The Bruins are coming off a road sweep of the Oregon schools while the Golden Bears are coming off a home split against the Washington schools.
In the topsy-turvy Pac-10 Conference, where every game seems magnified in its importance, the Bruins find themselves in the middle of a short stretch of games that they are supposed to win (on paper) and, quite frankly, they have to win if the Bruins hope to be in the NCAA Tournament come March. The stretch of games started with the road trip to Oregon and continues now with the Bruins hosting the Bay Area schools.
The game against Cal is a dangerous one as it represents a bit of a "trap" game for the Bruins. Stanford is clearly the better of the two Bay Area squads and the Bruins may be looking ahead to the game against the Cardinal on Saturday. The Bears, however, are dangerous. They certainly didn't look good getting routed at home on Sunday night by Washington, but they have wins over Temple, New Mexico and at Iowa State, and with Montgomery on the bench they will always be mentally and physically ready to play. The question, as always, is whether or not the Bruins will be, too.
Cal enters the game in a bit of flux. The Bears recently lost starting guard Gary Franklin who decided to transfer on January 5. Since then they have won 2 and lost two with the other loss being a very close 2-point loss at Arizona. They defeated Arizona State by four at ASU and won at home against Wazzu by 7. The Wazzu win and the close loss to the Cats are both impressive -- the other two outcomes not so much. I have a theory and I think it has legs. The Bears are clearly the lesser of the two NorCal teams. If I know this then clearly other Pac-10 programs know this even if the players and coaches won't admit it. True, the Cal roster is pretty devoid of proven talent, but they play very hard, which is a staple of Montgomery-led teams. Cal plays hard, other teams subconsciously take them for granted compared to Stanford and, voila, you get upsets and close games. Arizona was very flat against the Bears. Washington was not as the Huskies had just lost their first Pac-10 contest to Stanford on Thursday night. UDub was angry and focused and they beat Cal at Haas Pavilion by 21…and it wasn't that close. So, the key for the Bruins, maybe more so than in any other game up to this point, is focus. If the Bruins play with focus and intensity then they shouldn't just win, they should roll. If they don't then Cal can and probably will pull off the upset.
This game brings up an interesting dilemma that Howland may be facing (if in fact he even looks at it that way…he may not even be thinking about this) in terms of which five players give him his best team on the floor. As Tracy Pierson pointed out earlier this week in a post in the BRO premium basketball forum, Cal starts three guards but the two bigs that Montgomery does start are both, well, big. The question for Howland may be whether or not to use a similar line-up to the one he employed throughout the second half at Oregon, namely moving Tyler Honeycutt to the four and inserting Jerime Anderson into the line-up to play alongside Lazeric Jones, with Malcolm Lee moving to the three. That was the best defensive team that Bruin fans have put on the court in more than 2 full years. It wasn't just that the Bruins were able to keep their individual defensive assignment in front of them (with Anderson and Jones keeping the very quick Johnathan Loyd out of the lane consistently), it was the rotation of the Bruins on the back side. As I said, it was the first time in two years that UCLA fans could have actually thought that the Bruins appeared to be playing with six men on defense.
From an offensive standpoint a lineup with Honeycutt at the four would be a significant upgrade in terms of the Bruins' ability to operate their offense. I know that this has been posted already this week, but it bears repeating; with Honeycutt's ability to drive by traditional fours and shoot from the outside, the Bruins have more spacing and balance to their offense. Further, they then have three players besides Honeycutt who can attack the basket in Anderson, Jones and Lee. This kind of lineup would force opposing coaches to react to what the Bruins do rather than dictating play. If nothing else this lineup now means that UCLA's opponents cannot simply gameplan for one type of offense.
With the departure of Franklin the reins of the Cal offense have been handed to sophomore Brandon Smith (5'11" 185 lbs.). Smith's ability to penetrate is questionable, but he is quick, and he makes good decisions with the ball (56 assists to only 40 turnovers), but his shooting is borderline catastrophic for a team that struggles to score. Smith shoots only 34% from the field and only 11% from the three-point line. The best course of action for the Bruins would be to play off Smith and challenge him to beat UCLA from the outside. However, after watching the way the Bruin guards simply dominated Oregon's Loyd last weekend (who is a similar but better offensive player than Smith) UCLA should probably handle Smith the same way.
The two guard is now being handled by the most experienced member of Cal's squad, junior guard Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 195 lbs.). Gutierrez has the capability of occasionally going off in games but he is much more of a glue guy in terms of what he does on the court. His statistics really paint an accurate picture of what kind of player he is and can be when he plays his usual game. He averages 12.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, leads the team in steals and assists with 24 and 68 respectively, but also in turnovers with 48. He is very good (76%) from the free throw line and pretty good from behind the arc (42%) but not so good from inside the arc (39% from the field overall). He is a nice player who can handle the point or play the two. He has a warrior's mentality and that makes him very valuable. He can arguably guard any of 1-3 positions on the floor. The advantage that Gutierrez gives the Bears against the Bruins, though, is strength. He is noticeably stronger than both Anderson and Jones. The one option that Howland may have is to have Tyler Lamb in the game to guard Gutierrez because the Bruins frosh is actually stronger and bigger than either of his junior teammates.
The third of Montgomery's three guards is freshman Allen Crabbe (6'6" 205 lbs.), who has become arguably Cal's best player. Cal's biggest offensive deficiency is its outside shooting and that wasn't helped by the departure of Franklin. In fact, of the players in Montgomery's rotation, if you discount Gutierrez's and Crabbe's three-point shooting, the Bears are only 29-115 on three-point attempts. That's barely 25%. As it is, Crabbe only shoots 35% from behind the arc, although he has shot much better recently. Crabbe is not exclusively an outside shooter but more than 50% of his shots have come from deep. He can put the ball on the floor but he's only been to the free throw line 42 times, the lowest total of any of the starters. Still, he is hitting 83% of his free throws. Lee should be on him if the Bruins go small, while Honeycutt will have him when Howland moves Honeycutt to the three. Either way the Bruins will have to focus on Crabbe more than Wazzu or Washington did last weekend when he scored a combined 46 points against the Washington schools.
Montgomery utilizes four players to fill his two frontcourt spots, although he will use mostly three of them at times. One of the players, sophomore Bak Bak (6'9" 225 lbs.), doesn't play much so in reality it's the other three players, senior Markhuri Sanders-Frison (6'7" 265 lbs.), junior Harper Kamp (6'8" 245 lbs.) and freshman Richard Solomon (6'10" 220 lbs.) who get the bulk of the frontcourt minutes.
Sanders-Frison was an especially tough match-up for the Bruins last season because of his bulk. He manhandled the Bruins inside in both the game at Pauley and in the Pac-10 Tournament game. Reeves Nelson simply didn't have enough girth to keep Sanders-Frison from getting easy position under the hoop. Now Sanders-Frison, who is averaging 10.1 PPG and a team-leading 8.1 RPG, will have to face Josh Smith. Sanders-Frison hasn't often faced a player who is bigger, taller and longer than he and probably more athletic, too. This is a match-up the Bruins have to exploit. That's why playing Honeycutt at the four can really help. With Honeycutt pulling the other Cal post away from the paint and thus away from a help position, that will leave Smith one-on-one with Sanders-Frison and Smith should dominate that match-up if it happens. If Smith can stay out of foul trouble then he should be able to frustrate Sanders-Frison when Cal is on offense. The Cal big man will surely utilize some tricks to get some rebounds and baskets he has no business getting but this may be the toughest match-up that Sanders-Frison has faced at Cal.
Kamp is also more of an inside player but he will at least attempt a three-pointer now and then. He is Cal's leading scorer at 13.8 PPG and the second-leading rebounder at 5.6 RPG. He is a pretty good mid-range shooter and his size will give the Bruins problems when Honeycutt is on him (assuming Howland will move to a smaller line-up at times). However, as Tracy Pierson also pointed out in his post on this subject several days ago, Honeycutt is a far superior athlete and Kamp isn't so tall that Honeycutt can't block or alter his shot on a regular basis. When the Bruins have the ball there is no way the Kamp can stay with Honeycutt. In fact, Kamp would probably find it difficult to stay with Reeves Nelson, assuming the UCLA sophomore will have a better game than the one he had in Eugene, and Nelson and Brendan Lane can certainly match-up with Kamp on the defensive end.
Solomon is probably the most talented big man on the roster but the experience of Sanders-Frison and Kamp have allowed them to play more consistently. Solomon is a beetter athlete than either of his teammates and he has a nice shot out to 10 feet. He can even hit the occasional long range shot. He is bouncy and long and while he doesn't have the girth of his teammates he would be a match-up problem for either Honeycutt or Nelson simply because of his length. He is the one shot-blocking presence on the team, although he averages barely ½ a block per game.
All four Cal frontcourt players shoot well above 50% from the field, but outside of Kamp, who is over 80%, they are poor free throw shooters. The Bruins should dominate in the frontcourt just based on talent. Of course the Bruins have to play as hard as their opposition, but as an example, Anthony Stover would be one of the top three frontcourt players on Cal and could arguably replace Sanders-Frison in the starting line-up.
Montgomery is a smart coach and he has probably already recognized that UCLA can attack a zone or a man with equal aplomb, but what the Bruins don't do well is attack and recognize changing defenses. Expect Montgomery to switch between man and zone defenses constantly with some token pressure thrown in just to kill clock. This is where Anderson is vitally important. Anderson is the one Bruin guard who recognizes what defense the Bruins are facing almost immediately and he is the one you will see pointing to his teammates to get into proper positions to attack the defense.
The other way the Bruins should attrack is by driving against Cal. The Bears don't have a great shot blocking/altering presence in the paint and the Bruins should enjoy a pretty significant advantage on the boards even with Honeycutt at the four. The Bears have been outrebounded in every loss but one (San Diego State) and the worse they are on the boards the worse the outcome. If Cal should win the battle of the boards the Bruins will still be facing a team as bad as or worse than they are at taking care of the ball. Cal has almost 50 more turnovers than their opponents this year, although part of that is because Montgomery's man defense of preference is lane-denial so that his players don't look for turnovers but rather contested shots and getting rebounds. If the Bruins can take care of the ball they will get many more offensive possessions than the Bears.
This game can be dissected at many levels and in many ways but the bottom line is that if UCLA decides to play with the focus and intensity it showed in the second half in Eugene then they should win this game going away. Knowing the Bruins, they will make it maddening on their fans for the majority of the game but they will do enough to win and move on to the more challenging Stanford.