Cal is coming off a win over USC in its conference opener, 53-49, in a game that had Cal up by 16 in the second half.
UCLA, meanwhile, is coming off a very dispiriting 60-59 loss at Stanford in a game that UCLA probably should have won.
On paper, Stanford was an easier match-up for the Bruins but because Cal will be missing sophomore post Richard Solomon (6'10" 220 lbs.). Coach Mike Montgomery will play a line-up that is much more like what the Bruins faced when playing Richmond and Stanford. However, the one prevailing factor that will determine the outcome of this game is how resilient the Bruins will be coming off a game they and Coach Ben Howland must know they should have won.
I wrote in the Stanford preview that the outcome of the game would be dependent on UCLA's ability to keep its turnovers to a minimum and rebound with the Cardinal. The Bruins only turned the ball over 10 times to Stanford's 13 and had 29 total rebounds to Stanford's 32. So where did the Bruins lose the game (and make no mistake about it, Stanford didn't beat the Bruins, UCLA lost it)? For all the armchair coaches criticizing Ben Howland, and there is room for that, the reality is that if UCLA had shot even 40% from the floor it would have won. This means the Bruins would have had to essentially hit one more shot. The Bruins held Stanford to 34% shooting for the game and much of that was as a result of Stanford having difficulty with UCLA's zone defense. UCLA's poor 39% from the floor was really not a result of anything Stanford did but more a result of UCLA simply missing open look after open look. The epitome of this was not the block on Lazeric Jones to end the game but the shot before it, when Jerime Anderson had a wide open shot from beyond the arc to give the Bruins the lead with about 10 seconds left. This happened all game to multiple Bruins as they had the ball 10 times in the second half with the chance to take the lead and didn't convert once. Again, this was more a result of UCLA missing open shots than it was Stanford stepping up on defense. But even with the poor shooting throughout the game (by everyone other than Jones) the Bruins still could have won the game if they could have coverted consistently enough from the foul line. The Bruins were +8 in free-throw attempts over Stanford for the game but only +2 in makes. That's six extra chances to add points to UCLA's score that Stanford simply didn't have. UCLA, between the poor shooting from the field and the free-throw line, shot itself to the loss against Stanford.
These are the kind of statistics that UCLA's players and Howland have to know, and it has got to make the loss tough to swallow. That was the kind of game that is difficult to emotionally get over in the 36 hours the Bruins will have between the end of the Stanford game and the tip-off against Cal. As I wrote, how will the Bruins emotionally handle that kind of adversity?
Cal's line-up is going to be perimeter-heavy, much like UCLA's last two opponents because of the aforementioned loss of Solomon. While Cal shoots well from the outside (43%), so did Richmond and Stanford, and UCLA's zone essentially negated that aspect of its opponents offenses (in spite of the Cardinal's three straight three-pointers late in the second half). The question is whether or not Howland is going to use the zone defense for the entirety of the game or whether he will continue to insist on starting a game in man defense. Both Richmond and Stanford had huge scoring advantages over the Bruins when UCLA was in man defense. Last night Stanford was essentially +11 when operating against UCLA's man defense. That means that UCLA was +10 when employing the zone. I wrote in the Stanford preview that Stanford struggles against zone defenses and they certainly did against the Bruins. If I can see that certainly Howland can see that, too. Why Howland continues to try and force a round peg (his personnel) into a square hole (the man defense), I can only surmise -- because of Howland's personality and preference for man defense. It's head scratching when Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks have both pointed out since the preseason that this Bruin team is tailor-made to play zone. Again, if they see it, Howland should be able to, too. UCLA's zone, even with all of its holes, eliminates virtually any offense an opponent has in the paint. So, with Cal fielding a line-up where its strengths and weaknesses are essentially the same as Stanford's, Howland should utilize the zone defense almost exclusively, especially since Montgomery won't have much time to practice for it. Yes, I know that UCLA played man defense the last few Stanford possessions of the game and did get some stops, but if UCLA had used the zone from the opening tip it wouldn't have found itself behind in the last minute and the man defense would have been more of a shock to Stanford's offense in those last two minutes.
Cal's perimeter strength is built around four players. Most Bruin fans are well aware of Cal senior guard Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 195 lbs.) and what he single-handedly did to the Bruins in last year's trip to Haas. Forget the statistics, if Gutierrez can light up UCLA's Malcolm Lee last season, think of what he can do to UCLA's current guards on Saturday with his strength and savvy if Howland insists on using a man defense. Gutierrez alone is enough of a reason for the Bruins not to risk even a couple of minutes of man defense at the beginning of this game. While Gutierrez is the second-leading scorer on the squad and pulls down more than 5 RPG, he does most of his damage inside the arc. The final argument for forcing Gutierrez outside for his looks is that he is a superlative free-throw shooter, especially at crunch time.
If Gutierrez isn't enough of a reason for the Bruins to play zone then one only need to look at Cal's leading scorer, sophomore wing Allen Crabbe (6'6" 205 lbs.), who is a much more dangerous scorer from beyond the arc than he is inside of it. Quite simply Crabbe is a much more inconsistent shooter when he is forced to put the ball on the floor rather than get his feet set on a spot-up jumper. UCLA does a much better job of closing out shooters even on skip passes when it is in a zone defense because the Bruins struggle fighting through screens when they are playing man defense. Crabbe is coming off an average performance against USC where he only had 12 points and shot poorly from the outside because USC's man defense was able to disrupt his ability to get his feet set on his outside shots. UCLA's man defense can't do that nearly as well but its zone defense can.
Sophomore Justin Cobbs (6'2" 195 lbs.) and junior Brandon Smith (5'11" 185 lbs.) will share point guard duties, with Cobbs starting and getting the bulk of the minutes. Cobbs is dangerous from the outside where he's hitting 65% of his threes, but his real strength is getting in the lane. Even though he's bigger than Stanford's Aaron Bright, Cobbs has a similar game. That means he'll hit the outside jumper if given room but he tends to be able to tear teams apart when getting in the paint. Cobbs will still try and penetrate against a zone but that has tended to speed him up this year and he will play out of control when that happens and leads to turnovers. He had 3 assists against 5 turnovers against USC and was forcing so much in parts of that game that Montgomery essentially ran the offense through Gutierrez, who had 7 assists.
Like Cobbs, Smith has an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio (better than 2-to-1 for Cobbs and 2-to-1 for Smith), but he is much less of a scoring threat. Add to that Smith isn't as long or as strong as Cobbs on the defensive end and you can see why Cobbs has displaced Smith as the starter. Finally, Smith's strength is also getting into the lane, as he isn't nearly the outside shooter that Cobbs has been on the season.
Montgomery has a dangerous post player in senior Harper Kamp (6'8" 245 lbs) and a bit similar to Stanford's Josh Owens. Owens is more athletic than Kamp but Kamp is much more accomplished offensively. His 52% shooting from the field is a result of his skill inside of 12 feet but he is the kind of player that can get to the free-throw line flashing against UCLA's zone and hit that jumper much like Stanford's John Gage did on Thursday night. Still, the Bruins did a good job of taking that free-throw line flash shot away from Stanford and it would be reasonable to think that UCLA could do that against Cal and Kamp. Kamp will also look to get the ball in the short corner for the short jumper, but UCLA was also able to take that away for long stretches from Stanford when the Bruins were in the zone.
With Solomon out, Montgomery has gone to true freshman David Kravish (6'9" 210 lbs.), who is leading the Bears that are healthy in rebounding at 6.3 RPG. His offensive game is more like Stanford's Owens in that all of Kravish's shots come from around the hoop. He has a nose for the ball and rebounds very physically for his slight frame. More importantly for Cal, Kravish has become a shot-blocking presence, leading Cal with 16 on the season. Both David Wear and Travis Wear (more so David) struggled with Owens' athleticism when UCLA had the ball against Stanford (David having perhaps his worst offensive game as a Bruin). Kravish doesn't have that kind of athleticism so the question is whether the Wear brothers, either individually or collectively, will match Kravish's intensity. If they do then both Wear brothers can probably have a productive offensive game as Cal's post defense definitely misses Solomon's athleticism.
Which brings me to UCLA's Anthony Stover. If the Wears are going to struggle offensively as they did at Stanford, why on Earth would Howland not use Stover? In Stover's limited 7 minutes of play against Stanford he was a defensive difference-maker. The use or misuse of Stover is, however, for another time.
With Solomon out, Montgomery's bench is very thin outside of Smith. If either Kamp or Kravish get in any sort of foul trouble then Cal will be in for a long night. Junior Bak Bak (6'9" 225 lbs.) is the only post playing any minutes off the bench and he limits the Bears on offense. Montgomery has shown he will go with four guards often before he goes to Bak as one of his bigs. In fact, Cobbs, Gutierrez and Crabbe all played well over 30 minutes on Thursday. UCLA's Jones and Anderson both played over 30, with Jones playing 38. Jones also played those minutes on the ankle he sprained earlier in the week. It will be interesting to see what effect the close Thursday games will have on both teams' backcourts.
Cal has an inflated 10-3 record, having defeated only a bad Georgia team for the Bears' "signature" win. All three of Cal's losses have come against teams that are athletic and can run, with the losses to Missouri and UNLV being blowouts. The Bruins aren't nearly as athletic as those squads and they certainly don't run like those teams. However, UCLA's zone is something that Cal won't be used to, either. Stanford at least had the luxury of playing Syracuse earlier in the year so UCLA's zone won't be that much of a shock.
Cal, defensively, which should afford UCLA clean looks at the basket. Simply put, Cal isn't the defensive team that Stanford has proven to be so far this season. Cal plays typical Montgomery defense, which is very good with help assignments, etc., but doesn't put any real pressure on the ball outside of the three-point line. This should allow UCLA's guards to get good looks for post entry passes.
I know that I've really harped on UCLA playing a zone, but it demands harping on; UCLA needs to fully utilize its zone to competitive on Saturday, and for any hopes the Bruins have of a decent record for the remainder of the season.
However, Saturday, there is the mental aspect of game that should really affect the outcome. UCLA is coming off as emotionally draining of a loss as it's been through this season. A mentally tough squad, especially one with two senior guards leading the way, should have pulled out that game. There is a real question as to whether the Bruins have the intestinal fortitude to get back up for the Cal game since they haven't showed yet this season they have that kind of mental toughness. That means the Bruins are staring at 0-2 in the Pac-12 with Arizona looming next Thursday.
Happy New Year.