The importance of this trip can't be overstated; many fans are already pointing to the fact that the Bruins will face Arizona at Pauley Pavilion the following week. However, that game means much less if the Bruins can't win at least one if not two games in the Bay Area this week.
Interestingly, Bruin Coach Ben Howland has been outspoken in his criticism of the Pac-10's Thursday-Saturday game pattern because he feels that it doesn't give him enough time to prepare his young team for the second game of the two-game set. Even Tracy Pierson in his Oregon State game review stated that it was very possible the Bruins struggled offensively against the Beavers because they couldn't get in a proper amount of practice time against OSU's trapping zone defense. In a quirk of the schedule, though, the Bruins play Stanford on Thursday night and then don't face California until Sunday. That gives the Bruins an extra day to get ready for the Bears and that might be critical to get the Bruins to be as prepared as they can as they try to stay in the running for the Pac-10 regular season title. Before that game comes up, though, the Bruins have to travel to Maples Pavilion on Thursday.
Stanford has had a very up and down season. The Cardinal have had three three-game winning streaks attached to a four-game losing streak and several two-game losing streaks. One of the main reasons for this is the youth of the Cardinal. Coach Johnny Dawkins has the youngest team in the Pac-10, even younger than the Bruins. There are 9 freshmen on Stanford's 15-man roster. That means that Stanford is very dangerous because, while they can be very poor at times (losing to Murray State and Tulsa and barely beating DePaul as well as being annihilated at the hands of Butler), when they play well they can be very, very good, as the win against Washington can attest. Stanford has talent, it just happens to be young talent.
When the Bruins and Cardinal met in January at Pauley Pavilion it was a tale of two halves, or at least half of a half, and then the rest of the game. Stanford came out on fire on national television and the CBS broadcast crew was openly deriding UCLA's lack of defensive effort and focus. However, after the Bruins fell down by double-digits early in the first half they then clamped down on the Cardinal, holding them scoreless for a long stretch of the first half and then using that defense to pull away from Stanford in the second half. The Bruins held Stanford to 31% shooting for the game, and this came on the heels of UCLA's second half defensive performance against Oregon the Saturday before. However, there was the Cal game in between the first Stanford meeting and Oregon, and that was the game that UCLA led big for much of the game and then almost lost because the Bruin offense went into hibernation (especially at the free throw line) and the Bruin defense throughout was pretty dreadful.
It's been interesting to watch this UCLA team grow defensively. Since the first Oregon game they started playing Howland-esque defense, but that was only for a half. Then came the defensive clunker against the Bears. Then the second half and then some of the Stanford game. Then the clunker against the Wildcats in Tucson. The second USC game made fans really take notice, as did the victory over St. John's. Finally, this past weekend the Bruins didn't play well offensively against either Oregon school but the defense was very good in both games from beginning to end. In short, the Bruins have grown defensively as the year has gone on. However, it's one thing to play good defense and sustain effort when on your own floor. It is quite another thing to do it on the opposition's floor when you have to supply your own energy. So, even though UCLA has played very good defense the past two weeks, you need to have a I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it mentality when it comes to these Bruins. Can they produce the kind of focus and intensity needed, especially on defense, when they play away from home?
Stanford's starting line-up is definitely not one to pound the ball inside with Dawkins consistently going with a three-guard line-up. The best player in that line-up is junior two-guard Jeremy Green (6'4" 198 lbs.). Green is the team's leading scorer at 15.7 PPG, the team's leader in three-point shooting (64-153, which is more makes and attempts than the next two Cardinal combined), and the runaway leader in minutes played. He is, quite simply, the team's leader. In the first meeting between the two schools, UCLA's Malcolm Lee forced Green into a pretty poor game. Green was 4-15 from the floor, couldn't get by Lee to the basket and two of his makes were after the game had essentially been decided. Stanford is not a good team if Green can't at least force defenses to be honest with him and make another defender provide help. This is the match-up of the game. If Lee forces Green into another poor performance then UCLA wins.
The other two guards in Dawkins' three-guard line-up are junior Jarrett Mann (6'4" 190 lbs.) and freshman Anthony Brown (6'6" 200 lbs.). As I have written before about Mann, he does a good job of running the Stanford offense, but in terms of shooting, it's as if Stanford is playing 4 on 5. Mann is only a 31% shooter from the floor and is a horrifying 1-16 from beyond the arc. For him to be involved in any way in the offense other than his assists, he needs to slash to the hoop and either beat his defender, which he isn't apt to do as he isn't overly athletic, or look for a pass as he cuts to the hoop. It was pretty indicative of how poorly UCLA's defense was in the first part of the first half last month against the Cardinal when Mann scored on two of his first three shots. After UCLA's defense improved from about the 8-minute mark of the first half on, Mann went 1-8 the remainder of the game.
Brown is a streaky shooter but he has a great deal of talent. It's pretty obvious that he's going to be an All-Conference player at some point, probably sooner rather than later. He is athletic, can get to the basket, but he can also shoot from distance. He may only be averaging 7.9 PPG but his game is rounding into form. He put up 17 against Washington last weekend and is capable of the same performance at Maples. He hits his threes at a 37% clip and is starting to play more aggressively, using his outside shot to force his defender to get into him, thus allowing Brown to drive by his man and create good offensive opportunities for himself or teammates. Tyler Honeycutt, Lee and/or Tyler Lamb will certainly have to be on their collective games in order to be sure that the Cardinal frosh doesn't have a career game against the Bruins. Honeycutt, in particular, will have to concentrate on keeping his man in front of him. Honeycutt did a nice job of helping on defense against Oregon State and he had 8 blocks in that game but he was still getting beat off the dribble and many of his blocks came as he recovered against players that were less athletic than he'll see Thursday night.
The two forwards for Dawkins are junior Josh Owens (6'8" 230 lbs.) and freshman Dwight Powell (6'9" 227 lbs.). Neither of these two are traditional low-post players. It seems clear that as the season has progressed Dawkins has realized that Stanford has no real low-post options so Dawkins has decided to play the two most athletic guys he has up front.
Owens is second on the team in scoring at 11.4 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 6.8 RPG. He is a face-the-basket kind of player who has some low post moves but really doesn't have the bulk to just back down someone. Although he'd rather face the hoop when he has the ball, he has no true outside game, having not yet attempted a three-pointer this season. He is very athletic and can use his guile to slip between players for rebounds. He is also fairly long so shooting over him can be difficult. However, he has trouble defending bigger players, and by big I mean players with girth. UCLA's Josh Smith, if matched with Owens one-on-one when Smith has the ball, should have his way with Owens. Expect Owens to get help in those situations when Stanford is in a man defense.
Powell is a springy Canadian who had 9 points and seven boards the first time these teams met. He is third on the team in scoring at 8.8 PPG and second in rebounding at 4.8 RPG. Stanford is in fact a squad that rebounds as a team. By that I mean they have five players who pull down at least 3.5 RPG. That's part of the reason why Powell is second on the team in boards even with a relatively low average. Powell will attempt the occasional three-pointer and has hit 38% of his attempts, although he has only taken 16 shots from distance.
Owens was able to have a very solid game against the Bruins in January, going for 14 points and 12 boards, but much like his teammates, his production on the offensive end tailed off considerably in the second half of that game. Obviously Smith and Anthony Stover should guard Owens during the game and both match-up fairly well with Owens for different reasons, with Stover's overall length and energy sure to cause Owens some issues. Powell should be taken by Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane, with a little Honeycutt thrown in for when Howland wants to go small. This is different than the first time these teams met in that Stover was barely seeing the floor while Lane, who was playing some decent minutes, was just in the beginning of the confidence slump that's affected him up until the OSU game. Stover did in fact start that first game and played 23 minutes in his first significant time of the season and, as could have been predicted, Stover looked lost for much of the first half. If Lane plays as he did against OSU in terms of confidence then the Bruins should be okay in the frontcourt on both ends of the floor, having more depth than Stanford.
Dawkins has really shortened the Stanford bench to essentially two players and both of them are freshmen, guard Aaron Bright (5'11" 175 lbs.) and forward John Gage (6'9" 220 lbs.). Bright can play either guard position and is more of a scoring threat than Mann. However, Bright is more of a scoring lead guard than a true point guard. He isn't overly quick for his small stature and the UCLA guards should be able to handle him when he's on the floor. The Bruins won't be able to back off him, though, as he will shoot and make three-point shots. With Mann, the Bruins can back off and force him to beat them with jump shots. They can't necessarily do that with Bright.
Gage didn't play in the first meeting of these two teams but he's been getting more and more minutes as the year has gone on. He can play either forward spot in Dawkins' line-up and can shoot out to the three-point line. In fact, Gage has the best three-point shooting percentage on the team at 43%. His rebounding numbers are lacking, though, for the minutes he plays, and the Cardinal suffer at the defensive end with him in the game. Still, with Brown, Powell, Gage and Bright, that means Dawkins has four freshmen in his seven-man rotation.
There are so many differences between the first meeting of these teams and the game Thursday night. First and foremost, the game is obviously a Bruin road game and, although the Bruins have been playing solid defense recently and have been focused on that end of the floor, it remains to be seen if the Bruins can take that focus into a hostile environment.
The second most important difference is that Josh Smith will play in this game after missing the first meeting in January because of concussive symptoms he suffered from a hard fall in the first Cal game. Smith is a difference-maker and Stanford will absolutely have to gameplan for him.
UCLA also has the addition of a now-experienced Stover playing in the middle. That certainly will help and the redshirt frosh will not have that deer-in-the-headlights look he had the first time these teams met. That means the Bruins will at least be stronger (based on the last two weeks) in the paint defensively.
When these teams met the first time the Bruins went to the free throw line 33 times. Lazeric Jones was 10-11 from the charity stripe, but it's probably safe to say the Bruins won't get to the free throw line that frequently in this game. That means the Bruins will have to execute much better offensively than they did against the Oregon schools last week. They will certainly see a mix of zone and man defense from the Cardinal, although they probably won't see the kind of full-court pressure that OSU showed the Bruins last Saturday. Stanford will almost certainly zone the Bruins for much of the game, especially when Smith is in. It will be imperative that the Bruin guards get the ball to Smith because the Bruins simply don't shoot well enough from the outside to be strictly a jump-shooting team against a zone. It doesn't help that the banged up Jones has leveled off in terms of his offensive production recently. Jones and Lee combined for 40 points in the first meeting but it might be too much to expect them to combine for that number this time, especially with the Bruins probably not getting to the line anywhere near 33 times. That's why Smith is so important on offense.
Smith playing should be the difference in the game. Even if he doesn't score 20 points he commands enough attention to allow his teammates to get open lanes to the basket. Certainly the Bruins will have to take advantage of their free throw opportunities because of the fact that they are apt to happen much less frequently on the road then at Pauley Pavilion.
Good teams continue to play good defense even when they are on the road. That's what allows good teams to win conference road games. If ever there were a time to predict that the Bruins will play solid defense away from Westwood, this would be the time, if only because: If the Bruins don't do it now, when will they? UCLA has been better on defense the past several weeks and they seem to be getting stronger on that end as the year progresses. If the Bruins want to be in the NCAA Tournament and be taken seriously as a conference contender, then they have to bring their A game on the defensive end to the Bay Area. The first test is Thursday.