The significance of the game for the Bruins cannot be overstated. If the Bruins win they will arguably be a win or two away from wrapping up an NCAA Tournament bid. Lose the game and the Bruins face the prospect of having to beat either Arizona at home next Thursday or one of Washington or Washington State on the road in two weeks in order to feel safe about getting their dance card punched.
The Bruins are coming off a fairly satisfying road win over Stanford in Palo Alto on Thursday night. As Greg Hicks wrote in his game review, the Bruins generally played well on both ends of the floor and had they hit their free throws (there's that bugaboo raising its ugly head again) at the end of the game then the final margin would have been in double digits. Still, as it was, Stanford was only able to get the final score to 69-65 because Jeremy Green hit multiple three-pointers from crazy angles and with UCLA's Malcolm Lee draped all over him. Even with Green's late attempt at heroics, the Cardinal never led, which was and is more a testament to UCLA's growing maturity, especially on defense, than it was anything that Stanford did. The Bruins will need that maturity again Sunday, as this Cal game stands to be the most difficult Bruin road game since the loss to Arizona several weeks ago.
Cal is coming off a tough three-point loss to USC on Thursday night. The game probably wasn't as close as the score indicated, as USC jumped out to an early double-digit lead and never let Cal catch up. The Bears have now lost four in a row and sit at 13-13 overall and 6-8 in the Pac-10 Conference. However, two of those losses came on the road at the two Washington schools and a third was at home against Arizona by two in triple overtime in a game that California arguably should have closed out. Finally, the loss to USC saw Cal play without freshman Allen Crabbe (6'6" 205 lbs.), who has been Cal's best player the second half of the season. Crabbe was out with concussive symptoms he received in the Washington game when his head collided with the knee of a Husky. He missed both the Wazzu game. His availability for the game against the Bruins is still yet to be determined. He did go through the shoot-around before the USC game with his teammates before he was told he had to sit out that game. A reasonable expectation is that Crabbe will play on Sunday.
Crabbe's playing presents an interesting twist to the game. A healthy Crabbe has been sorely missed by the Bears as he averages 12 PPG and, perhaps more importantly, 5.5 RPG. If he doesn't play at least his teammate will be fully used to his not being on the floor. Fellow frosh Jeff Powers (6'7" 190 lbs.) has played extensively in Crabbe's place and he has been a bit of surprise in terms of his scoring. However, he isn't Crabbe on the defensive end or on the boards and that is an area that really hurt the Bears in their losses to Wazzu and USC. It is reasonable to think that Cal would have defeated at least one of those two teams had Crabbe been healthy and played and it wouldn't have been a shock if Cal swept those two games with their freshman talisman. Crabbe was very important to Cal's almost improbable comeback against the Bruins when they met at Pauley Pavilion in January. While the Bruins won the game, 86-84, a combination of missed foul shots and Crabbe's shooting almost pulled out the game for the Bears. Granted, Crabbe was held to well under his average until Malcolm Lee fouled out with about five minutes to go in that game and he started scoring at will when he no longer had to face Lee's defense. Still, Crabbe is dangerous and his availability should be a boost to Cal's chances…or is it? Coming back from a concussion is no easy thing. The Bruins faced the same prospect when Josh Smith suffered a concussion against Cal early in the first meeting. Smith missed virtually all of that game and sat out the next game against Stanford. When Smith returned to the line-up following Stanford, he was nowhere near his level best as the Bruins lost at Arizona. In fact, Smith still looked a bit "foggy" against Arizona State game two days after the loss in Tucson. The point is that even if Crabbe returns there is an even chance that he, too, like Smith was for the Bruins, will not be at 100%.
Regardless of who starts between Crabbe and Powers, the other two guard positions in Montgomery's three-guard line-up will be filled by junior Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 195 lbs.) and sophomore Brandon Smith (5'11" 185 lbs.). Gutierrez is arguably the ultimate "glue-guy" in the conference. He is second on the team in scoring at 13.8 PPG, leads the team in assists with 111 and is a threat to drive and hit three-pointers. He is a good free-throw shooter at 77% and leads the team in steals with 37. However, Gutierrez's value to the team goes far beyond the stat sheet. He is clearly the team's leader and is the type of player who will have to visit the trainer after every game to have his floor burns treated. He scored 15 points in the first game against the Bruins and attempted the most shots of any Bear in that game. With UCLA's Smith out of most of that game, Howland often went with a smaller line-up, having Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson guard Gutierrez and they were only moderately successful at shutting him down. If Crabbe doesn't play or if he is much less effective than normal, then look for Howland to slide over Lee to guard Gutierrez.
Smith became Montgomery's starting point guard as soon as former bear Gary Franklin decided to transfer in the beginning of January, and he's been solid but not spectacular since. Smith has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team at almost 2-1 and he shoots well over 50% from the floor. However, he doesn't shoot nearly enough to be considered a true offensive threat, especially when Cal has Gutierrez and Crabbe starting with him. Smith is almost a non-factor from distance, having only attempted 9 three-pointers on the season. Perhaps most importantly, even though Smith is a smaller point guard, he doesn't posses the kind of quickness that has bothered UCLA's backcourt defenders at times this season.
Cal's leading scorer this season has been junior forward Harper Kamp (6'8" 245 lbs.) at 15 PPG, who is also the team's second-leading rebounder at 5.8 RPG. Kamp had a big game when these teams first met this season, scoring 21 and grabbing four boards while going 9-9 from the free throw line. The match-up of Kamp against UCLA Reeves Nelson may be the most interesting of the game. When these teams first played, Kamp had his way with Nelson when Cal had the ball. Since that time there has bee a transformation in Nelson's play. He has become much better at on-ball defense against fellow post players and has gotten more adept at handling ball screens and giving help defense. Most importantly, Nelson is playing with consistent effort on both ends of the floor for the first time in his UCLA career.
The other starting post for Cal is the lone senior on Cal's squad, Markhuri Sanders-Frison (6'7" 265 lbs.). Sanders-Frison averages 11.1 PPG on 60% shooting from the field, including 2-2 from long distance, and he leads the team in rebounding at 7.4 RPG. He has been very good against the Bruins in the past, especially at Haas Pavilion. In spite of that, he had a very average game against the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion, going for only 10 points and 5 boards. Remember, Josh Smith essentially didn't play that game and the Bruin frosh is starting to play at a very high level. If nothing else, having Smith in this one means that Howland has up to four bodies to throw at Sanders-Frison, including Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane (who looks like he's getting his confidence back), as well as Nelson.
The Cal bench obviously includes the aforementioned Powers, but it becomes very thin if Crabbe can't play. Freshman Richard Solomon (6'10" 220 lbs.) provides Montgomery with solid frontcourt depth and some shot blocking. Sophomore forward Bak Bak (6'9" 225 lbs.) also provides depth up front but has only been playing sparsely. The key is that Cal has little to no backcourt depth. Freshman Emerson Murray (6'3" 195 lbs.) played 11 minutes against the Trojans and had two assists but, suffice to say, he's another player that Montgomery is putting on the floor simply because he has to. The Bruins might also see junior Nigel Carter (6'4" 210 lbs.) but he plays less than Murray does.
The first meeting of these two teams was an offensive show, with a combined 170 points, but that had as much to do with the poor defense as it did the offensive execution, especially for the Bruins. Since that game some things have changed, mostly on UCLA's end. First and foremost, the Bruins are playing arguably the best defense in the conference right now, with the Bruins demonstrably better at both individual and team defense than they were in January. The second factor is that Josh Smith is healthy and he's playing well. Even though he played a bit soft offensively against Stanford, attempting layups instead of dunks, he was still a force at both ends and opened up things for his teammates on offense. Next, the Bruins clearly have momentum while Cal is going in the other direction. Certainly the Bears could look at the three close losses they've suffered in the last four games and play as if they are very close to putting a great game together. Of course, they could also begin to pack it in if they fall behind, too, because of those losses. They are a very young team, with Sanders-Frison being the only senior. Then, obviously, there is the possible loss of Crabbe, or his lack of effectiveness if he does play. The point of all of this is to show that many of the intangible factors going into this game favor the Bruins. Keep in mind, though that playing at Haas can be a great mitigating factor.
In the first meeting of these teams, Cal's offense basically came down to drives off of ball screens. The Bruins were horrible at defending them and it almost cost them the game. That probably won't be the case on Sunday as everything about the Bruins, from chemistry (which wasn't bad to begin with) to concentration and communication has improved.
Cal's Mike Montgomery has to hope that Crabbe can go and that his backcourt stays out of foul trouble. If Crabbe is out or even limited, then Cal is really going to be up against it. If Crabbe is indeed out and Smith or Gutierrez gets into foul trouble, then the Bruins may win big.
The Bruins have much more to play for at this point of the season and their defense the last several weeks looks like they understand that. The Bruins almost certainly are aware to a player that the game against the Wildcats looms on Thursday night and the impact of that game will be huge if the Bruins take care of business against Cal.
There are too many factors going against Cal right now for the Bruins not to win unless they simply revert back to their early January form. Assuming that doesn't happen, the Bruins should find themselves getting ready for a first-place showdown with Arizona on Thursday. The only things that will keep this Cal game is the game being in Berkeley and that UCLA tends to miss an inordinate amount of free throws when they have a comfortable lead.