The Bruins certainly surprised many people with their resounding victory over Oregon last night. It wasn't just that UCLA won the game, which many people, including myself, predicted wouldn't happen, but how the Bruins won the game. As Tracy pointed out this morning in his Oregon game review, the Bruins executed the Ducks out of the building. However, some of that had to do with the fact that the Ducks are actually a good match-up for the Bruins and, quite frankly, Oregon has been a lousy defensive team for much of the season.
With the Bruins moving on to Friday's semifinals, the task of winning the Pac 12 Tournament title gets a little harder as the Bruins get ready to face the Stanford Cardinal (8:30 PM PDT, Fox Sports 1), who advanced with an easy win over Arizona State in their quarterfinal game. If Oregon is a good match-up for the Bruins, the Cardinal certainly are not. At the very least, they will present UCLA with some particular challenges that the Bruins didn't have to face against Oregon.
Stanford's victory certainly painted the Cardinal as hitting on all cylinders at the right time, but for those that watched the game, a big reason for the ease of Stanford's victory was the second-half ineptitude of the Sun Devils. ASU looked like it was simply mailing it in during the second half. In fact, the game was very similar to the UCLA-Oregon game in that there was a very close halftime score and the game was blown open in the second half. However, while the Bruins looked outstanding in their half-court offense, and that was the big reason for their victory, Stanford benefitted from playing a team that quite simply looked like they quit.
Stanford won with a familiar formula, with most of the points coming from four of the starters, three of whom played over thirty minutes after playing over thirty minutes the night before. They also had a sizeable rebounding advantage and shot very well (55% for the game). This was in many ways the same formula that Stanford used to beat UCLA in Palo Alto a few weeks ago. The Cardinal have the capability and the size to do so again.
Having played each other twice during the season, the personnel match-ups are no different than in the first two match-ups of these squads. The only key individual to Stanford's plans is senior Josh Huestis (6'7" 230 lbs.) and his ability to possibly defend UCLA's Kyle Anderson with some length and athleticism, something Oregon failed to do on Thursday.
The Cardinal have a big four: Huestis, fellow senior Dwight Powell (6'10" 240 lbs.) and juniors Anthony Brown (6'7" 215 lbs.) and Chasson Randle (6'2" 185 lbs.). These players combine to share the large majority of Stanford's scoring, rebounding and most other key statistical categories. When Stanford beat UCLA at Maples Pavilion, these four players helped Stanford shoot 62% from the field and 55% from behind the arc. It was a surprise that UCLA only lost by 9. However, that day's shooting prowess was fueled by UCLA's complete lack of intensity on defense. The first half might as well have been a practice session, given how open the Bruins left the Cardinal players. However, at the game in Los Angeles back in January, Stanford only shot 39% from the floor and the game was essentially over at the half with the Bruins holding a double-digit lead, despite Stanford's plus-9 rebounding advantage.
It's pretty clear that the first key to the game will be UCLA's ability to contest shots. If UCLA allows open looks like it did "on the Farm" then Stanford will shoot the Bruins out of the gym. That said, Stanford probably won't shoot 62% from the field again on Friday and the Cardinal probably won't shoot 39% again either. It's a good bet that the percentage will be somewhere in in between. If the number is closer to 40%, advantage Bruins; if it is closer to 50%, advantage Cardinal.
The second key to the game will be UCLA's ability to offensively execute against a taller and better defensive team in Stanford (relative to Oregon). If Anderson can operate the offense like he did much of the Oregon game then Stanford will probably be facing an uphill battle. Oregon's Coach Dana Altman probably made a mistake by not shifting to a zone or trying someone with more length (Elgin Cook or Mike Moser) on Anderson because trying to use Frodo and Samwise Gamgee (Johnathan Loyd and Dominic Artis) to guard Anderson was a disaster for the Ducks. Chances are that Stanford's Coach Johnny Dawkins will probably start with Brown on Anderson, but he tried that at Pauley in January and Anderson clearly outplayed him. At Stanford, Brown was able to harass Anderson but that was very much due to Anderson's lethargy in that game more than Brown's defense. It will be interesting to see which Anderson will show up on Friday.
The third key will be the relative benches. Quite frankly, outside of the top four players, Stanford gets very little from its bench, especially in terms of scoring. The Bruins count on their three main bench players, Bryce Alford, Zach Lavine and Tony Parker, to give the team some punch. To put it in perspective, Stanford's bench scored a combined 21 points in its two games against the Bruins. UCLA's Parker scored 22 by himself the first time these two teams met. This is where fatigue could really become a factor. Dawkins has clearly shown that he doesn't think he can win by relying on his bench much. But with three of his key players having logged close to or over 70 of the 80 game minutes the past two days, Brown, Huestis and Randle can only get more tired. Tired legs make for tired plays and tired decisions. UCLA should face no such worries.
However, that brings up the final key point of the game, UCLA's relative effort and intensity. Unfortunately the Bruins have yet to show that they can play the way they did against the Ducks consistently, game-in and game-out. In fact, the Bruins have looked quite bad this year in second games. Now it's true that this game is on a neutral court so Stanford won't have any home court advantage, but UCLA has been pretty bad in the second game of trips away from Pauley this season. This is where the Bruins have to prove something, and until they do, it is difficult to predict anything but Stanford doing just enough to win.
However, if Tracy is right and the Bruins found themselves against the Ducks (and the Bruins repeat in some fashion that kind of offensive efficiency), then UCLA will win this game.
Still, I'd have to see it first and not simply trust that it is going to happen.
Pac-12 Tournament: Stanford Preview
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