This is big game for both the Bruins and the Cardinal. They're tied in the Pac-12 Conference at 6-5, and the game represents the first time either team will play a conference opponent for the second time. Stanford, also, seeks to get out of a bit of a slump that has seen it drop four of its last five games. The Bruins, meanwhile, are looking for a bit of revenge stemming back to the one-point loss suffered in Palo Alto on December 29. The Bruins are further looking to improve their play as they move closer to the Pac 12 Tournament next month.
The keys to the game obviously start with the effort that UCLA will bring from the opening tip. It has helped that Josh Smith is coming off arguably his best two-game stretch of the season. More than that, though, a key will be if UCLA can continue its recent home form that has seen the Bruins go undefeated in Los Angeles in conference play. On the other hand, Stanford has suffered three of its last four losses on the road and the Cardinal haven't looked particularly comfortable away from Maples during the conference season. They will be looking to change things Thursday night.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins has been mixing and matching his starting line-up recently but seems to have finally settled on his first five. Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins should see a very different starting five when they tip on Thursday night compared to what the Bruins faced when they played Stanford back in December. Dawkins has decided to go a bit smaller with his starters but has gotten more athletic. This line-up has met with mixed results depending on the type of team Stanford has faced. There really hasn't been any rhyme or reason to when Stanford has struggled except for the Cardinal's own distance shooting. Their three-point shooting has been pretty bad in the Cardinal's most recent losses. Outside of that the Cardinal's revamped line-up will present UCLA with some match-up issues, but it will also have areas that the Bruins can exploit.
The one player that has continued to shoot the three well is sophomore point guard Aaron Bright (5'11" 177 lbs.). Averaging 43% from the three-point line, he presents a real threat from the outside. However, Bright's shooting from inside the arc has taken a hit as the season's worn on. He's averaging the same 43% from the floor. Against Arizona last Saturday (a Stanford home loss) Bright was 2-4 from three, but 2-10 from two-point range. Bright showed similar shooting against UCLA at Maples when he went 4-8 from deep but 0-4 inside the arc. He led the Cardinal that game with 16 points. Bright isn't turning the ball over at an alarming rate, nor is he doing things he wasn't doing earlier in the year. It seems that Bright, like a few of his teammates, is simply playing on tired legs. He is logging about 30 MPG for the year and played that on Saturday. He took two key threes that he missed against Arizona when the game was still on the line. It was clear he was shooting with a lot of arm action and not a great deal of lift. It's obvious that the Bruins need to force Bright to put the ball on the floor and not let him catch and shoot.
While Bright might be shooting consistently from deep, his backcourt mate, freshman Chasson Randle, (6'1" 175 lbs.) clearly is not. He was 4-16 from the floor against Arizona and was 1-4 from distance. He has seen his shooting percentage overall (41%) and from the three-point line (37%) drop pretty heavily over the past few weeks. Further, Randle's court time recently makes Bright's 30 MPG look downright average. Randle played 34 minutes against Arizona and the only reason it wasn't more was because he fouled out. He's been playing heavy minutes the past three weeks leading into this game and, combine that with the fact that he appears to be hitting the dreaded freshman wall, Randle clearly isn't the player he was when the Bruins were in Palo Alto last December. He certainly looks a half-step slower than he was six weeks ago. Unlike with Bright, the Bruins clearly want Randle to shoot from outside. Randle is much more dangerous getting into the paint and creating for himself or his teammates.
The only two players getting any real time off the bench for Dawkins are senior Jarrett Mann (6'4" 195 lbs.) and sophomore Anthony Brown (6'6" 210 lbs.). Mann has been a starter in the past but was quite frankly recruited over when Dawkins went out and got Randle and Bright. Mann is a decent decision-maker at the point but is a very poor shooter and has been since he arrived in Palo Alto. His 35% shooting from the floor and 14% shooting from behind the arc show just how little of a threat he has been. Most teams have played way off Mann, daring him to shoot. When Mann plays it's as if Stanford is playing four against five when they have the ball.
Brown was arguably Dawkins' best returning player but he hasn't blossomed this year as Stanford had hoped. The reason for that really boils down to the fact that Brown hasn't been able to shoot well. He averages only 37% from the floor and 33% from three. However, unlike Mann, the potential for Brown to break out is clearly evident. Brown is a very good athlete and doesn't have the minutes on his legs that seem to plaguing Bright and Randle. It wouldn't be surprising if Brown had a breakout game before the end of the season. Like Mann and Randle, the Bruins would be better off playing a bit off Brown and challenging him to shot from outside.
Dawkins has decided to sacrifice a little bit of size in order to get more athleticism on the floor in the frontcourt. The one player who has been a constant at one of the forward spots is senior Josh Owens (6'8" 240 lbs.). There has always been a feeling that Owens should produce statistically more than he has in his career. For instance, Owens looked like he was going to be dominant early on against the Bruins in the first meeting of the two teams, but he finished that game with 9 points and 8 boards. While Owens is athletic, he doesn't have any real range on his shot and his inside game, while quick, suffers from his lack of length and bulk. Still, the Bruins have to keep him off the offensive glass (he leads Stanford with 6.2 RPG), which is where he can be dangerous and partially how he gets to his team-leading 12.6 PPG. He will be quicker than every Bruin forward except Anthony Stover and the danger is that Stanford will look to Owens to use his quickness to try and get Josh Smith in foul trouble.
The other two starters at forward are both athletic but a bit raw. Sophomores Dwight Powell (6'9" 225 lbs.) and Josh Huestis (6'7" 225) are both springy players who can board. Huestis averages 5.2 RPG while Powell averages 4 RPG. Both are the kind of rangy post players that have a significant athletic advantage over all of the Bruin forwards, save Stover. Powell was the more celebrated of the two coming into the season but Huestis has been getting about 7 MPG more than Powell. Huestis is also more of an offensive threat, being able to step out to the arc and hit the occasional jumper (he's 9-32 from three on the season while Powell is 1-13). They are both much better being able to face the hoop and driving so, like is the case with the guards, the Bruins would be better off giving both of them a step and forcing them to have to put up any shots they attempt away from the basket. Keeping both off the offensive glass will, of course, be key to the outcome of the game. The more the Bruins can cut down on Stanford's second chance opportunities, where Stanford does a fair degree of damage, the better.
Dawkins' frontcourt options aren't limited to the three athletic forwards, but his bench depth at forward hasn't been used much lately. Seniors Jack Trotter (6'9" 225 lbs.) and Andrew Zimmerman (6'8" 230 lbs.) have both been starters in the past but they have been relegated to spot minutes, especially Zimmerman. Sophomore John Gage (6'9" 225 lbs.) has been more of an option for Dawkins primarily because he can step outside and hit long-range jumpers. Gage hit two three-pointers in the first meeting with the Bruins (having 10 points in 20 minutes) and he insists on being guarded out to the arc. None of the three are very good rebounders for their size and will struggle on the defensive end to contain Smith or the Wears (assuming Travis plays).
With Stanford's recent struggles attributable to their poor outside shooting, it almost screams for the Bruins to play zone. Even though Howland broke out the 2-3 zone in the second half of the Washington State win on Saturday, expect the Bruins to start the game in Howland's preferred man-to-man. A zone might be even more of a better idea if Travis Wear continues to sit with the high ankle sprain because it may save some of the forwards, specifically Smith, from some foul trouble.
Even if the Bruins stay primarily/exclusively in man defense, they can still be successful if they collectively play a step off their respective men (except Gage) and force them into outside shots. This goes against Howland's style of man defense as he likes his players, even his bigs, to get out and guard the ball.
As I've said, Stanford looks like a tired team and they threw everything they had at Arizona on Saturday in their home loss to the Wildcats. If the Bruins can start hot they may be able to get the Cardinal to essentially wilt because of Stanford's fatigue, and the fact that the loss to Arizona was a big emotional letdown.
The final piece to this game is that UCLA is home, where they have been vastly better in conference than on the road. The icing on the cake for Howland and the Bruins would be if UCLA can get a sizable and vocal crowd to the Sports Arena, which hasn't happened for a Thursday night game yet this season. However, this is arguably a bigger Thursday night home game for the Bruins than they've faced yet this season. Perhaps that will induce the crowd to show.
Regardless, if UCLA plays decent defense to go along with their generally good offensive execution (the first Stanford game and the first half of the Wazzu game this past weekend seem to be offensive aberrations for the Bruins and both were on the road), coupled with Stanford's general fatigue and the fact that the Bruins are home, it should lead to a Bruin victory.