The UCLA Bruins picked up an important road victory over the Stanford Cardinal on Thursday night, one that may now give the Bruins a glimmer of hope at a meaningful postseason schedule. However, the game will mean nothing unless the Bruins can consolidate their trip to the Bay Area by defeating California at Haas Pavilion on Saturday night (5 PM; Pac 12 Network).
For as poorly as Cal has played the past month, the Bears seem to be turning things around, having won their last three games, and the Bruins have consistently played much worse in the second game of a conference road swing thus far this season. This has all the makings of a trap game for the Bruins, and one where head coach Steve Alford will have to do some of his best coaching and motivating in order to get the Bruins to perform at the level necessary to win another conference road game.
While the Bruins have been playing better as of late, the first 30 minutes of the Stanford game were a surprise because the Bruins hadn’t shown that kind of collective team basketball on either side of the court, while on the road, all season. Further, Coach Alford hadn’t insisted on that kind of effort until recently. It must be noted that Alford is getting the team to buy-in to what he is instructing, whether it be the “green-light” offense, or what Bruin fans saw Thursday night. That fact that Alford seems to be realizing some things about his team is progress from where the team was in early January.
Cal has had the epitome of the roller coaster season. After starting the year at 11-3, the Bears then lost 6 straight, followed by the current 3-game winning streak. Last weekend Cal did what Stanford couldn’t, namely sweep the Washington schools. While Cal was clearly a bit overrated after knocking off Syracuse in New York in December, the reality is that the six-game tailspin coincided with the loss of sophomore guard Jabari Bird (6’6” 198 lbs.) (Pictured Above). Bird’s loss put the total offensive onus of the Bears on the shoulders of junior guard Tyrone Wallace (6’5” 200 lbs.) and sophomore guard Jordan Mathews (6’3” 205 lbs.). Because shutting down just one of them caused Cal’s offense to become anemic, the losses mounted. As a result, Head Coach Cuonzo Martin started tinkering with the starting line-up trying to jump-start the team both on offense and in terms of grit.
However, the three-game winning streak has coincided with Bird’s relative return to health. As a result, Cal has much more consistency now in both its starting line-up and with roles and playing time.
Bird is clearly not back to 100% yet; his legs still look heavy in his shot and his confidence isn’t where it once was. However, it really is just a matter of time before he begins to breakout. He has a nice outside stroke and the ability to put the ball on the floor. Further, although he isn’t the rebounder that Wallace is, he is good enough to offset the statistical hammering Cal was taking on the glass while he was out.
Wallace is currently Cal’s best player, both in terms of performance and ceiling (although many would argue Bird is in the same category with regard to potential), and he has played like one of the best players in the conference. When Cal traveled to Los Angeles last month and the Bruins simply pounded the Bears, Wallace had arguably his worst game of the year. He finished with 4 points on 2-9 shooting and was almost completely ineffective on offense. The guess is that won’t happen again. He had a big game on Thursday against Southern Cal, finishing with 18 points, which is roughly his average.
Mathews has had a nice year shooting from outside. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that he is currently the best long distance shooter in the Pac 12. He is averaging 45% from behind the arc on 115 attempts. He was the one Bear who played relatively well in the loss to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, finishing with 23 points and being the guy that had pretty consistent energy throughout the game.
Together, these three guard/wings are a formidable match-up for most any team in the conference, but especially a Bruin team that up until seven days ago showed little to no interest in defense. UCLA will have to play a concerted and concentrated effort on that end of the floor to ensure that all three Bears don’t have strong offensive games. If they don’t, UCLA will lose and lose badly. If the Bruins can hold any one of these players down then they stand a pretty decent chance of winning.
That’s because for as good as Cal’s backcourt can be, the frontcourt is just as bad.
Senior David Kravish (6’10” 240 lbs.) may be averaging in double figures and average almost 7 RPG, but the reality is that he has, to this point, had a disappointing season. When Mike Montgomery was the coach in Berkley, he made a point of making sure Kravish got touches. Martin, who played some guard and some forward while at Purdue, has clearly identified the three guards as the offensive forces for the squad, and it seems like everyone else takes a supporting role. Kravish hasn’t reacted well based on his play. He seems tentative, and while it looked like that may be the issue when UCLA beat Cal in January, the reality is that it wasn’t just a “bad game.” He did have 14 boards against the Bruins, but UCLA won the rebounding battle pretty easily, 40-34. He was pushed around by Tony Parker in that game and Kevon Looney was much too athletic for him to play against. Even though the Bruins lost both games in Oregon, having Parker out for those games may be a bit of a blessing in disguise for UCLA. Thomas Welsh has been a more confident player, one that Alford can expect to score some and grab rebounds as well as plays much better defense than he was playing even four weeks ago. Now Welsh, Parker and Looney will all have a crack at Kravish.
The reason the focus is on Kravish is because the frontcourt talent and experience really drops off after Kravish. There is some experience in junior Christian Behrens (6’8” 226 lbs.), but Behrens is not a good athlete. In fact, after starting most of the early season games, Behrens now comes off the bench and his minutes from the pine have started to decrease. His minutes are starting to get eaten up by graduate student Dwight Tarwater (6’6” 230 lbs.). Tarwater is the same type of player as Behrens with a little less focus on the physicality and a little more outside shooting. That tenacity and mean streak is why Martin is starting him, but that by no means makes Tarwater a Pac 12-level forward.
The two forwards/posts who started the game in Los Angeles, sophomore Roger Moute a Didia (6’6” 207 lbs.) and freshman Kingsley Okoroh (7’1” 254 lbs.), are now coming off the bench and getting few minutes. Moute a Bidias is now barely playing as it seems Martin has stopped experimenting with his line-ups and gone with the three guards, Kravish and whatever forward happens to be playing well on a given night.
Cal had several team issues that were prevalent during the first meeting and they simply haven’t gotten any better. This is not a good shooting team, and once Matthews is removed from the line-up it becomes a poor one. In fact, without Matthews in the line-up, Cal is essentially a driving team with Kravish’s ability on short jumpers thrown in for effect. UCLA has played less and less zone defense since January, but if there is a team to zone, California would be it.
Cal is not a good rebounding team in the conference. While the Bears still occasionally out-rebound their opponents, as they did on Thursday against USC, they certainly aren’t dominating. UCLA won the battle of the boards 40-34 at Pauley and that was skewed a bit by Coach Alford playing the walk-ons towards the end of the game. If Cal is to beat UCLA on Saturday then the Bears need to hold their own against the Bruins on the glass.
Finally, Cal is still turning over the ball, and while the numbers aren’t staggering, they are exacerbated by the fact that Cal isn’t getting the opposition to hand the ball back. Quite simply, Cal isn’t good enough to give an opponent extra possessions.
As a BRO poster wrote this week, it seems that as long as UCLA keeps winning, every game is an elimination game in regards to an NCAA Tournament bid, and regardless of when the inevitable exit from the Big Dance happens should the Bruins make it, as Greg Hicks pointed out, it’s certainly better to make the NCAAs than not. This game is one of the last three on the road for the Bruins and, conceding a loss at Arizona, this is a must-win game.
The Stanford preview from earlier in the week highlighted Stanford’s probable backcourt advantage, and UCLA’s Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and especially Norman Powell simply shredded that backcourt for the first 30 minutes of the game. Cal should have an advantage in the backcourt if for no other reason than the three starters are collectively bigger and longer than their UCLA counterparts. The one X-factor is Powell. He has the potential to be unguardable by any of Cal’s backcourt players. Obviously, having Bryce Alford play as relatively unselfishly as he did in the first 30 minutes of the Stanford game would be a huge boost as well.
As in the Stanford game, UCLA should have a massive frontcourt advantage, assuming Tony Parker, Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh stay our of foul trouble. While the three didn’t have the kind of statistical game that jumps off the stat page against Stanford, they were collectively pretty dominant on the glass and on the defensive end until fouls began dictating their time off the floor in the second half. It wasn’t a coincidence that UCLA started having the wheels come off after the foul trouble really kicked in, especially for Parker, who fouled out, and Looney.
Alford has now probably proved that he is an average game tactician, having been caught behind by the likes of Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle, but being able to out-scheme, out-motivate or make better adjustments than others, like Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins. While the jury is still out on Cal’s Martin, there is enough information to see that he is closer to Dawkins in coaching than Tinkle (The funny thing is, so is Arizona’s Sean Miller, who is reminiscent of former UCLA coach Jim Harrick, but that’s for another day). The bottom line is that Martin shouldn’t be able to dominate Alford in the battle of the sidelines.
Even if Cal’s three star players have good offensive games, the UCLA backcourt is just as likely to be able to keep up. The UCLA frontcourt should be able to dominate the Cal forwards. Still, there is this nagging feeling that UCLA still needs to prove itself on the road. Further, as I wrote earlier, UCLA has consistently played the second game of a road trip at a much poorer competitive level than the first, and that makes me quite nervous -- nervous enough to once again not believe that UCLA can win a game like this until the Bruins actually do. The game should be close, but if UCLA can somehow come out of the Bay Area with a sweep then the prospects for NCAA Tournament play will have improved dramatically.
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