Consider it another weekend of opportunity.
After beating California on Wednesday, UCLA has another opportunity to break through their self-imposed ceiling and sweep a road trip this Saturday against Stanford (3:05 PST, ESPN2). The stakes are high -- if UCLA wins, the Bruins will remain, at most, a game behind Arizona for the Pac-12 lead. Perhaps more importantly, though, a win will put UCLA in good position to earn a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which could keep UCLA in the West for at least the tournament's first two rounds.
But UCLA has been in this position before -- in fact, twice before -- and each time the Bruins have failed the test. Against Utah and Oregon State, on the back half of road trips, UCLA did not show the requisite intensity and focus to win, with the Utes and Beavers pulling off unexpected wins. If UCLA is going to beat a Cardinal team that is more talented than either Utah or Oregon State, and that will probably be motivated to beat the Bruins after the 91-74 thumping they received in Los Angeles during the first match-up, the Bruins are going to need to give one of their most focused and intense efforts of the season.
There's some reason to expect that UCLA may be more focused for this game than the Bruins were during previous road trips. UCLA played arguably its best game of the season on Wednesday in beating a decent Cal team by 20, and the team has rarely looked more focused on the defensive end all season. Stanford is probably a bit more talented than Cal, though, even if the coaching is worse, so it could be a tougher game.
The Cardinal is led by junior guard Chasson Randle, who is Stanford's most prolific scorer at 18.5 points per game. He takes the most threes on the team, at just over four per game, and makes 36% of them. In the first match-up between the two teams, Norman Powell and Zach LaVine did a nice job stymying him, with Randle having a very inefficient game (scoring 14 points on 3 of 16 shooting from the field). If Powell and LaVine can do a similar job on him this time around, it's easy to assume that UCLA could have a similar outcome to the first match-up between the two teams.
Senior forward Dwight Powell is the next most significant contributor for the Cardinal. He's seemingly been at Stanford forever, and this season he's played well, averaging nearly a double-double. He had a nice game during the first match-up between the two teams, with David Wear, Travis Wear and Tony Parker having difficulty with him inside. Stanford probably didn't go to him enough in the first game, and we'd have to imagine that will be a point of emphasis in this coming game in an effort to slow down UCLA.
Forward Josh Huestis, also a senior, is the other big rebounder for the Cardinal, and also has the ability to shoot from the outside, if not at a particularly good rate. He, too, is averaging nearly a double-double, and between he, Powell, and starting center Stefan Nastic, the Cardinal should have a decided advantage inside against the Bruins. Again, it's not something Stanford did a great job of exploiting in the first match-up, likely due to the fact that Johnny Dawkins isn't a particularly good coach, but we'd expect, after the ugly first game between the two, that Stanford will make a more concerted effort to work the ball inside on Saturday.
Guard Anthony Brown fills out the rotation, and, like most players in this Stanford program, has not seemed to progress much in his career, which is a shame. He's a good three point shooter, hitting 47% on the year and shooting about 3 and a half per game. With UCLA going much more to the zone and pack-it-in style, we'd have to imagine Brown will have opportunities to hit from deep on Saturday. The first time these two teams played, Brown took five threes, and we have to imagine that number will be similar or higher in this match-up as the Cardinal looks to go a bit more inside-out and force UCLA to collapse.
Guard Robbie Lemmons is probably the most significant contributor off the bench. He's not much of a shooter, but fills up some minutes when Nastic exits the game or Brown or Randle need a rest. Malcolm Allen and Marcus Allen haven't contributed significantly this year, with them working in mostly as guys who can spell the starters for a few minutes here and there. Forward John Gage has some talent, and can stroke it from three. He plays anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes per game depending on foul trouble.
Stanford is not a particularly deep team, as you can tell, and isn't heavy on guard talent. If the Cardinal are to have a chance against the Bruins on Saturday, they'll need to, first, hope that the unfocused Bruins show up, and second, attempt to pound the ball inside and slow down the pace. Getting sped up and pushed into a track meet last time around gave Stanford a 17-point loss. At home, with the crowd behind them, the Cardinal should focus on working the ball inside to Powell and using that to open up three-point opportunities for Randle and Brown.
UCLA, conversely, should attempt to speed up the game as much as possible, and turn over Randle and Brown at every opportunity. The more pressure that the Bruins put on Stanford's guards the better. If Powell can do to Randle what he did to Justin Cobbs at the outset of Wednesday's game, completely discombobulating the guard, then that would go a long way toward setting the tone for the Bruins.
Really, the game comes down to one fundamental question: will the motivated Bruins show up? Our guess is that they will -- mostly. The stakes are high, and the team will likely recognize the game's importance more than it did against Utah or Oregon State earlier in the season. That said, the Wednesday/Saturday trips have been interesting in the Pac-12 this year, and we'd be foolish to suspect that the Bruins won't have a little bit of hangover in getting going on Saturday. We think, because of that, it'll be a closer game, but, since Johnny Dawkins won't become a good coach overnight, and Steve Alford has shown a propensity for exploiting mismatches, we think the Bruins should earn their first Pac-12 road sweep of the Alford era.
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