After a resounding victory over Stanford on Thursday, the UCLA men's basketball team returns to the court on Sunday night against the California Golden Bears (5:00 PM PST, ESPNU).
The game is very important for the Bruins as they seek to further cement their status near the top of the Pac 12 Conference. A victory over Coach Mike Montgomery's Golden Bears would move the Bruins into a tie for second place in the conference with the tough trip to the Oregon schools looming next week. Further, the Bruins are looking to improve their resume for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and as the calendar is about to turn to February, each game becomes that much more significant.
Cal comes into the game reeling a bit, but only because of one game. However, what a game it was. Cal was essentially beat-up by a pretty poor USC squad on Thursday night, and Montgomery's thin bench was exposed a bit as all five starters played over 30 minutes, while the Cal bench combined to play 31. Some of the proverbial cracks in Cal's roster began to show on Thursday and it will be up to the Bruins to both duplicate their own effort from the Stanford game as well use the Trojans' strategy for success against Cal as a blueprint on how to stymie the Bears. It was, however, only one game and only Cal's first conference loss. But as Oregon has already shown, a small losing streak can snowball and put a team squarely on the NCAA bubble.
Montgomery has been beset by injuries as he tries to create a deeper, talented roster. Of his contemplated seven-player roster at the beginning of November, he has lost two players for multiple games because of injuries. Freshman guard Jabari Bird (6'6" 190 lbs.) has missed numerous games, but has come back to play sparingly in the past three games, while junior Ricky Kreklow (6'6" 210 lbs.) has missed seven games and will miss the game on Sunday. Montgomery has done a masterful job of getting everything out of his remaining bench players, but his remaining five starters have been playing huge minutes the past six games and it may be catching up with them. The Bears collectively looked a bit lethargic and appeared to tire a bit sooner than one would expect in Thursday's game.
The Bears have some talent in their starting five, which is full of players who have given the Bruins fits over the past two years. It all starts at the point guard position with senior Justin Cobbs (6'3" 190 lbs.). Although more of a scorer than a distributor, he is a solid player who has really hurt the Bruins over the past two seasons. He leads the team in scoring at 15.3 PPG and actually has been doing a very good job of finding his teammates for open looks. His almost 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ration supports that. His ability to get into the paint, especially off of ball screens, which have become a staple of Montomery's offense with Cobbs, has been deadly against the Bruins. However, instead of having Larry Drew II guard Cobbs, Bruin Coach Steve Alford has both Norman Powell and Zach LaVine. They both have the length and athleticism to really slow Cobbs down. Powell, in particular, could prove to be a difficult match-up for Cobbs, not letting him get into the lane at will.
The second big player for the Bears is senior center Richard Solomon (6'10" 235 lbs.). He has actually missed a few of the games against UCLA the past two seasons. He has always been an impact player on the boards and in terms of defense, and this year has proven to be no different. He averages 10.5 RPG and has 25 blocks on the season. He is raw on the offensive end, but he has added scoring on a consistent basis as a piece of his repertoire. His 11.7 PPG is good for second on the team and he is shooting almost 56% from the floor. He is the primary screener for Cobbs in the ball screen offense and has a wide enough body to provide consistent interference to those guarding Cobbs. This is where Tony Parker and the Wear brothers become so important. They all did a solid job of plugging gaps when Stanford tried to run the same ball screen stuff on Thursday. If they are able to do that on Sunday then it could very well take away much of what Cal is trying to do offensively.
One of the Bears who has seemingly played well against the Bruins recently is junior David Kravish (6'9" 221 lbs.). Kravish's game is essentially that of Travis Wear in that he has nice touch outside, even hitting the occasional ‘3', rather than with his back to the basket. However, Kravish is more physical than either Wear brother. He averages 11.4 PPG, mostly on mid-range shooting, but he is also averaging 7.4 RPG and leads the team with 26 blocks. He has fouled out of 3 games this season and been in foul trouble numerous other games. If the Bruins can get him into early foul trouble it'll be even more difficult for Cal to operate its base offense as Kravish will set the ball screens (he picks and pops rather than Solomon's pick and roll) when Solomon doesn't.
The two other starting spots are currently manned by sophomore Tyrone Wallace (6'5" 190 lbs.) and freshman Jordan Matthews (6'4" 200 lbs.). Wallace is a solid player and its clear he may be very good by the time his playing days in Berkeley are at an end. He is a Jack-of-all-trades, generally playing one of the off-the-ball wing spots, but being the back-up point guard and having the ability to guard some power forwards in an emergency. He's averaging 11.2 PPG on solid, though not spectacular shooting, and almost 4 RPG, good for third on the team. He is arguably the team's best on-ball defender. He does struggle a bit with players who are stronger than he is and Jordan Adams, who is clearly not the athlete that is Wallace, is stronger than him.
Matthews, however, may be the key. He was never meant to be a starter this season and is being asked to play far more minutes than was originally expected. He has had a couple of very good offensive games, including a 32-point performance at Oregon, but upon closer inspection, he hasn't been the player that Bird was, and that's who Matthews replaced in the line-up. Matthews is shooting poorly, 38% from the field and less than 33% from behind the arc. Essentially he is taking too many shots for his position in the offense. Realistically he is the fifth option on offense. If UCLA can get Matthews to play as if he thinks he is one of the top offensive options then the Bruins will probably get Cal out of its offense. Further, outside of Bryce Alford, there's really no Bruin that Matthews can guard, either because of lack of size or lack of athleticism. There is going to be a point where Montgomery is going to reinsert Bird into the starting line-up, and if he doesn't do it on Sunday, he may realize pretty quickly that he'll need to do it for the next game.
Coach Alford is going to be key in this game as well, specifically his management skills with regard to the allocation of playing time. The line-up that many have been pining for this season, including myself, was and is Parker, Kyle Anderson, Adams, Lavine and Powell. It gives UCLA the best combination of athleticism, length and skill in order to be its most successful. Quite frankly, Cal doesn't match-up well with that line-up. Cal's top five players are somewhat similar size-wise to Stanford, and the Bruin line-up mentioned above was the one that really prompted Thursday's blowout. The key was Alford recognized this and played that line-up for extensive minutes.
Beyond the starters, Montgomery is really only playing two players, Bird and senior forward Jeff Powers (6'7" 223 lbs.) and the drop off is significant. Bird is still clearly getting back to game shape. Powers is a good three-point shooter, probably the best on the team, but he offers little else. He needs to be hidden on defense much like UCLA tries to hide Bryce Alford at times. In fact, Montgomery has utilized a zone defense at times to protect the team when Powers is on the floor. Further, he isn't a good rebounder and he can't create his own shot. But Monty doesn't have anyone on the bench that can offer more.
Speaking of defense, Cal is playing man defense in a style that is typical of Montgomery-coached teams going back to Stanford. The Bears are excellent at defending inside the three-point line. They allow opponents to shoot only 41% from the field. It helps to have two shot blockers like Solomon and Kravish, but it's also about understanding the system and what Monty wants. However, the Achilles Heel of this style of defense is that its intensity really ends at the three-point line. The Bears allow opponents to shoot 35% from behind the arc. If a team gets hot from beyond the arc they can run the Bears out of the gym because, and this may be a bit controversial considering how Montgomery is thought of as a very good tactician, but Monty simply doesn't adjust. If people remember the Lavin years, when UCLA defeated top-ranked Stanford at Maples Pavilion (and did the same the following year, too), UCLA rode hot shooting from the arc to win the games. Montgomery never adjusted. When Adam Keefe was playing for the Cardinal, Stanford was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament prematurely based on its seed because Monty never adjusted to outside shooting. He is clearly a proponent of the idea that eventually a hot shooting team will cool off. Granted, more often than not he's been correct, but when he hasn't his teams lose.
There are some other areas that point to UCLA's success on Sunday. Cal is not a great shooting team, hitting only 46% from the floor and 34% from behind the arc. They don't have an outstanding shooter outside of Powers, but chances are he won't play big minutes.
Cal is not a great rebounding team and, despite the -9 rebounding margin against the Cardinal, UCLA has become demonstrably better in that department. Further, while Cal doesn't turn the ball over an enormous amount, they do so enough for it to probably impact the game considering how many turnovers UCLA forces.
It can't be overemphasized how the amount of minutes Cal's starters have been playing could impact the game. As I wrote earlier, Cal looked ragged against USC even in the first half. Now the Bears are going to play the "fastest" team in the Pac 12.
Finally, UCLA has proven to be simply a different, more confident team at home. The defensive intensity of the Bruins, their shooting and their overall effort seems to be better in Pauley Pavilion than elsewhere.
All of these factors should contribute to UCLA's success on Sunday.
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