At various moments throughout the year, UCLA has had an opportunity to break through into the national discussion and put some pressure on Arizona for the conference lead. Each time (on the road against Utah and Oregon State, at home against Arizona), the Bruins have come up short. This weekend, the road trip against California and Stanford represents yet another opportunity. With Arizona heading to the Mountain schools this weekend, which is always a difficult road trip, the Bruins have a realistic opportunity to be tied for first in the Pac-12 if they can sweep this weekend.
Sweeping Cal and Stanford, though, will be difficult. Tonight will be the first test, as UCLA heads up to Berkeley to take on a Bears team that has proven dangerous this year (Pac-12 Networks, 7:36 PST). California has been one of the most volatile teams in the league, with the ability to lose to the worst team one day (USC in January) and then beat the best team a week later (Arizona on February 1st). The odds are good that Cal, which is a game behind UCLA in the standings, will be just as motivated to win this game as the Bruins.
The first game between the two teams, at Pauley Pavilion, was controlled by UCLA much of the way through. It was an odd game in a few respects, with UCLA starting out the game very strong and David Wear actually leading the way for the Bruins with 18 points. The Bruins led 51-32 at one point early in the second half, but then Cal made a big comeback, led by guards Justin Cobbs and Jordan Mathews, pulling it to 55-52 with about seven minutes to go. Then, UCLA went on a long 21-12 run to seal the game, led by some significant contributions from Bryce Alford.
California is still much the same team that UCLA saw a few weeks ago. Justin Cobbs is still the engine driving the team for much of the time, and has been a good distributor, overall. He and Tyrone Wallace have been the primary weapons for the Bears over the last several games, with Wallace, in particular, going 11 for 23 from three over the last five games, significantly boosting his three point shooting percentage. That hot streak is significant, too, because Wallace was 0 for 8 against the Bruins during the first meeting, and wasn't a particularly big factor on the defensive end either. If he plays well tonight, it could make for a much more difficult contest for the Bruins. He'll also likely draw the assignment, in Montgomery's man defense, of guarding Jordan Adams when the two are in the game together.
On the interior, Richard Solomon and David Kravish should pose some matchup problems for UCLA. Solomon is one of the best posts in the Pac-12, and is an excellent rebounder, one of the best on the defensive end in the country. He's also a significant factor in blocking shots on drives into the paint, which wasn't that big of a deal when the two teams first played, but could be a more important factor now that Norman Powell is driving to the bucket more. Kravish is more of an outside player, playing a bit like the Wear brothers, but is an excellent shooter in his own right. Between the two, UCLA could have some difficulties matching up defensively. Tony Parker is the best matchup physically for Solomon, but it'll be interesting to see how much he can play, given how prone to foul trouble he has been.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the first game and now is that Ricky Kreklow, who was out with an injury during the first matchup between the two teams, has reentered the starting lineup. Kreklow has shot the ball very poorly since returning against Stanford, combining for 11 points on 4 of 17 shooting. He's not a bad shooter, historically, so the expectation is that he could right the ship soon. The biggest factor his presence brings, though, is that it gives Cal another significant rotational player, which has given the starters and rotational players a bit of a breather over the last three games.
Freshmen Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird will also factor into the rotation for Cal. Mathews was a starter when the two teams played last, but was demoted when Kreklow returned from injury.. The two are playing about evenly at the moment, with Mathews maybe getting a few more minutes. Mathews actually scored 18 points against UCLA during the first matchup, but he hasn't shot the bell well at all this year, with an effective field goal percentage of 44.3%, which is very low. Bird isn't much better, at 44.9%, but he's a better athlete with more upside. Between the two, they give Cal about 40 minutes per game.
Cal generally plays man defense under Mike Montgomery, and the defense has been generally pretty good this year. Like a poor man's version of Ben Howland's best defenses at UCLA, they don't force many turnovers, but play pretty good positional defense. UCLA didn't have a great deal of difficulty against Cal's defense during the first matchup, so our expectation is that Montgomery will try to slow UCLA down, run longer possessions, and reduce the amount of times UCLA gets the ball.
For UCLA, the Bruins are once again playing pretty well, having just swept the Mountain schools at home. Kyle Anderson is playing some of his best basketball right now, and is looking like he should be on the very short list for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Also significant, Jordan Adams seemed to come alive against Utah on Saturday after slumping through the last few weeks. He shot 10 of 14 against the Utes, and played generally under control. If he is starting to hit his stride at this point in the season, it could provide the necessary boost UCLA needs to finish the season strong.
You can't underestimate it—the next two games are huge for UCLA, but each of the next six are hugely important. If UCLA can finish the season on a 6-0 or 5-1 run, it sets UCLA up for at least a No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, and a likely top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Avoiding a loss to Oregon or Oregon State at home will be big, obviously, but it's important that UCLA sweep one of the two remaining road trips. The Bay Area trip is obviously the more difficult one, with Stanford and California being superior to the Washington schools.
Tonight, we have to anticipate that UCLA will have the motivation of playing a decent opponent, in a good arena, with a lot on the line. We've come to understand, to a certain extent, what motivates this team, and what occasionally makes its concentration lapse. We think that the game tonight should get their competitive juices flowing, and bring out their best effort. Cal doesn't really have a good answer for Anderson, and if Adams can maintain his play from Saturday, it's going to be difficult for the Bears to keep up.
It is on the road, though, and if we've seen nothing else, it's that this team is fairly unpredictable on the road. It should be an interesting game.
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