I posted on this subject Friday morning, but Tracy Pierson had written a few weeks ago that because of the nature of UCLA's style of play, the Bruins would be subject to a blowout or two of the nature witnessed at Haas Pavilion. If there is any silver lining from the game it's that the Bruins didn't roll over after facing a 25-point halftime deficit. Some of that may have been because Cal took its foot off the proverbial pedal but that's another discussion.
Trying to write a game preview for this Bruin team now has become an exercise in futility. Is there a person out there, including Coach Ben Howland, who has any real idea if the Bruins will mentally show up for a particular game? If you answered yes, you're either lying or delusional…or both.
UCLA returns to action on Saturday when the Bruins visit Stanford at Maples Pavilion. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2 at 1 PM PST. To be blunt, this game is massive for both teams. UCLA (18-7; 8-4 Pac 12) has to collectively know that this game may make or break its NCAA Tournament chances. Keep in mind that the Bruins didn't just lose a game on the road; a mid-level Pac 12 team embarrassed them. The NCAA selection committee may not officially take that into consideration when making their team selections for the Tournament (would the committee view Duke's embarrassing loss at Miami the same way?) but that kind of display certainly will sit in the back of the committee's collective mind. If the Bruins find themselves on the so-called "bubble" on Selection Sunday, then you can be sure the nature of Thursday night's loss will come up in conversation. That's why winning at Stanford has now become a near necessity.
Stanford (15-10; 6-6) may be just as desperate. The Cardinal probably saw what little chance they had of getting an NCAA Tournament bid go up in flames on Thursday night when they lost at home to USC by 1. The Cardinal now have to win the Pac 12 Tournament title to get an NCAA bid. Stanford has similar issues to the Bruins, namely the job security of its head coach, Johnny Dawkins. Rumor has it that the Stanford players view Dawkins in the opposite light that the Bruins view Howland. Namely, the players like Dawkins but feel he doesn't know the game at all. If UCLA's mental make-up is an enigma going into Saturday's contest, then Stanford's is as well. Will the Cardinal play all-out or will they have a collective letdown because of their Thursday loss?
In my Cal game preview I hinted that Cal was probably a much tougher match-up for the Bruins because of the guard play of the Bears. While Stanford has arguably a more talented front line, as well as a deeper one, Cal has a massive advantage in the backcourt and on the wing. The perimeter issues all come back to the fact that sophomore guard Chasson Randle (6'1" 180 lbs.) has essentially gone through a season-long sophomore slump. He's been asked to run the point most of the season and it has really taken him out his comfort zone. He's averaging 13.7 PPG but his shooting average has been poor, at 38% from the floor for the season. Take Thursday's game for example: he scored 16 points but did so on 6-17 shooting. Further, his assist total is fairly low, at 70 for the season and he has 57 turnovers. Most importantly, however, he doesn't excel at the pick and roll game that has hurt the Bruins all season.
When Randle isn't on the point then junior Aaron Bright (5'11" 178 lbs.) runs the team. He is more of a natural point guard but that doesn't mean he's great. He does have an almost 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but his shooting is even worse than Randle's. He's averaging 33% from the floor and less than 30% from behind the arc. Further, for a relatively short player, Bright isn't overly quick.
Freshman Christian Sanders (6'4" 185 lbs.) is now the only guard coming off the bench and he's only playing to give Bright and Randle short rests. In the past three weeks Randle and Bright are averaging well over 30 MPG.
Stanford's strength is in the frontcourt and while the mismatch against the Bruins' frontcourt players is significant, there is reason to believe that the Bruins can do a decent job of defending their own net. The star player for the Cardinal has been junior Dwight Powell (6'10" 235 lbs.), who leads the team in scoring at 15.2 PPG. He also is pulling down over 8 RPG. What makes him dangerous, besides his ability to shoot from both the low post (48%) and the arc (over 40%), is his athleticism. However, he isn't the kind of player that always makes the smartest decisions with the ball. He also isn't better than an average passer, so if the Bruins can get their defensive rotation right then they may be able to force Powell into some turnovers. He leads the team in that category with 61 on the season.
The other player to worry about in Stanford's frontcourt is junior Josh Huestis (6'7" 230 lbs.), who leads the team with over 9 RPG. Interestingly, for a team that has two players averaging over 18 RPG between them Stanford is only +2 in rebounding margin on the season. Outside of Huestis and Powell, no one on the roster rebounds well. Huestis is athletically superior to anyone in UCLA's frontcourt. He is springy and has a real nose for the ball. In terms of rebounding and defense he would be a real positive addition to UCLA's roster. He does play out of control at times and is apt to get caught in bad offensive spots on the floor (making passes that lead to turnovers by putting teammates in rough spots). However, he also has 53 blocks on the season. He went off for 22 points on 10-13 shooting (including 2-2 from behind the arc) in the loss to USC.
The other frontcourt players who see time are senior Andy Brown (6'7" 215 lbs.), junior John Gage (6'10" 235 lbs.) and freshman Rosco Allen (6'9" 215 lbs.). Brown starts and is a solid player. He's been getting about 25 MPG the past few weeks. He's a good enough shooter to keep UCLA's defense honest but he isn't a great athlete. Gage used to be a starter. He is a three-point specialist and, when paired with Huestis and Powell, gives Stanford a very tall front line. Allen is a heralded freshman who hasn't quite lived up to expectation. In general, all three of these players are average athletes.
There is a key thing to consider here, too. In terms of offensive polish, Cal's David Kravish is better than anyone in Stanford's frontcourt outside of Powell. Further, Cal's Richard Solomon is a better athlete than any of Stanford's frontcourt players. I point this out because Solomon and Kravish simply killed the Bruins with off-the-ball movement and finishes.
Much of that was because of Cal's ability to run a variation of the pick and roll, in this case, the dribble hand-off with weakside movement. Stanford doesn't run that kind of offense. This is an area where Dawkins can be criticized. He runs a bit of Duke's spread-style halfcourt offense and he hasn't recruited the players to necessarily run that kind of offense. Stanford runs a lot more off-ball screens trying to free their players for jumpers. UCLA should match up to this style better than against Cal's.
Still, the difference in this game is likely to come down to which team wants it more. Both have a lot to play for, although UCLA's motivation for success is arguably greater. Whether UCLA actually plays a motivated game remains to be seen. In fact, the emotional level of either team in this game remains to be seen. UCLA's inconsistency has been relatively baffling in that it hasn't had a real pattern. Stanford's possible lack of energy would be directly related to Thursday's loss.
Well, since my job is to make predictions, here goes. UCLA was embarrassed on Thursday, but they didn't quit in the second half even though the game was effectively over by halftime. That tells me there is some pride in these kids (and remember that they are, in fact, just kids). Moreover, I think UCLA has players that can effectively rationalize the way the loss happened and be ready for Saturday. I would be more concerned had UCLA played well and lost a close game. That's precisely what happened to Stanford. I think it is going to be exceedingly difficult for the Cardinal to emotionally be ready for this game since Thursday essentially snuffed out any at-large Tournament chances for the Cardinal. If the game were played on Sunday, then I may not go with this, but the game is Saturday in the early afternoon. UCLA should (and I use caution on the word "should") be more fired up, or at least be able to bring more energy to the floor than the Cardinal from an emotional standpoint.
Further, the Bruins didn't exactly tax themselves on Thursday, while the Cardinal went all-out for the victory. All five starters for Stanford played at least 29 minutes, with Huestis, Powell, Bright and Randle all going for well over 30.
I know this will go contrary to the opinion of BRO right now, but the match-ups are much better for the Bruins. Couple that with the emotional malaise I expect from the Cardinal, the Bruins should pull this one out and keep both their NCAA Tourney invite and Pac-12 title chances alive and relatively well.