More importantly, the Bruins passed a test of sorts in playing a relatively intense game less than a week after beating nationally ranked Missouri. One of the concerns going into the Cal game was whether UCLA would suffer a collective letdown coming off the Missouri win. Question asked and answered.
Now the Bruins find themselves getting ready to host a Stanford Cardinal team that finds itself with its tail somewhat between its legs. It presents a different sort of challenge for the young Bruins in that UCLA is on a six-game winning streak and is about to play a team that is coming off a deflating two-point loss to USC on Thursday night.
Stanford is a bit of an enigma itself. UCLA Coach Ben Howland is not the only Pac 12 coach on the proverbial hot seat. Cardinal head coach Johnny Dawkins is also starting to sense pressure over his job security. The Cardinal have talent but there is a feeling among Cardinal fans that this Stanford team is performing below its talent level. That feeling only increased with the loss to the Trojans, especially because the Cardinal had the game in hand in both halves but inexplicably allowed the Trojans back into the game.
Part of the reason that Stanford has not been more successful this season is because of the seeming regression of arguably the Cardinal's best player, sophomore guard Chasson Randle (6'1" 180 lbs.). Randle has seen a dip in form across all of his measurable statistics. Last season he was the Cardinal's leading scorer, but this year he's down to 12.8 PPG. His shooting percentage is down to 37% from the field and a paltry 22% from behind the arc. He's not getting to the free throw line as much as he was last year and simply seems more tentative. That's not to suggest that Randle isn't capable of suddenly having a big scoring game. However, that would be outside the norm of this season, especially after he went scoreless against USC and looked particularly dejected at the end of that game.
Dawkins has tinkered with the starting line-up over the course of the season to the point that he's now bringing junior Aaron Bright (5'11" 178 lbs.) off the bench. Bright is certainly playing starter's minutes, but it seems as if Dawkins feels the only players he has that can run the point are Randle and Bright and he needs to have them fresh over the course of the game. Bright's statistics are relatively similar to Randle's in terms of percentage, but Bright is taking much better care of the ball. Still, he's only shooting 32% from the field and 20% from the three-point line.
While last season's version of the Cardinal offense focused on their guards, this year's team has the bulk of its offensive firepower located in the frontcourt. Juniors Dwight Powell (6'10" 235 lbs.) and Josh Huestis (6'7" 230 lbs.) have really been the key cogs in keeping Stanford competitive this season. Powell leads the team in scoring at 14.2 PPG, although he had a subpar effort against USC, including missing a put-back dunk as time expired that would've sent the game to overtime. Huestis may only be averaging 9.4 PPG but he's the kind of player that has given Howland's team fits over the past few years in much the same way Cal's Jorge Gutierrez did; he's all over the floor making the little plays that help his team win. He leads the team with 9.1 RPG and combines with Powell to average close to 18 RPG between the two of them. Both Powell and Huestis have added a bit more diversity to their games, being able to hit the deep shot. Powell, in particular, is shooting well from outside, averaging 40% on his threes. In that way, Powell will present an interesting defensive challenge for the Bruin frontcourt players. He can and will pull his man away from the basket, a la the Wear brothers, allowing a better chance for a Stanford offensive rebound. It will be interesting to see if Howland does indeed match one of the Wears on Powell or allows Kyle Anderson to guard him and uses the Wears and Tony Parker on Huestis, who can also hit the three but is much less effective from outside than Powell.
Dawkins has some depth in the frontcourt in the form of senior Andy Brown (6'7" 215 lbs.), junior John Gage (6'10" 235 lbs.) and freshman Rosco Allen (6'9" 215 lbs.). Brown is a solid player who had a career game against the Trojans, leading the Cardinal in scoring. Gage is almost strictly an outside threat, having taken 36 of his 49 overall shots this season from behind the arc. Allen is a talented freshmen who has been starting, but he's only playing about 12 MPG and he hasn't been much of an offensive threat to this point. The one common denominator about these three bench players is that they all struggle with their athleticism, or lack thereof.
The problem for the Cardinal has been with their backcourt depth. Dawkins thought he was going to have junior Anthony Brown (6'6" 210 lbs.) to solidify a nice three-player rotation at the guard spots, but Brown went down with a season-ending hip injury in late November. Dawkins has now had to use senior Gabriel Harris (6'2" 190 lbs.), junior Robbie Lemons (6'3" 205 lbs.) and freshman Christian Sanders (6'4" 185 lbs.), and none are ready for extended minutes. Sanders may eventually be a player, but the other two have gotten very few minutes over their Cardinal career for a reason. Stanford loses a lot on both ends of the floor when any of these three have to play extended time.
One of the ways that having a depleted backcourt has hurt Stanford is in its collective shooting percentage. The three back-up guards are not significant offensive threats, although both Lemons and Harris have respectable shooting percentages. This has more to do with the fact that Dawkins is limiting their minutes and he's doing so because the three are getting beaten on the defensive end often. That means that Bright and Randle have to play more and more minutes. That effectively means they tired more quickly. Randle noticeably looked like he had tired legs against USC.
Stanford is a statistical nightmare. They trail their opponents on the season in every important statistical category except rebounding, but this team doesn't board like Cal does. They shoot 41% from the floor and 29% from deep. They have more turnovers than assists and even their 73% team free throw percentage is worse than what their opponents are shooting.
An interesting thing about Stanford is that they've been in every one of their five losses. That includes losing to Missouri by 8 and Minnesota by 3 at the Battle for Atlantis, and to North Carolina State by 9 in Raleigh. Obviously the Cardinal lost to the Trojans, too, but it is the fifth loss, to tiny Belmont of Tennessee, that the Bruins should look to for how Stanford might handle UCLA's up-tempo attack. Bruin fans may remember the Bruins facing Belmont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a few years back. This year's version of the Belmont Bruins likes to play fast, much like the Bruins, only with less talent. Belmont was able to beat Stanford in Palo Alto in November specifically because Stanford had trouble handling their quicker tempo. While Belmont only scored 70 points in the victory, the speed of the game threw off Stanford's "Duke-style" offense.
Stanford is a solid defensive team, but they haven't faced anyone like the Bruins yet. That's not to say that UCLA will simply run the Cardinal off the floor. UCLA's offense looked out of sync throughout the Cal game, so it is possible that UCLA will struggle on the offensive end yet again. However, that means it is vitally important that the Bruins bring a similar defensive effort to the one they showed against the Bears. The Bruins will undoubtedly have stretches where they run off a bunch of points; the key is to keep a Stanford team that struggles offensively from finding any sort of rhythm. Make no mistake: Stanford has enough talent and the defense to upend the Bruins on Saturday.
This game represents another opportunity for the Bruin youth and lack of college experience to play a part in the outcome. It is reasonable to think that the Bruins may come out flat because of their win on Thursday night. If so, then this is going to be a rough night for UCLA fans and for Howland. And unlike other teams, while Stanford may be struggling a bit and its coach may be in trouble, Dawkins' players like him, so expect their effort to be strong, at least at the start of the game.
The young Bruins proved on Thursday that they had what it took to get by a stubborn Cal team at Pauley even when their offensive game was off. They certainly didn't suffer a letdown that many feared after the Missouri game. The guess is that they won't suffer much of one here. While Stanford will defend and rebound well, the Bruins probably have too much firepower (remember, UCLA beat Cal with Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams combining for only 23 points when they each usually score close to that in a game).
The Bruins really need this game to consolidate their start to the conference season, and to hold serve at home. It's also big because the Bruins embark on their first conference road trip of the season next weekend.