PF Jonah Bolden (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Stanford Preview

Feb. 27 -- UCLA will try to begin salvaging the remainder of the regular season today at Stanford...

After UCLA’s loss on Thursday night to California, the chances that the Bruins make the NCAA Tournament are probably now down to UCLA’s ability to win the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in two weeks. That means that the final three regular season games for the Bruins have become, at best, an opportunity for the Bruins to gain some positive momentum heading to Las Vegas. On the flip side, it wouldn’t surprise anyone following the program to see the Bruins simply mail in these final three games in terms of effort and intensity. How the Bruins respond in these final regular season contests, as well as the conference tournament, may go a long way to determining the future direction of the Bruin program. The first of these three tilts takes place in Palo Alto today when the Bruins travel to Maples Pavilion to take on the Stanford Cardinal (1:30 PM PST, Fox).

The entirety of UCLA’s season can be summed up by the effort or lack thereof that the Bruins have brought to every game. Outside of the 5 games against very athletic competition (Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon and the two USC games), UCLA’s effort level has dictated the outcome. At 15-13 overall, it’s easy to see that the Bruins have had a roller coaster season because of that inconsistent effort. Now the Bruins will face a Stanford team who, at 14-12, is in a similar position. The difference between the two programs is, really, the internal expectations of the teams and fan base. While UCLA may struggle to find motivation to rise to the level necessary to win this game because of the likelihood of missing the Big Dance, the Cardinal continue to bring a solid effort to the floor every night because an NIT bid at the end of the season will be considered a success.

The Cardinal are still coached by Johnny Dawkins, who, in his eighth season in Palo Alto, has yet to get the Cardinal into a position to consistently challenge for the Pac-12 title. Certainly UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford will not find himself at a large coaching disadvantage, if any at all, against Dawkins. Still, Dawkins has done some of his best game coaching when expectations have been lower and this season is no different. Stanford’s talent level is probably among the bottom three of Pac-12 schools along with Washington State and Arizona State. However, that doesn’t mean that the Cardinal don’t have players who can hurt the Bruins. In fact, far from it.

Stanford didn’t expect to be struggling so much in terms of talent when October practices started. But before the Christmas break the Cardinal suffered two devastating injuries to arguably their two most important players. Sophomore point guard Robert Cartwright was lost for the season before the first game was played and sophomore power forward Reid Travis, the team’s best player, was lost for the season after the 8th game because of a stress reaction in his left leg. That left Dawkins and the Cardinal reeling as they collectively tried to recover and fit other players into their places.

The frontcourt tandem of senior Rosco Allen (6’9” 220 lbs.) and sophomore Michael Humphrey (6’9” 220 lbs.) have been solid if not spectacular. Allen has finally started living up to the hype he had when he arrived in Palo Alto. He leads the team in scoring at 15.6 PPG and rebounding at 6.3 RPG. What makes him so dangerous, though, is his ability to hit the outside shot. Make no mistake, at 37% from the three-point line, he isn’t an elite shooter, but he makes enough shots to keep opponents more than honest. He will stretch the floor enough to force Alford to have to use Jonah Bolden on him almost exclusively when and if the Bruins play man defense.

Humphrey is a poor man’s version of Allen. He averages 9.6 PPG and he’s not in double-figures because his outside shooting has been poor. At 27% from behind the arc, Alford can almost have a game plan that invites Humphrey to shoot from outside. He averages 6.2 RPG and is basicaly the team’s one shot-blocking threat.

Dawkins has started senior post Grant Verhoeven (6’9” 250 lbs.) the past few games to give Stanford a much bigger and physical look, but Verhoeven is only playing about 13 MPG. Still, now that Travis is out, Verhoeven, Allen and Humphrey make up the entirety of Stanford’s frontcourt rotation.

The wing and guard rotation are made up of starters Christian Sanders (6’2” 192 lbs.) and junior Marcus Allen (6’3” 190 lbs.), with sophomore Dorian Pickens (6’5” 215 lbs.) and freshman Marcus Sheffield (6’5” 180 lbs.) coming off the bench.

Sanders, a senior who hasn’t seen much playing time before this season, has been a good team leader but a statistical nightmare. He is barely shooting 30% from the field and an absolutely abysmal 19% from behind the arc. The fact that he is a starter says all one needs to know about the lack of talent in Palo Alto right now.

Allen is a solid point guard, but if Cartwright had remained healthy, Allen would have been the shooting guard instead of Sanders. Allen has been asked to carry the burden of more responsibility with Cartwright’s injury and he has struggled at times. The main issue for Allen this year has been his shooting. He isn’t nearly as poor as Sanders, but he is only shooting 35% from the floor and 24% from behind the arc. He is 3rd on the team right now in rebounding at 3.9 RPG.

Pickens has probably become the biggest offensive threat in Stanford’s backcourt. He is averaging 11.9 PPG and leads the team with 47 assists. His defense has been solid and he works hard. His biggest asset, though, is his 37% shooting from deep, making him a player who defenses have had to honor outside and on the drive.

Dawkins was not counting on Sheffield to have to play almost 18 MPG this season, but the injuries forced Dawkins’ hand. Sheffield’s biggest attribute is his outside shooting, where he’s hitting 42% of his three-pointers. The problem for the Cardinal is that he hasn’t attempted that many shots. He also has a tendency to get lost on defense, which isn’t a surprise for a true freshman.

While Dawkins will occasionally give minutes here and there to other players, those seven are the real rotation for the Cardinal. In all honesty, it’s a bit of a surprise that Stanford is 14-12 right now. The Cardinal’s on-paper talent says their record should be much worse.

If UCLA brings a good effort then the tactical part of the game should boil down to what defense UCLA chooses to play and how patient the Bruins will be on offense.

Stanford’s offensive weaknesses beg the Bruins to play a zone defense. Alford made a glaring tactical error on Thursday night when he had the Bruins start the California game in a man-to-man defense. Cal sliced it up pretty easily and as a result the Bruins found themselves at a deficit from which they couldn’t recover.

Unlike Cal, Stanford is not only not a good offensive rebounding team, which means that the Bruin zone is less likely to give up second chance points, the Cardinal aren’t a good rebounding team, period. Their rebounding margin is less than 1, and that includes the multiple cupcakes that Stanford had on its early season schedule.

When the Bruins are on offense, if they show patience then they should consistently get the shots they want. Stanford is a mediocre defensive team, giving up a fairly high overall shooting percentage and a fairly high three-point shooting percentage. In fact, Stanford’s opponents have a better overall shooting percentage than the Cardinal, are even in rebounding and average more assists than do the Cardinal. The only area that Stanford leads its opposition is in turnovers, where the Cardinal force far more than they commit.

Still, the Cardinal give the consistent effort that UCLA fans would love to see the Bruins exert. That in and of itself may be the difference in the game. There is every reason to believe that UCLA will not match the intensity of the Cardinal, who play better at home anyway, and thus won’t be able to rely on its talent advantage. In fact, UCLA has, on paper, a huge talent advantage. Bolden and Holiday will be the best athletes on the floor and Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford are arguably as good if not better than any of Stanford’s backcourt players.

If UCLA does bring a solid effort then all UCLA needs to do is work for good shots on most possessions and they should win. The problem is that I just don’t see the effort being there. Further, I think it is more likely that UCLA loses its remaining regular season games than it is that the Bruins sweep the final three.

At that point the Bruins will be staring at a losing season record and a very interesting off-season.

Stanford 71

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