They obviously have a great strength program. In the first five minutes of the game, it was like they were playing ping pong [on the boards]... Stanford was actually physically stronger at every position on the floor, in their starting lineup."
The rebounding was key for the Cardinal squad as they shot very poorly to open the game. They hit just two of their first 10 shots, but the rebounding and defense held UCLA to only five field goal attempts in the opening five minutes of the game.
The overall pace of the game was sluggish, with both teams playing tough defense and shots unable to go down. The Stanford backcourt in particular was having a difficult night shooting the ball, as Matt Lottich and Chris Hernandez combined to miss all five of their shots in the first four minutes. The only Cardinal scoring came inside with Justin Davis and Rob Little hitting tough buckets in the paint. Matt Haryasz and Josh Childress both managed to draw fouls close to the basket, but the lanky forwards combined for 2-of-4 from the free throw line.
Add that all up and Stanford had just nine points in the first seven minutes of the game, which matched UCLA's nine points. The fear coming into this game was that the two excellent defensive teams would grind each other into a low scoring fan-unfriendly affair. Childress drove into the lane and put up a tough leaning five-footer in traffic to gain an 11-9 lead for the #2-ranked Cardinal, but the prospects of turning things around offensively dimmed when Mike Montgomery made a set of substitutions. At the 12-minute media timeout he put Jason Haas, Joe Kirchofer and Nick Robinson in the game for Chris Hernandez, Rob Little and Josh Childress, respectively. Justin Davis was still out of the game, which left only Lottich on the floor as a starter. He wasn't getting anything done, however, scoreless on his four attempts in opening 10 minutes of regulation.
Then a funny thing happened. Bruin freshman Trevor Ariza drove on Robinson toward the basket and put a shot high off the glass over a Haryasz block attempt. Kirchofer grabbed the rebound and immediately threw it out to Haas on the break. Robinson led him down the right sideline, and Haas made a perfect bounce pass that Robinson put up for a transition lay-in off the glass. He was fouled and added a free throw for the three-point play, which lit a fire under the Stanford team and the languishing home crowd.
The Cardinal took a five-point lead, which was the largest for either team in the game, but more importantly the made free throw gave the home team a chance to set up their zone defense. Mike Montgomery almost never employs the zone after Stanford misses, so you had not seen good opportunities in the opening 10 minutes for the zone. In the last 10 minutes of the half, it worked wonders.
UCLA didn't score a bucket in three minutes, while Jason Haas was igniting the Cardinal offense. He was actually the man in the driver's seat that started the 19-3 run that opened up a tie game into a double-digit affair. And from the time Stanford hit their 23-12 lead, the game never again returned to single digits.
The man who dropped the hammer on offense for Stanford was fifth-year senior Justin Davis. He put up Stanford's first four points to open the game, but when he subbed back in at the midpoint of the half, he took his game to another gear. The first bucket came running in transition, where Haas found on open Lottich on the wing, who drew the defense and then hit Davis under the basket. The senior forward gave a pump fake to draw a defender in the air and went up for a successful three-point play (UCLA lane violation saved a missed free throw). Next series, Davis catches the ball at the top of the key and takes T.J. Cummings off the dribble, driving all the way to the glass for the lay-in. Back to Davis on the next series, he draws a double team with arms up in the air, but employs his patented spin move away and shoots a soft turnaround jumper off the glass.
"The things I was throwing up, they just all went in," the smiling senior reports. "Sometimes I was shocked at some of the things I was throwing up."
"Against Cal, the post guys were doing a horrible job of posting up," Davis laments. "We were too far from the basket. Tonight, we were much closer to the basket, and we got our looks."
Howland was sick of watching Davis destroy him down low, so the next series down, not only did a double team collapse on the forward, but also all five defenders moved at him. The quick-handed senior rocketed the ball out to Chris Hernandez on the wing, who rotated over to a wide open Josh Childress. The 6'8" junior, making his first start of the year, calmly stroked the trey to stretch the lead to 14 points.
Down on the other end, Childress and Davis jointly blocked a Cedric Bozeman baseline drive attempt, and Hernandez pushed the ball on the break. He hit a streaking Rob Little down the floor for a transition lay-up through traffic. The next Stanford basket was a Justin Davis offensive rebound and putback, but the Card got back out on the break again when Hernandez found Lottich for an easy lay-in.
Up 32-14, the rout was on. Pounding UCLA on the boards was mildly surprising, but not entirely so. Their big men are soft, while Stanford's front three are as good as any in the country. The surprising element of this game, to those who foment stereotypes, was how the Card were killing the Bruins in transition. UCLA is supposed to have the better athletes, while Stanford has the "smarter" and more disciplined players who execute in the halfcourt.
But this run, and the game as a whole, was a prime example of just how dated and misinformed these Stanford stereotypes are. This team likes to run, and they push the ball on the break with purpose and precision. Too many basketball fans believe that running in transition is all about speed and quickness, but it instead is a mindset. Chris Hernandez and Jason Haas are not the fastest point guards that Stanford has had in the last decade, but they like to get up the floor off defensive stops and exploit opportunities in open space. Even more important, Stanford's rebounders get the ball out of their hands quickly that initiate many fast-break opportunities.
"We got beat in transition too much tonight, which we had worked on all week," Howland laments. "So that was disappointing for us. But this is not something new. You watch Stanford and they do it every night."
"We did get some points off the break," Montgomery notes for his part. "Mostly that's effort, though. If you took our guys and their out for a race, we're not necessarily going to outrun them."
Rob Little, always ready to give the penultimate quote on an issue like this, punctuates the point. "We're probably not faster than many teams," he admits. "We have to get by on effort."
As Stanford opened the game into an increasingly lopsided affair, effort was precisely the gap between the two teams. UCLA looked like they had completely checked out of the game, and that most showed up on defense. Whereas the Bruins had applied smart but tight ball pressure in the first part of the half, they were now flat-footed and visibly apathetic. The Cardinal offense seized on the lax movement in the Bruin defense and need just a few passes to find wide open shooters. The slumping Matt Lottich drained a three-pointer, followed the next possession by Josh Childress.
The fireworks continued with a mid-range turnaround jumper by Haryasz, and then the next possession a true highlight reel alley-oop from Little to Childress. The pass at first looked too high and too far from the basket, but the Electric Q-Tip™ went up and snagged it... and somehow managed to get it over the rim with ease.
The 24-point lead, at 42-18, was a statement of domination and humiliation. Stanford was controlling both ends of the floor, holding UCLA to 36% shooting from the field, while the Card hit at a 79% clip after their 2-of-10 start from the field. UCLA walk-on Janou Rubin hit a token three-pointer in the final minute that banked hard off the glass, but a 42-21 halftime score spoke loudly to the mismatch of effort and talent in this game.
Justin Davis was the unquestioned star, feeling it on offense and hitting a perfect 7-of-7 for 15 points in the first half. He added a pair of offensive rebounds for good measure. The athletic senior forward would shine again in the second half, ending the game 10-of-11 for 21 points and five offensive boards. His only miss was an offensive rebound he tipped in the air toward the basket, not a true attempt.
Montgomery had no qualms about riding the Davis Train and went right back to him to start the second half. Cummings decided to front the unstoppable forward on Stanford's first possession of the half, so Little hit him with a mini-lob pass from the high post, which Davis layed in with ease. A few possessions later Rob Little blocked a Cummings attempt at the basket and hit Hernandez out on the break. Davis was racing ahead and they connected for a pass and dunk to complete the 2-on-3 break.
Though the scoring was slow early in the second half, Stanford still held a 20-point lead at 48-28. Robinson had subbed in for Childress, and then Haryasz and Haas came in for Davis and Hernandez. This "second team" of offense had succeeded in the first half, but they were completely ineffective against a more invigorated UCLA defense in the second half. Stanford went scoreless for three and a half minutes, while UCLA chipped the lead down to 13. Grumbles from the home crowd bemoaned "yet another second half letdown," but that was not strictly the case in this game. The margin never dipped below 12, and the Card actually outscored the Bruins over the final 12 minutes of the game.
Though the score barely vacillated during the remainder of the game, there were still some very memorable highlights. Matt Haryasz came from 10 feet away to leap and swat a Michael Fey baseline jumper, and then the springy sophomore did it again later (though goaltending was called). On offense, Haryasz stroked a sweet 16-footer as well. Childress drained a three from the top of the key.
With six minutes left in the game and Stanford up 13, Josiah Johnson abandoned Justin Davis at the high post, so the Stanford forward quickly raised his arms to motion to Matt Lottich out on the wing, and Davis moved toward the basket. The quick connection between the two seniors resulted in another crowd-pleasing alley-oop.
The margin would be sliced to 12 with four and a half to go in the game, certainly not out of range for the visiting Bruins. But Mike Montgomery put Justin Davis on the bench for the remainder. Though the 6'9" senior had a hot hand and was unstoppable on offense, he was tiring on defense. Fans in the stands murmured that the best offensive weapon sat on the bench, while the rest of the team could not put away the pesky Bruins, but you have to commend Montgomery on that call. It was clear how much energy Davis had expended, and he put as much into his 26 minutes as he might in a different 32-minute game. The game might have gone south like the Cal game a week ago, but Montgomery took the gamble that he could hold on comfortably while resting Davis. The pace of play on Saturday will be frenetic, and Cardinal fans have to be happy with what Davis ought to have left in his tank.
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