The UCLA men’s basketball team did what it needed to do on Thursday night when the Bruins came back from a 14-point second-half deficit to defeat Stanford in double overtime and end a five-game losing streak. The Bruins will attempt to create a winning streak and complete a successful weekend at home when the Bruins host the California Golden Bears on Sunday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion (4:30 PM, Fox Sports 1).
California enters Sunday’s game on a losing streak of its own, having lost its last two and four of its last five. Each of the losses has been damaging to the NCAA hopes for the Bears, what with losing at home to a bad Washington State squad, at USC to a mediocre Trojans team and, the truly awful loss, losing at home to Cal State Bakersfield. First-year head coach Cuonzo Martin currently has his hands full trying to stabilize things as he and the team wait for the return from injury of their best player, sophomore wing Jabari Bird (6’6” 198 lbs.), who will more than likely miss Sunday’s game.
Cal started the season with what appeared to be several strong victories, including an easy win over Syracuse in New York City that appeared at the time to be a very good victory for the Bears and the Pac 12. It’s still a good win, but given the weakness Syracuse has shown since then, it’s not the season-defining victory it might have been.
Immediately following that strong start, though, the Bears lost Bird to a stress factor in his foot, and that has changed the dynamics for the team, with the season going especially off-track the past two weeks. The win over Washington last weekend was a nice win, but that and the Syracuse win are more than offset by the home losses to Washington State and Bakersfield, which are two bad losses, and the Thursday night blowout loss to the Trojans, where the Bears appeared almost disinterested.
After the Wazzu loss, Martin elected to shake up his starting lineup, but even in the midst of the shakeup, two starters have remained constant: junior point guard Tyrone Wallace (6’5” 200 lbs.), who is arguably playing better than anyone in the conference right now, and sophomore guard Jordan Matthews (6’3” 205 lbs.).
Wallace is having a Pac 12 Conference Player of the Year-type of season up to this point. Both Greg Hicks and Tracy Pierson have written countless times in the past that player evaluation is all about projection of where a player will be in the future and not where he is when first viewed. Wallace is the perfect example of a player fulfilling that long-term projection. Wallace has been a nice player for the Bears his first two seasons, but this year he has played himself into 1st round NBA draft pick discussions, which is exactly the point Hicks and Pierson were trying to make.
Wallace’s numbers are impressive no matter how they are viewed, as he leads the team in scoring at 19.1 PPG, rebounding at 8.4 RPG and in assists. His shooting hasn’t been great, at 46% from the field and 36% from behind the arc, but it’s certainly well above passable. He is the type of point guard that can involve others while still being able to get his own shots. He has a great feel for the game and what he needs to do in a given situation. UCLA had better hope that Norman Powell’s injury in Thursday night’s win is nothing serious because Wallace will simply dominate both Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton if either is forced to guard Wallace for extensive minutes.
Matthews, son of former UCLA assistant Phil Matthews, has been known as a jump shooter since his arrival in Berkeley. This has only solidified that notion as Matthews has attempted almost half of his overall shots from behind the arc. Interestingly, Matthews is shooting about the same from the three-point line, 42%, as he is from inside the arc, about 44%. Also, where Wallace has struggled a bit from the line this season at 62%, Matthews is one of the Pac-12 leaders at 80%. The idea to properly defend Matthews is to close out on him very hard and force him to put the ball on the floor. He is definitely not as comfortable shooting off the dribble or trying to create his own shot as he is coming off screens. When UCLA plays zone the Bruins will need to be constantly aware of where Matthews is and probably shade a bit in his direction. After Stanford’s three-point barrage on Thursday, UCLA fans should be wary of what Matthews could do.
Because of the loss of Bird and the offensive prominence of Wallace and Matthews, the Bruins will actually be facing a Cal team that’s fairly similar to the Stanford team they just faced. Like Stanford, Cal is backcourt-dominant, and, like Stanford, the Bears have one frontcourt player who can cause some damage. Junior David Kravish (6’10” 240 lbs.) is certainly not the best offensive post player in the conference, but he has had a habit during his career at Cal of giving the Bruins some real problems. He’s not a true back-to-the-basket type of forward but he has become more comfortable in that role. His strength lies in his ability to hit mid-range jumpers. He will need to be accounted for when UCLA is in its zone defense because of his ability to make the elbow jumper when he’s in the middle, but more importantly when he’s in the short corner, where he can be truly dangerous. His ability to consistently make that short corner jumper is almost a lost art in today’s college game and was a big reason Cal was able to defeat Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. All that being said, Kravish isn’t having a great shooting season. His 10.9 PPG is good for third on the team but his shooting is down from the past. He’s only shooting about 45% from the field and even a face-up post player should be shooting closer to 50% to be considered successful. He is also struggling from the line at 61%. Finally, while Kravish is an adequate rebounder at 6.5 RPG, he tends to be pushed around a bit underneath.
Martin started freshman Kingsley Okoroh (7’1” 254 lbs.) and sophomore Richard Moute a Bidias (6’6” 207 lbs.) against USC Thursday and has already publicly stated he is going to do so on Sunday. They both had similar lines in that game, with 4 points apiece, 6 boards apiece, but also 3 turnovers apiece.
Okoroh is a very big body, but he’s not very physical and despite his size, is not really a defensive presence, at least not yet. However, he is a more natural shot blocker than Kravish, who leads the team in blocks, and UCLA will certainly need to be aware of Okoroh’s presence when getting the ball in the paint.
Moute a Bidias is a poor man’s version of former Bruin Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, which shouldn’t be surprising since the two are brothers. He is fairly athletic, has the ability to shoot out to the three-point line, although he has struggled with that shot, and is a decent offensive rebounder. Quite frankly, while Moute a Bidias gives more athleticism to Cal than Gyorgy Golomon gives to UCLA, Golomon is the better basketball player right now.
Martin’s bench only runs about three-deep right now and Martin appears to feel comfortable with all three logging big minutes off the bench. One is former starter, junior Christian Behrens (6’8” 226 lbs.). Behrens is a true power forward both in size and his strengths. He is a better natural rebounder than either of the two new starters, but he significantly lacks athleticism. Further, when he is on the floor with Okoroh and Kravish it essentially moves Kravish or Behrens to the defensive ‘3’ spot, where both of them are easily beaten by smaller, quicker wings.
The second is senior Dwight Tarwater (6’6” 230 lbs.), who has a game and a mindset more like a natural small forward, but his body screams power forward. He is a decent outside shooter, but like Kravish and Behrens, he struggles with athletic wings when he is asked to guard them.
The last bench player is sophomore guard Sam Singer (6’4” 204 lbs.) who is essentially the back-up point guard. He has good court sense and he has been able to have a solid season running the point when Wallace is out. He actually has a pretty good assist-to-turnover ratio. His court sense has also allowed him to play solid defense at times and is second behind Wallace on the team in steals. But like his two other teammates who come off the bench, Singer struggles against athletic players.
In fact, a lack of athleticism really hinders Cal. That’s probably why Martin has gone to Moute a Bidias and Okoroh, because of their natural athleticism. While they may not have the basketball sense (yet) of Behrens, Tarwater and Singer, their upside is higher than any of those players. When combining skill and athleticism, Wallace is the only real very good-to-elite player on the roster. Even Matthews struggles with athleticism.
Again, Cal is very much like Stanford. The Bears probably have the better offensive backcourt in Wallace and Matthews but Stanford’s support players are superior to what Cal has. On Thursday, Stanford’s Rosco Allen had a big game, and the game preview wrote that he was capable of that. Cal’s bench hasn’t proved as of yet to have any one player with that same capability.
Speaking of benches, UCLA’s has been abysmal this season on the offensive end. The flow of the Stanford game, with Powell’s injury and then Bryce Alford’s disqualification, forced Steve Alford to rely on his bench and, somewhat shockingly, the Bruins probably won the game because of the bench’s contributions. It didn’t show up in the box score, because UCLA’s bench went scoreless, but Gyorgy Golomon and Noah Allen, especially, were able to provide the Bruins with some stability on defense and better ball movement on offense.
Tracy Pierson wrote about this in his Stanford game review, but the Bruins also appeared to make some very small strides at attempting to play inside/out in their halfcourt offense. Couple that slight change in focus with the “glue” ability of Golomon and Allen and it raises the question of whether UCLA should start one of its three guards on the bench and start one of the two mid-major talents. This would do two things: it would allow UCLA to have a bit more of a team approach to start games, where the Bruins have struggled the past four weeks, and it would allow the bench to have some scoring punch. Think about it; if one of Powell, Alford or Hamilton were to come off the bench they would be offensively going against a more fatigued starter or a bench player. It might allow one of those three Bruins to have an easier time getting into the flow of the game. If this were to be done the obvious candidate would be Hamilton. Alford needs to start because despite his many shortcomings as a point guard, he is still a far better option than Hamilton running the point. Powell is UCLA’s best backcourt athlete and on-ball defender. It would be interesting to see what this kind of change would do to UCLA’s ability to play more as a team on offense and give more effort on defense.
The one thing that UCLA will clearly have in its favor in this game is that, apologies to Wallace, Kevon Looney will be the best player on the floor. While he still made some questionable decisions and still didn’t play to his strengths at times, Looney came out of his offensive slump with an explosive performance against Stanford. His 27 points and 19 boards were obviously massive, and facing an even less talented front line on Sunday, he should be able to put together another nice performance.
UCLA’s Tony Parker was actually the one Bruin who was playing relatively well during the losing streak. The problem was that he wasn’t seeing the ball enough on the low block. That changed on Thursday. If UCLA, specifically Alford, can continue to regularly get the ball to Parker in the post, there’s no reason that he can’t have a similarly explosive performance on Sunday.
We wrote in the Stanford preview that Alford would at least not be overmatched in the sideline battle with Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins, and sure enough, the Stanford coach made two key head scratching decisions. This game will be similar in that there have been similar critical comments made in the past about Martin’s tactical acumen. Remember, there were rumors that Martin was on the hot seat at Tennessee before he voluntarily left for Berkeley.
Although UCLA was able to get a monkey off its proverbial back on Thursday, at least in the short-term, the key for this weekend is that the Bruins sweep. If UCLA loses to Cal then the public criticism of Alford will reemerge. That’s just the way of the world in this day and age of Internet blogs and Twitter accounts. UCLA has yet to prove that it can put two games together in a row against solid to good teams, and while Cal isn’t a very good team by any stretch of the imagination, the Bears are better than anyone UCLA beat in the non-conference portion of its schedule.
We wrote that we weren’t going to believe that UCLA would pull out a tough game until they did it, and to UCLA’s credit, it was able to do it against Stanford. However, the skepticism remains, specifically about how UCLA will play in two straight games.
UCLA has shown too many holes in its defense for there to be any faith in the idea that Wallace will be held in check at all. In fact, there is every reason to believe that he could have a similar game to Randle. Although UCLA won the game on Thursday, Randle uncharacteristically missed several free throws that could have iced or won the game down the stretch. UCLA won’t be so lucky two games in a row.
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