This NorCal trip is going to be a tough one for the Bruins, as they will face, in Stanford and then California, arguably the two Pac-12 favorites coming out of the pre-conference season. Coach Ben Howland's Bruins are starting to find an identity, written about at length by both Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks, and that identity is revolving around playing zone defense. UCLA is coming off a win over a decent Richmond Spiders squad that saw the Bruins play their best defensive and rebounding game of the season. The best thing to come out of the Richmond game is that, at least in terms of personnel, the Spiders and Stanford are very similar. Richmond should have given the Bruins a pretty good idea of what they'll be up against on Thursday night. The question is, will the Bruins continue their good run of play against a decent team in their conference opener on the road?
Like Richmond, Coach Johnny Dawkins' Stanford squad's strength is on the perimeter. Also like Richmond, the Stanford players that operate in those perimeter positions are pretty young. It all starts with the backcourt of true freshman Chasson Randle (6'1" 175 lbs.) and sophomore Aaron Bright (5'11" 177 lbs.). Randle, who ostensibly plays the shootng guard position, is the more dangerous of the two because of his athleticism. He has the quickness to create his own shot, generally doesn't force things, scoring his 11.8 PPG in the flow of Stanford's offense, and shoots well from the outside. He hits 42% of his three-point attempts and 84 % of his free throws. The key against Randle is to fight through/over screens and force him to take contested shots. He is solid defensively; having 19 steals on the year, and is quick enough to cut off dribble penetration. Randle does handle point guard duties at times throughout the game but is primarily used coming off the ball. UCLA's Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson will more than likely be matched up on Randle when UCLA isn't in a zone defense. Randle is quicker than both so it will be important for the two Bruin seniors to utilize every bit of experience they have to offset Randle's edge in athleticism.
Bright is more of the point guard when both he and Randle are on the floor. The Bruin not guarding Randle, between Jones and Anderson, will be matched up on Bright. While Bright is shorter than Randle and doesn't have the athleticism of his teammate, that doesn't mean he can't get to the paint. Bright averages 11.3 PPG and has 38 assists to lead the team (versus only 24 turnovers). Bright needs to be guarded much like Randle in that the Bruins would benefit from fighting through and over screens to handle him. However, Bright has been a very good shooter this season, hitting over 50% overall from the floor and 49% from distance. Interestingly, Randle and Bright combined to take roughly 50% of their shots from behind the arc.
The third perimeter starter is sophomore Anthony Brown (6'6" 210 lbs.), who started the year slowly but has come on strong the last four games since he was inserted back into the starting line-up. He isn't the shooter that Randle and Bright are but he is a difficult match-up because he will be a couple inches taller than any Bruin matched-up with him, namely Tyler Lamb or Norman Powell. Brown had a couple of pretty big games against the Bruins last season, scoring 10 in Los Angeles and 15 in a close game in Palo Alto. He's a decent three-point shooter, hitting 34% on the season.
Dawkins has a very good post player in senior Josh Owens (6'8" 240 lbs.). He is the team's leading scorer at 12.7 PPG and leading rebounder at 5.4 RPG. He is athletic enough that he is going to cause some issues for the Bruins on the low block. The good news for Howland is that the Bruin posts shouldn't have to be worried about Owens stepping out to the arc for attempted threes. He hasn't tried one all season. However, he is shooting 62% from the floor so the Bruins will have their work cut out for them against Owens. A key statistic should be that Owens only hits 60% of his free throws. When the Bruins play zone defense they must pay attention to Owens moving on the baseline and getting the ball in the short corner. If he gets the ball there consistently then he has the capability of causing the Bruin defense to fall apart as the Bruins struggle to rotate when the ball gets that low.
Coach Howland was correct in his Tuesday press conference when he said that the Cardinal play a 10-man rotation. After the first four players Dawkins tends to go with whomever is playing well in a particular game. Senior Andrew Zimmerman (6'8" 230 lbs.) should start but he actually only plays about 14 MPG. He has the ability to hit the outside shot but he certainly isn't as skilled as either of the Wear brothers, who should man the power forward position for the Bruins. Dawkins has more often gone to sophomore Josh Huestis (6'7" 225 lbs.), who has been a better version of Zimmerman. Huestis has all the same type of game that Zimmerman does, including being able to hit the outside shot, but he is more physical than his senior teammate. He is second on the team in rebounding at 5.3 RPG in only 19.8 MPG of playing time. Huestis will make the Bruins work hard on the boards. Huestis' drawback is that he is only a 40% free throw shooter.
When the Cardinal need more offense from the forward spots, Dawkins goes to sophomore John Gage (6'9" 225 lbs.), who is a three-point specialist. He had 12 in Stanford's last game against Butler. The issue with Gage is that he plays most of his game on both ends of the floor away from the basket. He's not been a very effective rebounder so far on the season.
Finally, Dawkins consistently tries to find minutes for sophomore Dwight Powell (6'9" 225 lbs.), who is a very good athlete, even if he's still raw on the offensive end. He has attempted 5 three-pointers on the season, missing all, but he can be very good around the basket, especially on second-chance opportunities. He averages 3.4 RPG but does so in only 15 MPG. That means he's getting roughly 9 boards every 40 minutes.
Backcourt depth is provided by senior Jarrett Mann (6'4" 195 lbs.) and junior Gabriel Harris (6'2" 190 lbs.). Mann was the starting point guard earlier in his career but he has always struggled with his shot and turnovers. He has three more TOs than assists on the season and he's only shooting 34% from the floor. Harris is an even worse shooter, being below 30% from the floor for the season. He provides energy but little else. Frankly, Mann and Harris simply aren't nearly as athletic or skilled as the players they replace. If either Mann or Harris has to play big minutes because of foul trouble, etc., then that bodes very well for the Bruins' chances at victory.
Stanford's calling card this season has been good defense. The Cardinal are holding opponents to less than 40% shooting on the season. They also do a good job of rebounding, having 9 more RPG than their opponents. Finally, they've made 194 free throws while their opponents have attempted only 183. So, where is Stanford's weakness?
The key statistics with regard to Stanford seem to be rebounding and turnovers. While Stanford has outrebounded their opponents and held both teams that defeated the Cardinal (Syracuse and Butler) to 46% shooting or less, they gave up huge rebound totals to both teams. Further, while Stanford is averaging 14.7 turnovers per game, they had 17 against the Bulldogs and 24 against Syracuse's vaunted 2-3-zone defense. Butler went to a zone in a few critical spots in their win over the Cardinal. It appears that the Cardinal struggle against zone defenses.
Stanford also likes to slow down the pace. They average 74 PPG but that is more the result of efficiency on the offensive end, where the Cardinal average 47% shooting from the floor. A key statistic to look at is that Stanford is only averaging 54 shots per game. UCLA and its generally mid-paced offense is averaging 57 shots per game. The number that faster paced teams shoot for is 60 or above.
Knowing they struggle at times against a zone and knowing that UCLA is better at zone defense than man defense, the obvious answer is for Howland to use UCLA's length advantage and force Stanford to beat them using their zone offense. Look for Stanford's offense to resemble Richmond's in that they will look to get the ball to the high post in the middle and feed off to shooters or cutters. Richmond was disrupted often when venturing into the paint and Howland should plan on the Bruins being able to do the same thing when Stanford drives into the gaps.
UCLA clearly needs to contest as many shots as possible. That may sound obvious, but there are many teams that can be defended by forcing them to take certain shots because they just aren't very good at them. Stanford is tough because they make shots from all over the floor.
Offensively, the Bruins are a bad match-up for the Cardinal if UCLA can work the ball into Josh Smith in the low post. Stanford will really struggle with his size. Dawkins doesn't like to play zone defense (remember he's a Duke and Coach K disciple) but he will have his players sag to the paint in their man defense and immediately double or even triple Smith when he gets the ball. It will be important for the Bruins to be able to knock down outside shots within the flow of the offense. The Bruins have been able to do that the last few games.
The winner of this game is going to be the team that keeps turnovers to a minimum and wins the rebounding battle. That bodes well for the Bruins as they should be able to get the Cardinal to turn over the ball against the UCLA zone. UCLA should have an advantage on the boards if the Bruins can match the intensity of the Cardinal, which is sure to be high considering its their conference home opener. his is the first true road game of the season for the Bruins, however, and they are sure to be affected by it. That means the crowd will play a role but also the officials, as Pac 12 officials are notorious for making homer calls. How the Bruins handle the adversity of playing on the road will also be critical.
This has all the makings of a very close game and, quite frankly, the Bruins match-up much better with the Cardinal than they do with Saturday's foe, Cal. UCLA and Stanford will be looking to make a statement and win the opener. Conventional wisdom has Stanford winning because they are 10-2 (as opposed to UCLA's 7-5). However, UCLA will be a tough game for the Cardinal. If the Richmond game is any indication then UCLA should be successful, assuming the Bruins can handle the hostile atmosphere.
I know most people are picking the Cardinal to win but sometimes the statistics say otherwise. Assuming Howland goes primarily with a zone defense and the Bruins keep their turnovers down, UCLA should win.