PG Aaron Holiday (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. California Preview

Feb. 25 -- UCLA needs to win four straight to make the NCAA Tournament, and that starts tonight with California at Haas Pavilion...

UCLA faces the tallest task of head coach Steve Alford’s tenure this weekend when the Bruins travel to northern California to take on the Bay Area schools. UCLA effectively needs to sweep its final 5 regular season games to have any shot at an NCAA Tournament bid, and that means doing something that an Alford-led Bruin team has yet to do: sweep a conference road trip. The Bruins start the trip by going to Berkeley tonight to face the California Golden Bears, who have arguably the top starting line-up in the Pac 12 Conference (6 PM PST, ESPN2). While many pundits and fans are already chalking up the game as a loss, the reality is that Cal is nowhere near as bad a match-up for the Bruins as other conference schools, namely USC and Oregon. In fact, Cal may not be a bad match-up at all for the Bruins. The key, as usual, is the effort the Bruins bring to the floor. If the ‘good’ Bruins show up then there is a real chance for an upset.

Coach Cuonzo Martin has been able to land some truly elite talent in his short time in Berkeley. Specifically, true freshmen Jaylen Brown (6’7” 225 lbs.) and Ivan Rabb (6’11” 220 lbs.) comprise one of the most talented and athletic pair of new players the Pac 12 has seen in quite some time. They have certainly lived up to all but the most unrealistic preseason expectations. Brown leads the team in scoring at 15.7 PPG and Rabb is the top rebounder at 8.3 RPG. Rabb has also quickly become one of the best shot-blockers west of the Mississippi.

As many might recall quite vividly, UCLA’s Coach Alford invested a lot of recruiting capital in going after Brown, only to see the talented small forward spurn the Bruins (and every other major program that was recruiting him) to surprisingly sign with the Bears. As some consolation, if Brown were on the Bruin roster, that might mean that Aaron Holiday was relegated to the bench, and it’s anyone’s guess how that would’ve turned out.

When Rabb and Brown are on their collective games, the Bears are almost impossible to guard. However, like most freshmen, they make freshmen mistakes, and with the ball in their hands as much as it is (the two have combined for about 1/3 of all of Cal’s shot attempts this season), those mistakes can lead to issues.

Most basketball ‘people’ know that while Brown and Rabb receive the bulk of the attention on the team, the real player that teams need to worry about is senior Tyrone Wallace (6’5” 205 lbs.). He isn’t the best shooter, especially from outside, but he does average 15.3 PPG and 5.3 RPG, which are similar stats to Brown. What makes Wallace so dangerous, though, is his ability to run the offense. His 94 assists leads the team even though he’s played 5 fewer games than his back-up, Sam Singer (6’4” 205 lbs.), who started the games that Wallace missed when he was out with injury.

If there is an issue with either point guard, and with Brown, for that matter, it’s that they have been pretty bad shooting from behind the three-point line. Singer is the ‘best’ of the three, shooting 29.4% from behind the arc, while Wallace is at 29.2% and Brown is at 29.1%. All three are also hitting less than 70% of their free throws. Seven of Cal’s eight losses have been by a grand total of 35 points, or roughly 5 PPG, and two of them were in overtime. If any one of Brown, Singer, or Wallace were just a few percentage points better from three or from the stripe it’s not a stretch to think that Cal would have won two or three of those games.

What makes Cal’s offense even more dangerous, though, is the presence of two more players who, on any given night, can go off for well over 20 points. Juniors Jordan Matthews (6’4” 203 lbs.) and Jabari Bird (6’6” 198 lbs.) are especially dangerous because of their ability to shoot from three. Matthews is a very good shooter, at 45% from deep on 156 attempts. Bird is solid at 38.7% on 119 attempts. The key thing to remember with both is that they are pretty pedestrian shooters overall, with Mathews sitting at 42% and Bird at 45%, and that they both take well over half of their shot attempts from outside the three-point line. They know their respective roles in the offense and execute those roles well. If there’s a real knock on their game it’s that they don’t rebound well for their sizes or positions, especially Bird.

Martin does have two seven-footers who share time in the paint in sophomores Kingsley Okoroh (7’1” 252 lbs.) and Kameron Rooks (7’0” 250 lbs.). They don’t score much or rebound particularly well for their size, but they really alter shots. They have 54 blocks between the two of them. Add Rabb to the mix and Cal’s post players have 88 blocks on the season, or well over 3 BPG. That is a significant number. Both will give UCLA’s Tony Parker fits in the low block because of Parker’s propensity to power up shots without so much as a pump fake.

Cal really is an offensive force with 5 players essentially averaging at least 10 PPG (Bird is at 9.7 PPG). As a group, they shoot 47% from the floor and 37% from three (although that last number is skewed a bit by Matthews and Bird). The question is whether Cal can stop a good shooting team, and when the Bruins are on, they are a good shooting team.

Cal isn’t a team designed to take your best offensive player or sets away. Frankly, the Bears try and outscore the opposition. They average almost 76 PPG, which is better than average. The one factor that consistently has held Cal back this year is turnovers. The Bears are one of the worst in the conference at taking care of the ball. They are also not a great free throw shooting team. If the Bears were good in either category then they’d certainly be better than their 19-8 record.

However, what really hurts Cal, and gives UCLA a fighting chance against its offense, is Cal’s poor outside shooting outside of Mathews and Bird. Certainly junior Stephen Domingo (6’7” 217 lbs.) is a decent outside shooter at 34%, but Cal actually relies on Domingo to be one of its best outside shooters and he hasn’t proven to be anywhere near as dangerous as Mathews or Bird.

The Bruins should game plan around the outside shooting of Cal. In UCLA’s last game, the easy win over Colorado, the Bruins employed an amoeba zone that flattened at the top but allowed the wing defenders to stretch further outside so as to challenge some outside shots. It helped lead Colorado to having a very poor shooting game. The hope for the Bruins is that Cal will not be able to beat them consistently from the perimeter. If UCLA goes to a man defense then expect Cal to get a lot of high percentage shots. The Bears are simply too talented and athletic to not have a significant advantage against the Bruins in man-to-man situations.

Cal also has some holes in its defense. One BRO poster on Wednesday wrote that Cal has “an excellent defense,” and that’s not entirely true. Certainly the Bears have the height and shot-blocking/altering ability to give UCLA issues on the interior. However, Cal tends to pack in its defense a bit and as a result the Bears give up a higher shooting percentage from behind the arc than would be expected from a truly “elite” defense. If we go with the assumption that UCLA won’t be able to get anything consistently inside, then the guards are going to be the keys to the game offensively. If the Bruins can hit from the outside, where they should have plenty of good shot opportunities, then UCLA will have a chance. Obviously, if the Bruins don’t shoot well from outside then this could get ugly.

Cal isn’t one of those ball-pressure defenses that have caused UCLA issues this year. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, relying instead on their ability to clog the interior and rebound well. Cal is a very good rebounding team, but if UCLA is shooting well from the outside then the Bruins will render that statistic moot. UCLA will probably be better off trying to spread the floor and drive because, in spite of its interior size, Cal’s wings and guards do consistently sag to give help. Driving and kicking could be a staple for UCLA tonight.

With this being a road game, the Bruins already have a strike against them. Haas Pavilion is a difficult place to play regardless of the circumstances. Further, Cal hasn’t been beaten by double-digits outside of the San Diego State game early in the season when the Bears were still learning roles and personnel patterns. For UCLA to win, the Bruins are probably going to have to pull out a close one, and UCLA is 2-5 in games decided by 3 or fewer points this season, while Cal seems to excel at late-game situations.

Expect this one to be close, probably closer than many expect, but in the end, the combination of playing on the road and against a team that knows how to win close games will prove too much for the Bruins.

California 76

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