Tough Road Against Stanford

The UCLA basketball team, coming off a tough loss against Arizona, has no relief as it goes on a road trip Thursday to face #2-ranked and undefeated Stanford. The Bruins, though, match up better against the Cardinal than the Wildcats...

If you're a stat guy, you would figure that #2-ranked Stanford (14-0, 5-0), should beat UCLA (9-4, 5-1) by 35 points, since Arizona beat the Bruins by 25 and Stanford beat Arizona by 10.

But actually, UCLA might have a better chance of beating Stanford than they did Arizona (That's why determining anything by statistics is bunk).

UCLA probably matches up better against Stanford, rather than trying to match Arizona's superior athleticism. Stanford does have a better team than Arizona, since it's smarter, more disciplined and more experienced (remember, we picked Stanford over Arizona to win the Pac-10 in our pre-season predictions). But it's quite a bit easier, athletically, to match up with the Cardinal than it is against Arizona, especially when the Wildcats are on, like they were Saturday.

Stanford has risen to #2 in the country in both polls. It was seemingly a tough climb, fighting against the rest of the country's skepticism. But for anyone who knows much about west coast basketball, it wasn't a tough call to predict that Stanford would be this good this year. In any given year, you can judge on paper how good Stanford would be, and then predict they'll be even better because of the coaching of Mike Montgomery. Montgomery makes every one of his Stanford teams better than they should be, and is easily one of the best coaches in the country. If he coached at an east coast school he'd have Dick Vitale spouting his name in praise in every other sentence.

What was actually even a surprise to many who are familiar with the Stanford program and its coach, is that they managed to go 9-0 without their best player. Josh Childress, the 6-7 swingman, sat out those nine games with a stress reaction in his foot. Since returning, Childress has come off the bench to get back in the swing of things, averaging 20 minutes a game and putting up 11.4 points a game and 7 rebounds. And even though they won 9 games without him, they've definitely needed him to keep the unbeaten streak alive. He got 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Stanford's win at Arizona. He scored the winning basket with nine seconds to play against Arizona State. He achieved a double-double against California on Saturday in beating California. While he's not completely himself yet, still recovering from the time he spent sitting out, he is the most dangerous Stanford player. He can shoot from the outside, but despite his skinny frame, loves to go inside and has the explosiveness to beat bigger opponents to the basket.

Not very less dangerous is Stanford's leading scorer, 6-4 senior guard Matt Lottich, who is averaging 14 points a game and is one of the best shooters in the conference. He's very good at getting open looks in Stanford's disciplined offense, and is a master at coming off a screen, catching and shooting. He'll do it all the way out to 25 feet, which extends opponents' defenses and opens up the middle.

In the middle is Justin Davis, the 6-8 fifth-year senior, who is one of the conference's best inside players. Davis doesn't have great scoring moves and still lacks a great touch, but he is athletic, gets off the floor quickly, and is relentless inside, averaging 11.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.

Another big influence on Stanford's good season has been the steady contributions of point guard Chris Hernandez. The 6-1 sophomore sat out last year after breaking his foot twice, and it's now confirmed how much they missed him by how much he's contributed this season. Hernandez isn't great at any one thing, but strong and steady at just about every aspect of the game. He's a solid ball-handler who generally doesn't make a lot of mistakes, second in the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3). He isn't particularly quick, even though he's quicker than he looks, and he doesn't generally take defenders off the dribble. He's a decent outside shooter, second on the team in three pointers, and will hit an jumper when he's left open. He's a good defender, making up for a lack of natural athleticism with great effort and toughness. He runs Stanford's offense efficiently, getting the ball into the hands of his scorers for good looks without any particular flash. He does do one thing very well, though, and that's free-throw shooting, leading the conference with 94%.

Rob Little, the 6-9, 265-pound junior starts at center, and has really blossomed into a potential All-Pac-10 level player. Little has trimmed down since coming to Stanford (that 265 pound actually being svelte, for him), and is really the perfect center in the Stanford system, a big body that isn't necessarily really talented or athletic, but has become fundamentally efficient. He uses that girth to set screens and block out very well, averaging 10.2 points and 5.6 rebounds a game in 26 minutes.

Nick Robinson, the 6-6 junior small forward, rounds out the starting lineup, even though it's just a matter of time until Childress re-takes that spot. Robinson, though, has performed admirably, his versatility allowing him to function in a number of different positions. He's strong enough to do some time at power forward, while he actually has some point guard feel for the game. He also brings some maturity and experience, being 24 years old, having taken his Mormon mission.

After those top six players, you might think that it'd be hard to get minutes for anyone else. But the Cardinal has four other players that average over 10 minutes a game, going ten – and actually 11 – deep. Stanford has a good, deep bench, made up of role players who know their role and do it well, and one young promising talent. The role players are 6-6 sophomore guard Dan Grunfeld, a good all-around contributor; 6-9, 250-pound enforcer Joe Kirchofer; Jason Haas, the 6-1 backup point; and tough, 6-5 freshman wing Fred Washington, who comes in to lend Stanford some athleticism. The real young promising talent is 6-10 sophomore center Matt Haryasz, who provides almost 17 minutes a game off the bench and 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. He's still fairly thin at 225 pounds, but he has the athleticism and skills to be one of the best centers in the conference in the next couple of years.

UCLA's inability to stay on the ball defensively really hurt itself against Arizona. Arizona's perimeter players continually beat UCLA off the dribble and then kicked out for threes. Stanford doesn't present that type of challenge. It gets open looks from the outside more the way UCLA tries to – in setting screens and swinging the ball on the perimeter. But Stanford does like to dump the ball down low to its two big guys. Then once the shot goes up, the Cardinal crashes the boards. UCLA will have to improve considerably in its blocking out if it hopes to win the battle of the boards. Stanford leads the conference in rebounding margin (9.4).

Offensively, UCLA can expect to see a zone for a good portion of the game. Montgomery will mix up his defenses, throw a man at you and different types of zones. But with the way UCLA has shown it struggles against a zone, the Bruins can expect to see one until it can prove it can beat it. Still without its best three-point shooter, Brian Morrison, it's not only key that the rest of the team shoot well from the outside but that UCLA gets the ball inside to keep Stanford's defenders from cheating too far outside on UCLA's shooters.

It definitely is an easier matchup for the Bruins, with UCLA's defense better able to stay with Stanford's guards and push through screens than it is to contain Arizona's athletes off the dribble. Expect UCLA's defense to look more like it did in its first 12 games rather than it's most recent one. Stanford, though, plays excellent defense itself, giving up only 60 points a game and 39% from the field, both the best in the conference. Both defenses will almost certainly keep the score low, and should keep the game relatively close.

Stanford, actually, is just a better and more experienced version of UCLA this year. Given that, and the fact that the game is in Palo Alto, is enough to give Stanford the edge. Now, if this were the last few years, you would pick UCLA to win this game. Coming off a blow-out loss and then facing a highly-ranked Stanford team in Palo Alto, the schizo UCLA teams of recent past would win. But UCLA doesn't have the horses to pull that off this year, and is getting about as much out of its players that it can right now.

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