The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night with its season clearly on the brink. The Bruins are coming off a disastrous road trip to the mountain schools, including an absolute drubbing at the hands of Utah. They are 0-2 in the Pac-12 and this week brings the very real possibility of the Bruins being 0-4 in the conference by Sunday with the Bay Area schools coming to Los Angeles.
First up for the Bruins on Thursday night is 10-3 Stanford (6 PM; ESPN). It will be interesting to see how the Bruins respond to adversity as they return home for their first game in Westwood since the loss to Gonzaga.
This is a make-or-break weekend for the Bruins. It isn’t important in terms of making the NCAA Tournament as that ship probably sailed with the loss to Alabama, let alone Colorado and Utah. It is make-or-break in terms of the season spiraling into a debacle of historic, as in arguably worst ever, proportions. The team has shown no grit in the face of adversity; has no structured offense to speak of, and plays some of the worst defense west of the Mississippi River. This is a very important moment for Steve Alford because he has cited numerous influences for the Bruin losing streak. Alford has spoken of the youth of the squad, of being in a true road environment (Alabama), of being on the road in conference and playing at altitude (mountain schools) and generally just not having shots fall. He went so far this week as to suggest that what ails the team is simply not having been able to play for a stretch at Pauley Pavilion, because the players are used to shooting in the arena during practice.
If UCLA loses to Stanford and to California on Saturday then all the excuses and justifications will be exposed as just that -- excuses. It will also mean that there will be little to no argument that Alford is on the hot seat as the national media will certainly pick up on the fact that UCLA will be on a 7-game losing streak and, quite frankly, the natives are restless.
However, all of that doom and gloom can be pacified, at least for the time being, by doing something as simple as winning.
The question is, can UCLA beat Stanford?
This will certainly be the more difficult of the two games this weekend. However, it is certainly winnable. The key for UCLA will be patience on offense, defensive intensity and rebounding.
While Stanford is a pretty good team and should battle for a top-3 conference finish, it also has some weaknesses. Ironically, these weaknesses appear to be the same as UCLA’s, specifically a lack of real depth and some tactical mediocrity from the coaching staff.
Head coach Johnny Dawkins (Pictured Above) was on the proverbial hot seat himself the past two seasons, but he was able to hold onto his job and even reeled in a pretty good recruiting class last spring. Dawkins’ job was in danger because the general belief was that he simply wasn’t getting his teams to the next level. They had talent, much like this year’s version of the Cardinal, but they would consistently find ways of losing to inferior teams. Much, if not all of the blame for those inexplicable losses was placed at the feet of Dawkins. This year’s example was a 20-plus point blowout at a bad DePaul squad.
Last year’s Stanford previews stated pretty openly that Alford had a coaching advantage against Dawkins. That was probably not correct, as in hindsight, it appears that UCLA had more talent then even BRO imagined at the time. Taking that into account as well as this year’s strategic and tactical head-scratching decisions by Alford, this coaching match-up is, at best, a toss-up. However, Alford won’t be overmatched on the sidelines as he may have been last weekend against Colorado’s Tad Boyle and Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak.
Dawkins’ 2014 class has had a big impact, however, one of the cornerstones of that class, true freshman Reid Travis (6’8” 245 lbs.), is out with an injury. That certainly makes the Cardinal less formidable on the boards as Travis was leading the team with 6.9 RPG at the time of his injury, but more significantly, it hurt Stanford’s depth.
Much like Alford, Dawkins has relied quite heavily on two players, seniors Chasson Randle (6’2” 185 lbs.) (Pictured Above) and wing Anthony Brown (6’6” 215 lbs.). Outside of blocked shots, at least one of these two longtime starters leads Stanford in virtually every meaningful category. Randle averages 18.8 PPG, Brown 14.1 PPG. They are the top assist men on the squad. They are tops on the team in steals and they have taken the most three-point shots. Quite frankly, if one of them gets in foul trouble then Stanford will have some issues. If there is a concern for Stanford it’s that they are both averaging about 35 MPG. In last weekend’s home win over Washington, Randle played all 45 minutes while Brown played 41 of the 45. As Dawkins continues to play these two heavy minutes, it will eventually catch up to them in the form of fatigue. There has been a noticeable drop-off in their shooting percentages later in games over the past several weeks. While Randle is arguably the more dangerous of the two, mainly because of his ability off the dribble, his overall shooting is subpar, sitting at under 42% from the field.
Senior Stefan Nastic (6’11” 245 lbs.) and junior Grant Verhoeven (6’9” 245 lbs.) provide almost all of the frontcourt bulk in Travis’ absence. Nastic averages 14.2 PPG and 6.8 RPG (same as Brown) and is the clear leader in blocked shots with 17 on the season.
Verhoeven has missed 4 games and is only now starting to play increased minutes. He is a talented played but has yet to truly put his game together since he’s been on the Farm.
UCLA should have a clear advantage in the frontcourt because, if nothing else, no one on Stanford can come close to matching UCLA’s Kevon Looney in terms of length and athleticism. While the Stanford bigs are certainly long enough to play with Looney, they completely lack Looney’s athleticism.
Tony Parker has been playing generally well as of late and should be able to find points and rebounds as long as he stays out of foul trouble.
This is also a game where UCLA’s Thomas Welsh could find some mojo as his game is refined enough to cause either Stanford post to commit fouls.
The key, of course, will be getting the UCLA posts some touches on the low block, which UCLA just isn’t committed to doing.
Stanford’s primary six-player rotation is rounded out by junior Rosco Allen (6’9” 220 lbs.), sophomore Marcus Allen (6’3” 185 lbs. and no relation to Rosco) and true freshman and former UCLA recruit, Robert Cartwright (6’2” 170 lbs.).
Allen is much like Verhoeven in that he has yet to find his game since coming to Stanford. Big things were predicted of Allen but he hasn’t yet approached the early expectation that came when he signed with Stanford. He can be a gifted offensive player, including having the ability to be quite deadly from behind the arc, but he lacks athleticism, and for some reason the light bulb has yet to do more than flicker.
Allen and Cartwright don’t have a great deal of production to show for their time in Palo Alto yet, but that has more to do with the presence of Randle and Brown rather than a lack of talent on their part. This is especially true of Cartwright, who has already shown an ability to be a high level defender.
Even if UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton were playing well and within the team concept, Stanford would still be favored in the backcourt match-up. Randle is arguably one of the Pac-12’s top three players, while UCLA really doesn’t have anyone to match-up with Brown.
In order to win, UCLA has to start the game with more intensity and sense of urgency than the Bruins did in the mountains. If UCLA brings some effort and focus on the defensive end of the floor then that could really disrupt the Cardinal. While Stanford doesn’t seem to have any great weaknesses outside of depth, the reality is that the Cardinal under Dawkins has found ways to shoot themselves in the collective feet. This isn’t to say that Stanford is a great team; they’re not, but they don’t turn the ball over at a great clip, they outrebound the opposition by a considerable margin, and Stanford plays pretty good defense.
An intense and focused UCLA defense, even if it lacks elite athleticism, would have a real shot at throwing off Stanford’s shooters for the majority of the game. Do that, as well as rebound, and UCLA can legitimately beat the Cardinal.
It can’t be overstated just how important this game and weekend are to Steve Alford’s long-term prospects as UCLA’s head men’s basketball coach. There are already whispers that there have been discussions about relieving Alford of his duties after this season if the Bruins descend to one of their worst seasons in history. By losing to Stanford, and California over the weekend, those conversations will only intensify and probably become more public. If UCLA can beat Stanford and even sweep this weekend, while it won’t end the talk of Alford’s longevity in Westwood, it would cause those discussions to become more muted.
The problem for the Bruins and for Alford is that UCLA has truly shown no inclination, either in terms of personnel or the head coach, to change its approach to the game. The likelihood of UCLA being able to win games like the one against Stanford are truly quite small without a change in tactical approach, and UCLA hasn’t shown that it can do that, or willing to do it. Until the Bruins do, it would be folly to believe that UCLA will suddenly discover a new identity or style of play. It’s not impossible, but it would have to be seen to be believed.
Dawkins may have his own coaching issues, some of which are similar to Alford’s, but the one piece that Dawkins hasn’t had to deal with is coaching his own son. As Tracy Pierson pointed out, whether because he’s a poor talent evaluator or blind to his son’s warts -- or some combination of the two -- Alford really hasn’t handled coaching his son well this season when it comes to what is probably best for the team.
The Bruins may surprise their fans, after all, it is a home game, but assuming UCLA doesn’t change its long- and short-term tactical approach then the Bruins are looking at having their losing streak extended. If that happens then many fans and media-types may look at this weekend as the very public beginning of the end of the Alford era in Westwood.
It begins – and potentially begins ending -- with Stanford.
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