Tracy Pierson wrote on BRO on Thursday that this game is clearly the biggest game of the year for UCLA, and it's hard to argue with him. When UCLA played Cal earlier this season, the Bruins were simply blown off the floor in the second half. The rematch on Saturday represents a chance for the Bruins to prove that the game and the second half was an aberration. Further, after results in the Pac 12 Conference on Thursday night, it would put the Bruins in the thick of the regular season title hunt with a very favorable remaining schedule.
UCLA is coming into the game off a solid 11-point win over Stanford that should have been much more comfortable. The Bruins did a good job defensively, holding the Cardinal to less than 40% shooting from the floor for the game, but because the Bruins had trouble making free throws late (sound familiar), Coach Ben Howland felt forced to play his main rotational players for more minutes than he should have had to play them.
Cal is coming off a comfortable 26-point victory at USC on Thursday night. Typically this would be cause for concern for the Bruins as you would think that Cal's players would be much more rested coming into the Saturday contest, but a closer look at that game shows that may not necessarily be the case. Cal head coach Mike Montgomery played three of his starters for 30 minutes or more while a fourth starter logged 28 minutes. Only forward Harper Kamp (6'8" 245 lbs.) played fewer minutes than normal (19 minutes). The heavy minutes that four of Cal's starters played may negate the heavy minutes put in by UCLA's Jerime Anderson, Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb, all of whom put in at least 35 minutes with Lamb playing for 37. Travis Wear played 28 minutes on his sprained ankle and it remains to be seen how he'll recover for the Saturday tilt.
It can be argued that the first time these two teams met UCLA was emotionally spent after having dropped a one-point loss to Stanford less than forty hours before the tip in Berkeley. UCLA played a pretty decent first half, at least on the offensive end, being only down one at the break, but they simply had nothing in the emotional tank when Cal opened the second half on a spurt. That led to a 17-point loss for the Bruins that was worse than the score indicated. That game and how it unfolded, coupled with facts surrounding the Stanford loss, is a key reason why Saturday's game is so important to the Bruins. With UCLA playing much better in Los Angeles and with the conference tournament being played in L.A., the Bruins really have to show that they can at least be competitive with Cal. Another blowout loss to the Bears, and the Bruins and their fans will have to resign themselves to the fact that Cal is just a bad match-up and hope that they don't face the Bears in the Pac 12 Tourney.
Cal poses some real match-up problems, but also some match-ups the Bruins can clearly exploit. The Bear guards, particularly senior Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 195 lbs.), are a difficult defensive assignment. However, UCLA's guards have been playing better man defense lately and the team has been doing a better job of forcing opponents into poor shots and turnovers. The forcing of turnovers is key for the UCLA hope of victory as Cal averages 11 TPG, which is exactly what they had against the Trojans. Still, Stanford doesn't turn the ball over a great deal and UCLA's defense forced the Cardinal into 24 turnovers Thursday night.
Besides Gutierrez, Montgomery starts two other guards who can trouble the Bruins. Sophomore Allen Crabbe (6'6" 205 lbs.) is Cal's leading scorer and can be a deadly outside shooter. He had 20 points in the first meeting between these teams. The third starting guard, senior Justin Cobbs (6'2" 195 lbs.), had 13, while Gutierrez had 16. In fact, Cal had six players in double figures in the game at Berkeley, but it was clearly these three who truly hammered the Bruins. All three of these players can hit the outside shot with consistency, with Crabbe and Cobbs both hitting over 43%. However, the key to the game will probably be stopping Gutierrez. He has been a thorn in the side of UCLA for the past few seasons and he is the engine that makes the Cal offense run. When he plays out of control or tries to do too much then the whole team suffers. He is the clear team leader and slowing him down or even stopping him will go a long way to a successful afternoon. To that end, Howland has to decide how his three starting guards -- Anderson, Jones and Lamb -- will match up with their Cal counterparts. Because Gutierrez is the lynch pin, the smart thing to do would be to play the best perimeter defender on him. That would mean Tyler Lamb would get the assignment, since sophomore has the length and strength to stay with Gutierrez. That means one of Anderson or Jones will have to guard Crabbe, who will have a height and length advantage on either one. Cobbs is dangerous because of his quickness as well as his shooting. The guess is that Howland will put Jones on Cobbs and have Lamb and Anderson match up on Crabbe and Gutierrez in a way he sees fit.
The one bench player that sees significant action is junior Brandon Smith (5'11" 185 lbs.), who is basically a poor man's version of Cobbs. He is quick and he can shoot but isn't nearly as dangerous doing either as Cobbs.
Montgomery hasn't limited his shortened rotation to the backcourt. With the academic suspension of post player Richard Solomon, Montgomery has basically gone to a three-man rotation for the two forward spots. Senior Kamp has been a known quantity, but the emergence of true freshman David Kravish (6'9" 210 lbs.) has been a revelation. Kravish has the ability to stretch opposing defenses with his ability to shoot consistently out to 15 feet. He's so good at the mid-range jumper (57% from the floor) that he has clearly opened up things inside for Kamp. Neither post is terribly athletic, but Kamp is deceptively quick, being able to skirt through seams in the defense as well as any big man in the Pac 12. The two Bears are solid on the boards (although Crabbe leads the team with 6 RPG), combining for more than 10 RPG. Kravish, in particular, had a break-out game against the Bruins in Berkeley. He had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting and played solid interior defense. If one of these two players has a big game on Saturday then it will inevitably open things up for the guards. If they both have big games than the chances for a Bruin victory are virtually nil.
However, if one of these two forwards gets into foul trouble, let alone both of them, then Montgomery will be in a bit of a quandary. The only forward he's been giving real minutes to off the bench is junior Robert Thurman (6'10" 250 lbs.). He had 11 points against the Bruins in December but that was his career game. He doesn't take a lot of shots and tends to be the guy who sets screens for the other players. Keep in mind, though, that he's hitting 67% of his shots. He knows when to take shots and when to pass, which partially accounts for his high shooting percentage. The other factor is that it is unusual for Thurman to attempt a shot outside of three feet.
So the Bears have a line-up that can really stretch the Bruins and cause them issues because of quickness. However, the Bruins have some significant advantages against the Bears, specifically in the frontcourt. While Josh Smith played most of Thursday night in foul trouble, he did seem to have a great deal of energy. It isn't often this season when we've been able to say that Smith was a force at the defensive end (defense and rebounding) while not really being one on offense. If he brings the same energy on Saturday and controls himself more (he committed two charges) then he should have considerably more points than the 7 he ended up with against the Cardinal. It should also serve to more than likely get the Bear posts in some sort of foul trouble. UCLA's advantages don't end there. Both Travis Wear and David Wear have the ability to stretch the defense all the way out to the arc and they have recently stepped up their defensive games. If they continue to rebound as well as they have then that will also be a significant advantage for the Bruins. Although Cal out-rebounds its opponents by more than 5 RPG, Stanford also has outrebounded its opposition, yet UCLA had 35 boards to Stanford's 32. If the Bruin posts can win the battle of the boards then UCLA's chances of victory increase exponentially.
Even though the Sports Arena hasn't seen a sellout since the Bruins have started using it as a temporary home court, it was loud on Thursday night (relatively speaking). The Saturday game typically has gotten larger and more vocal crowds than the Thursday game. If that's the case then the Bruins should have a nice homecourt advantage.
The game may come down to turnovers. UCLA has been causing its opponents to turn the ball over far more frequently than they normally do. Like I wrote earlier, Cal doesn't turn it over all that much (thus making rebounding that much more important). UCLA had more than 20 turnovers against the Cardinal and that was an aberration. In fact, when UCLA has turned the ball over in a particular game the Bruins generally do a much better job of protecting possessions in the next game.
This will more than likely be a game of ebbs and flows. The idea of shutting down the Cal offense is pretty remote, so the Bruins will have to do their best to withstand any runs that Cal makes. Remember on Thursday that UCLA almost blew a 16-point lead, allowing the Cardinal to get within three points on several occasions (and with Stanford holding the ball with a chance to tie). Yet the Bruins didn't give up the lead. The Bruins need that kind of mental toughness.
Both teams will want this game, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Bruins will have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulder because of the first game. That, coupled with the fact that UCLA is much better at home (while Cal doesn't have any pattern of success or failure on the road compared to playing in Berkeley), should be enough to push the Bruins over the top and. Depending on Oregon State's game with Washington, a win could conceivably put the Bruins one game out of first place in the Pac 12 by the end of the weekend.
That is, if the Bruins hit their free throws.