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Just off its biggest win of the season, the Bruins open Pac 12 conference play against an injury-riddled California Bears team...

After achieving what was clearly their biggest win of the year last Friday, the UCLA Bruins open their Pac 12 Conference season Thursday night when the Bruins host the Golden Bears of California.

This is a critical game for the Bruins for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to sustain the positive momentum the Bruins gained with the win over Missouri. This, too, is a critical game for Coach Mike Montgomery's Bears, more so because Cal dropped its last game at home against Harvard. The Bruins will be facing a new set of challenges as Cal comes to Pauley Pavilion and how the Bruins collectively and individually handle each of them will dictate the outcome of the game and whether the Bruins will have a victorious start to their conference campaign.

Although UCLA had a disappointing 19-14 2011-2012 season, the Bruins were in many games and clearly blew it in many conference losses. The games at the Oregon schools, at Stanford, and at UDub come to mind. However, the two losses to the Bears were both games in which the Bruins simply went up against a better team. Essentially, no matter what the Bruins did, if Cal played average games in both then the Bears were going to win. To quote a tired cliché, what a difference a year makes. In spite of Montgomery having arguably two of the best players at their respective positions in the conference, the reality is that UCLA is a better offensive team than the Bears. The talent shoe is clearly on UCLA's proverbial foot now, at least on the offensive end. The question is whether UCLA will play close to its offensive capacity, as the Bruins did against Missouri, or if they will suffer a letdown after the big non-conference win.

While Cal has a pretty good starting five, in essence the team is offensively built around two players, juniors Allen Crabbe (6'6" 210 lbs.) and Justin Cobbs (6'3" 190 lbs.). The two of them lead Cal in scoring at 20.9 PPG and 16.4 PPG respectively. This may be the best offensive twosome that the Bruins will face this year. They are collectively shooting over 50% from the field and 85% from the free throw line. In both games last year both Crabbe and Cobbs had a field day against UCLA's defense. Cobbs, in particular, had his way with UCLA's point guard defense. He seemingly got into the paint at will and when not scoring was able to pass to his open teammates for easy buckets. Crabbe is one of the best shooters in the conference and perhaps the country in spite of his 38% shooting from behind the arc. Admittedly, UCLA's Tyler Lamb did a decent job defending Crabbe at times last year, but Lamb is no longer with the Bruins. The job of defending Crabbe is probably going to be a collective effort among Norman Powell, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad. Powell has the quickness to be able to keep Crabbe from driving while both Adams and Muhammad have the length to theoretically make it more difficult for Crabbe to get open looks. However, because of Howland's now clear propensity to play his best offensive options the most minutes, Powell probably won't see much time on Crabbe. Instead, he'll more than likely spell Larry Drew II on guarding Cobbs.

The match-up with Cobbs may determine the outcome of game. Last week, Drew wasn't great in defending Phil Pressey in his record-breaking 19-assist performance. But quite a bit of it, too, was the result of some bad defensive rotation on the part of Drew's teammates. Cobbs isn't as quick as Pressey, but he's quick enough to present the same sort of challenges to Drew and the Bruin defense.

After Crabbe and Cobbs, though, things look messy for the Bears. Montgomery had a solid nine-player rotation to start the season. However, injuries have taken a massive toll on the Bears and they may be without up to four of those nine players on Thursday night.

The one Bear who is certainly out is sophomore forward Christian Behrens (6'9" 225 lbs.), who tore his ACL two weeks ago. Apparently it is a pretty bad injury as ACLs go and some are predicting he won't even be ready for the start of next season.

The remaining three injured players will all be game time decisions, but there is a greater likelihood of all three being out than all three playing. The player most likely to remain inactive is senior guard Brandon Smith (6'0" 180 lbs.), who is suffering the effects of a concussion. This is not Smith's first concussion and there is talk that he'll be out for at least this weekend. While Smith is not a starter (after having started the first 9 games), he is the first guard off the bench and was averaging over 20 MPG. He isn't the kind of player who is going to win games for the Bears, but his absence means more minutes for Crabbe and Cobbs, with a greater chance of the two getting worn down over the course of a game.

The other two injured players are sophomore Ricky Kreklow (6'6" 210 lbs.) and junior Richard Solomon (6'10" 235 lbs.). Kreklow rolled his ankle before the Harvard game and it may be a high ankle sprain. Even should he play he will certainly be limited. While he has yet to start a game, when healthy he does provide some of the same elements to the Bears that recently graduated Jorge Gutierrez did for the past few seasons (more on that later). He would again provide depth for the Bears and without his presence, again, it means more minutes for Crabbe and Cobbs. For example, against Harvard Cobbs played 33 minutes while Crabbe never came off the floor, playing all 40 minutes. Crabbe's legs were clearly tired at the end of the Harvard game.

The last injured player – and a starter -- is Solomon. He was elbowed in the eye in the Harvard game and never returned. He provides a post presence on a team with a lack of it, especially on defense. He averages 8.7 PPG and 6.3 RPG. Interestingly he doesn't lead the team in blocks, although he is averaging 1 block per game.

The one low post constant, then, is sophomore David Kravish (6'9" 221 lbs.). He leads the team in rebounding at 7.5 RPG and averages more than one block per game. He had two very good games against the Bruins last season because of his ability to hit the pick-and-pop jumper (much like the Wear brothers). However, much of Kravish's success was due in part to teams keying on Harper Kamp. Kamp has graduated and Kravish isn't getting the same looks. One of the biggest things about Kravish is that he seems to disappear in key situations. Montgomery has been very public about the need for more of a low-post presence and it's clear he was talking about what Solomon and Kravish have given the team up to this point.

True freshman Tyrone Wallace (6'4" 186 lbs.) has replaced Smith in the line-up and has seen his minutes rise dramatically with the injuries. He is clearly Cobbs' back-up at the point. While Wallace is seemingly going to be a very nice player for the Bears, the reality is he's been wildly inconsistent. He isn't shooting well for the year (34% overall from the floor and 25% from behind the arc) and has had some games where he's basically been shut out. Take the Harvard game as an example: Wallace played 34 minutes and didn't score a point. The one thing that Wallace has consistently done well this year is rebound. He's averaging roughly 5 RPG and had 7 against Harvard.

If Solomon is indeed out for Thursday's game then Montgomery will be forced to start senior post Robert Thurman (6'10" 265 lbs.). Thurman is one of those hard workers with very limited athleticism. In fact, before the injuries Thurman was barely playing. That's not to say that Thurman isn't capable. Remember, he played some big minutes for the Bears against the Bruins last season, looking particularly good against UCLA in the game at Cal. However, if the game turns into a running one then Thurman will effectively be neutralized, as he doesn't get up and down the floor very well.

Even if some of the injured Bears suit up and play they will clearly be limited. Keeping that in mind there is every indication that UCLA will see a lot of zone. Hopefully Bruin Coach Ben Howland will undoubtedly recognize this and have been practicing his zone offense with the team this week. Montgomery will be forced to do this for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is depth. Beyond that issue, the Bruin man offense has been predicated on using the Wear brothers at pick-and-pop post players. This has forced opposing defenses to have their posts defensively follow the Wears away from the hoop. For example, Missouri's Alex Oriakhi, who is a god shot blocker, had that talent rendered relatively useless against the Bruins because the Wears and Kyle Anderson pulled him away from the hoop.

Another reason for Monty to go with a zone as Cal's primary defense is because of the need for teams to look at the conference calendar as a marathon, not a sprint. Cal is opening the conference season on the road. A split would be more than acceptable for the Bears, given the state of their roster at the moment. However, if the Bears expend much of their energy against the Bruins then they run the risk of losing the Saturday tilt against USC. Cal certainly doesn't want to be 0-2 to start the conference slate.

Against Harvard Montgomery tried to get his charges to pound the ball inside. This resulted in Cal only attempting 6 three-pointers for the game. The Bears missed all six. This isn't a particularly good-shooting Cal team, averaging only 32% from behind the arc, but UCLA has allowed teams to shoot much better than their season percentages would indicate from deep. Tracy Pierson wrote that if UCLA could increase its defensive presence, even incrementally, then the Bruins, because of their relatively prolific offense, could possibly do some real damage come March. This would be a perfect game to start that incremental improvement (although UCLA had some critical stops against Missouri) because Cal's tendencies tend to be those that haven't hurt the Bruins over the course of the season.

Solomon isn't much of an offensive force (assuming he plays) and Kravish does his damage in much the same way that the Wears do. This means that there won't be nearly as much physicality in this game, which is something the Bruins struggled with at times this season (see the Georgetown and parts of the Missouri game). In short, the Bears aren't going to make a habit of trying to back down the Bruin posts.

Instead they will try and use a great deal of ball screening, with the screener popping and looking for a jumper (unlike Missouri's Laurence Bowers and Oriakhi who almost always rolled to the hoop). It will be critical, then, for UCLA's guards to keep Cobbs and to a certain extent, Wallace, out of the paint consistently.

The one concerning issue is how the young Bruins will handle success. UCLA's victory over Missouri was emotional in and of itself, but it also led to many national websites to start writing lead stories about the Bruins. Young teams have a tendency to let wins like the one the Bruins had over Missouri go to their collective head. It's kind of the "our poop doesn't stink" mentality and this results in those teams not giving the kind of effort that made them successful in the first place. In short, many young teams in the same situation as the Bruin lay a proverbial egg their next time out. That has got to be a real concern for Howland and he has hopefully been pounding that point home to his players since Saturday morning.

However, even if the Bruins bring a mediocre effort there is every reason to believe that they will still be successful on Thursday. Cal is simply too injured right now to take complete advantage of a Bruin mental lapse. If the Bears were healthy than this would be a terribly scary trap game.

Let's assume that Cal will play at least one of the injured players and that the Bruins will have a bit of a letdown. Couple that with the probability of the Bears playing a lot of zone and there is a recipe for a closer-than-it-should-be contest. That zone may be enough to slow down the Bruin offense enough to keep the score in the high 60s/low 70s. Heck, Cal would love to play a game in the high 50s.

However, the minutes that Crabbe and Cobbs will be forced to log will catch up to them by the end of the game.

There is another critical factor: Jorge Gutierrez, a player who single-handedly beat the Bruins several times over the years, has graduated. This cannot be overemphasized. For whatever reason, Gutierrez had some of his most complete game when playing the Bruins. He would hit big shots, pull down critical rebounds and come up with very important (in terms of score and situation) loose balls. For the past two seasons he was the undisputed leader of the Bears. Now he's gone and Montgomery really has no one outside of perhaps Kreklow that can even come remotely close to replacing him. In terms of the Bruins' chances, this is a factor that is addition by subtraction. His absence may be felt more than any other issue or concern in this contest simply because what he's done in the past against UCLA.

The game will probably come down to Cal's big two of Crabbe and Cobbs trying to outscore the Bruins. And that's going to be tough for them.

UCLA should be able to pull this one out in the end.

California 66

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