After multiple critical games, the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball program faces clearly its most critical game of the season on Thursday night when the Bruins travel to Palo Alto to play Stanford (6PM; ESPN2).
This game is so critical for multiple reasons, but mostly because of the position UCLA currently finds itself in. Every decision and every outcome creates a new and unique set of circumstances, and the circumstances of UCLA’s season have led the Bruins to being 5-4 in the Pac 12 Conference and 13-9 overall. The Bruins also sit in fourth place in the conference, one full game behind the Cardinal. Obviously a sweep would essentially add an extra game to any lead the Bruins have over Stanford in the standings and give UCLA the advantage in any tiebreaker situation. That alone makes the game meaningful.
The thing is, though, UCLA has never measured itself against the conference, at least not traditionally. Certainly UCLA doesn’t have the personnel or coaching (to this point) to get past the first game or weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but a win against the Cardinal in Palo Alto would probably start a bit of a swell towards a bid, assuming UCLA doesn’t screw it up and lose to California this weekend. An NCAA bid doesn’t ensure a successful season in Westwood, but it is the bare minimum these days to even have that typo of discussion.
Winning this game would give UCLA a credible road victory, boost the team’s RPI and move them into 3rd place in the conference. All of those factors help to create a sense of importance for this game.
There’s more. Stanford clearly has NCAA aspirations, as well as eyes on third place in the conference. Further, there is talk out on the Farm that Stanford has circled this game as one the players want because they were quite angry with themselves after losing in double-overtime at Pauley Pavilion in January. That was a game in which the Cardinal had a large lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the game and had two different chances to win the game at the free throw line; one at the end of regulation and another at the end of the first overtime.
The game is clearly important to Stanford.
The game is also hugely important to UCLA’s head coach, Steve Alford. Landing a bid to the Big Dance, which would still be a reasonable possibility after a UCLA sweep this weekend, would go a long way toward quieting some naysayers and would perhaps give Alford a chance to land some of his spring recruiting targets. Alford has really been under the gun this season and, honestly, much of it has been brought on by him. However, his choice to move Bryce Alford off the ball for a stretch again Colorado may represent a realization that such a move actually may better suit his son’s skill set.
UCLA looked pretty good last weekend against the Mountain schools, but that was at home. The key is winning at least one quality road game against one Top 50-RPI school, and Stanford fits the bill. However, Stanford has gotten into the top 30 or so of the RPI precisely because the Cardinal present serious match-up issues for a team like UCLA.
Stanford’s key player is clearly senior guard Chasson Randle (6’2” 185 lbs.) and he certainly proved it the first time these teams met. He scored 32 points in the double-overtime loss, including going 7-13 from behind the arc. In a conference where pundits have written about Utah’s Delon Wright and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Randle has been lost in the shuffle a bit. However, he is averaging 20.8 PPG and it has been the rare game where he hasn’t played well. He had help in January in Pauley when the Cardinal built its big lead, but he was the primary reason that Stanford was in front most of the game. He will be a handful, but UCLA’s Norman Powell has stepped up his game at just the right time, especially on the defensive end. The battle between those two should be compelling.
Senior Anthony Brown (6’6” 215 lbs.) is Randle’s proverbial partner in crime. He scored 21 points the first time these teams played and he is capable of scoring that and more at any time. Coach Alford is truly going to face a dilemma of sorts regarding who will guard Brown. Based on the last game, it would seem to be Isaac Hamilton. Hamilton has less experience and is a bit smaller, but at least against Colorado he gave effort on the defensive end and it seemed to energize the entire team. Still, this is a match-up that clearly favors the Cardinal.
True freshman Reid Travis (6’8” 245 lbs.) was starting at the beginning of the season and was doing well, being the only true low post force on the roster. He was leading the team in rebounding when he went down with a stress fracture in his thigh. He missed the game at Pauley Pavilion, and, in fact, only returned to action this past weekend against Washington State. He only played a handful of minutes and is definitely not 100%. The leg is definitely bothering him, even though the danger of further damage has passed. He’s also missed 5 weeks and is still not in game shape and certainly won’t be by Thursday night. He will certainly add depth, but right now, at best, he’ll play 12-15 minutes.
His place in the starting line-up was taken by sophomore guard Marcus Allen (6’3” 190 lbs.). If UCLA plays man defense then Allen should be guarded by Bryce Alford. Alford’s defensive deficiencies have been discussed quite a bit since last season, so having him guard Allen, the least dangerous offensive backcourt player, makes sense. Allen is a solid defender but he is the last offensive option of the starting five. While his shooting isn’t bad, his free throw shooting, at 39%, is atrocious. Coach Alford may need to keep that in mind at the end of the game.
Stanford is a really good three-point shooting team, leading the conference at 42%. UCLA will have to give effort on defense or the Bruins are going to get run out of the gym. However, the reason that Stanford is so good from distance is because the Cardinal has to be. Stanford has had no real post presence since Travis went down. Senior Stefan Nastic (6’11” 245 lbs.) has had a nice season and is averaging in double figures, but he isn’t a physical player, regardless of the fact that all of his scoring has come inside the arc. After Nastic, Coach Johnny Dawkins has gone with junior Rosco Allen (6’9” 220 lbs.) and true freshman Michael Humphrey. Allen is a face-up 4 on offense and is a bit slow and doesn’t play physically on defense. Humphrey wants to play in the low post but has often been ineffective because of his slight build.
Because of the lack of physicality, the frontcourt is where UCLA has a tremendous advantage. Remember that Kevon Looney and Tony Parker combined for 49 points and 31 boards in the first meeting of these two schools. For UCLA to be successful, Parker and Looney will have to be almost as good. Keep in mind that UCLA didn’t have a single bench point in the first meeting, but the bench, particularly Thomas Welsh, is starting to play better and add a little bit of scoring. Anything the three bench players can add will only reduce the scoring burden on the starters, particularly in the frontcourt.
UCLA clearly hasn’t played well this season on the road. In fact, the Bruins have been downright dreadful. Tony Parker was definitely missed on the last road trip through Oregon, but UCLA can only be judged on the body of its work and regardless if Parker were in Oregon or not, the Bruins looked horrible, especially in Eugene.
This game could be a bit different for a couple of reasons.
First, the Bruins have started showing a bit of what they need in terms of effort to at least be competitive on the road. While Alford hasn’t suddenly seen the light in terms of accountability and attention to tactical detail, word is that he has now gotten the message that perhaps his philosophy earlier in the season wasn’t playing well with those whose opinions matter.
Second, Stanford is coached by Dawkins and that should mean at least an extra bucket or two in UCLA’s favor. While Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak and Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle have clearly gotten more out of less talent, Dawkins is the Pac 12 Conference poster child for perennial underachievement considering the talent on hand. This is a game where Alford could have a solid tactical advantage.
Still, there are too many factors going against the Bruins to pick them to win. The backcourt matchup is as one-sided in favor of the Cardinal as the frontcourt matchup is for the Bruins. The return of Reid Travis will only help the frontcourt and UCLA has nothing comparable to mitigate Brown and Randle in the backcourt.
Playing on the road is something UCLA has struggled mightily with this season and there’s been nothing yet to show that UCLA will suddenly play comfortably on the road. As one BRO poster noted, winning on the road begins with having mental toughness before stepping on the floor. While UCLA has certainly shown some mental and emotional resiliency in coming back from the beatdowns at the hand of Kentucky and Utah, UCLA hasn’t shown the mental toughness required to pull out close games away from home, at least not yet.
Keep in mind that when UCLA won in double-overtime in January that it took Randle missing two free throws, one at the end of regulation and the other at the end of the first overtime, for UCLA to win. That was from a player who continues to hit almost 90% of his free throws. UCLA will probably not be so lucky again if it comes down to that.
The hope is that UCLA will come out with great effort and intensity and will play as if the players know the importance of the game. Really, although it would still be unlikely for the Bruins to finish the season on an 8-1 run, if UCLA wins on Thursday then the odds of that increase almost exponentially, which speaks to the weakness of the conference more than anything else.
Even with increased effort, because of Randle and Brown, and because of the game being in the Bay Area, the Bruins will probably come up a bit short. At this point, even a respectable, fighting loss against decent competition would be an improvement for the Bruins.
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