In terms of Stanford, this game holds even more importance than that, at least to the Cardinal coaching staff, as Stanford Head Coach Johnny Dawkins is clearly on the proverbial hot seat after several years of mediocrity. The reality is that if Stanford misses the NCAA Tournament again then Dawkins will be fired.
Both teams are currently tied in the Pac 12 standings with records of 3-2. UCLA has lost at home to Arizona, which is the top-ranked team in the nation, as well as this past Saturday at Utah. Stanford has lost at home to California, who is tied atop the conference with the Wildcats, and on the road against Oregon State. Both teams have solid road wins against teams that are starting to show cracks: UCLA last week at a now Spencer Dinwiddie-less Colorado team, while Stanford won at Oregon, which is a team in free fall.
This game may be one of the most difficult games of the season to predict as both teams have strengths that could tip the game. Stanford will have the advantage in the frontcourt while the backcourt, based on Stanford's recent play, may be a wash. The Bruins have an advantage in depth, i.e. a better bench. Finally, the coaching match-up may be a wash as well, or, at the very least, uncertain. Dawkins is a known quantity at Stanford, generally being thought of as an average-at-best game tactician. The jury is still out on UCLA's Steve Alford, at least in terms of how he handles the talent in Westwood. He had a pretty strong coaching game against Colorado but was criticized for his time management of players' minutes at Utah. The game could seriously come down to how much of a homecourt advantage the Bruins get, if any, from the Pauley Pavilion crowd.
Dawkins has been very consistent this season, starting the same five players for all 17 games. Stanford's starting five represents possibly the closest in size the Bruins will see to match their own starting five, going big at 6'11", 6'10", 6'7", 6'6" and 6'2".
While the Cardinal's best player is in their backcourt, the play of their frontcourt may be the key. Senior Dwight Powell (6'10" 240 lbs.) is the headliner. He is second on the team in scoring and rebounding at 14.2 PPG and 7.6 RPG, respectively. Most impressively, it seems that the proverbial light has come on for him. He's always been a good athlete with a long, wiry frame, but now he's adding an intellectual dimension of understanding that wasn't there before. Exhibit A of this newfound understanding: Powell is actually leading the Cardinal in assists and it's by a pretty fair margin. He, though, actually may be easier to guard than his two frontcourt mates, at least in terms of floor movement. While he may try the occasional three-pointer, the reality is that he's a low-post player.
If Powell's floor movement at least makes him relatively easy to find, his junior teammate Stefan Nastic (6'11" 245 lbs.) should be just as easy. He has attempted a single three-point shot all season. Nastic's worth is his ability and desire to play defense and protect the rim. While he isn't the athlete that his teammates are, he is arguably the most physical player in the low post and will certainly make any team earn its points. The Bruins can't sleep defensively on him either, as he's making almost 60% of his shots from the field (although he did miss his only three-point attempt). If UCLA asks Tony Parker to guard Nastic then that means one of the Wear brother will most likely be asked to guard Powell. Alford may be better off switching that up as Parker has at least proven he will play with some physical presence.
The most athletic player in the frontcourt and the one who may prove the most difficult to guard is senior Josh Huestis (6'7" 230 lbs.). The old knock on Huestis is that he's always played a bit out of control, being able to pull down a critical rebound here, but then committing a dumb foul on the next play. That is seemingly not happening this season. He's only averaging 10.9 PPG, but that would be much improved if he were hitting better than his 59% from the free throw line. He's been a good (41%) three-point shooter and leads the team in rebounding at 8 RPG. He isn't a rim protector, so-to-speak, but he knows how to block shots and has great hops. He has 36 blocks on the season, twice as many as the two Cardinal tied for second in this area. When looking at Huestis and then the UCLA roster, the question has to be asked: who is going to guard him? It's probably going to have to be Kyle Anderson.
While the Cardinal clearly have an advantage in the frontcourt, the backcourt is more of a toss-up, but that's due to UCLA's depth rather than any lack of quality in Stanford's starting guards. The starting point guard is junior Chasson Randle (6'2" 285 lbs.), who has arguably been playing as well as anyone in the conference. After what could easily be described as a poor sophomore season, at least for him, Randle is lighting up the scoreboard. He is averaging 19.5 PPG and is shooting very well from the floor. To have a lead guard that is hitting 52% of his shots is outstanding, while also hitting on 42% of his shots from distance. He rebounds well for his size and has turned into a solid defender. His athleticism and scoring prowess mean that, when UCLA plays man defense, it will have to have either Norman Powell or Zach LaVine guard him or else he'll single-handedly beat the Bruins.
The final starter is going to give the Bruins trouble in his own right. Junior Anthony Brown (6'6" 215 lbs.) has been a deadeye outside shooter all season. His 51% three-point shooting average is based on 55 shot attempts. Just like Randle, Brown is hitting better than 50% from the field overall, and he's averaging 5.1 RPG. Again, it's a dilemma when considering which Bruin is going to guard him, as he is pretty active. Chances are the match-up is going to go to Jordan Adams and Adams' play as of late has left much to be desired on both ends of the floor.
When looking at Stanford's starting five there have to be questions raised as to why the Cardinal's record is not better than it is. Many people think it's the coaching of Dawkins, and that may well be part of it, but the reality is that depth is an issue for Stanford. After the starting five there really isn't much else. With the season- (and career-) ending injury to senior guard Aaron Bright, Dawkins is now down to a seven-man rotation, and the two players off the bench aren't playing much.
Senior guard Robbie Lemmons (6'3" 205 lbs.) has been getting close to 20 MPG recently, much of those minutes at the expense of Nastic. He is more of a shooting guard than a point guard but he is asked to play the point when Randle is out. He isn't much of an offensive threat but he takes care of the ball.
The other player off the bench is really two, senior John Gage (6'10" 225 lbs.) or freshman Marcus Allen (6'3" 190 lbs.). Dawkins gives minutes to the one who he thinks is best going to help on a given night. Gage's size is a bit of a mirage; he is almost strictly an outside shooter and isn't thrilled by physical play. Allen's best contributions right now are on the defensive end. To put the playing time of these two in perspective: both played just five minutes against Washington last weekend.
That's pretty much it in terms of depth for the Cardinal, and that's their biggest concern. If any of Stanford's starters get in any sort of foul trouble or get injured, Stanford is going to be on death watch. Randle, Powell, Huestis and Brown all average well over 33 minutes per game. Between the four of them they are averaging nearly 60 PPG. Stanford only averages 77 PPG as a team. Health and avoidance of fouls is really what Stanford needs to hope for every game. UCLA should certainly be the fresher team by the ten-minute mark of the second half.
There are some other things that make the Cardinal vulnerable. Stanford is only out-rebounding its opponents by 3 RPG. More importantly, the Cardinal's ability to dominate the glass tends to drop considerably as the game goes on, which is indicative of a tired team.
Further, they tend to turn over the ball a fair amount (about 11 TPG) and that number increases as the Cardinal get more fatigued. It doesn't help that the Cardinal often play without a true point guard on the floor as Randle is more of a scoring guard than a true point. There's a reason Powell, a post player, leads the team in assists.
There is one final thing that comes into play for Thursday night. It's not a statistical issue or one that can be quantified, but Bruin fans who've seen UCLA play at home against Arizona and away from Pauley last weekend, against Missouri and against Duke, know that UCLA is simply a better team at Pauley Pavilion than away from it. Stanford is a bit of a mystery in that they have lost two games on the Farm and three away from Palo Alto, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why, other than they've had one of the Big Four either in foul trouble or have a poor game. In fact, the two facets don't necessarily go hand in hand.
If UCLA can get just one of the Big Four to have an off night, that should bode well for the Bruins. Stanford plays adequate but not great defense and UCLA's offense, now back in the friendly confines of Pauley, and back at sea level, should have enough in the arsenal to send the Bruins to a victory if just one of those Stanford players has a poor game.