In recent years, it's been a familiar scenario. UCLA, not even ranked, playing #1-ranked Stanford, and knocking them off. The Bruins did it in 2000 and 2001. In 2001, Stanford was undefeated, 20-0, and UCLA beat them 79-73.
Can history repeat itself?
There are a few factors that would lead you to believe it's less likely this season. First, and the most obvious: UCLA does not have close to the personnel it did when it pulled off those upsets. In those two upsets, UCLA was vastly under-achieving at the time, and then, in the Stanford game, put it together. The Bruins had guys who are currently playing in the NBA on their roster – guys like Dan Gadzuric, Earl Watson, Jason Kapono, etal. There isn't nearly as much to put together with the current team. We saw them put it together and play well against an elite team last Saturday when they lost to Arizona, 107-83.
This year's Stanford team, also, could be better than those past Stanford teams. They themselves probably have more talent than those two #1 teams that UCLA upset. They also have more depth and more experience.
And also, if you're looking at semi-irrelevant trends, those upsets came at Stanford's Maples Center, not in Pauley Pavilion. For whatever reason, in recent years Stanford has dominated UCLA at Pauley. It has beaten UCLA six straight years in Los Angeles, which is the longest streak for an opponent to beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in UCLA's history.
But heck, let's throw all that out. Shall we?
There are some other factors that give UCLA a bit of a chance.
Stanford is still missing its starting power forward, Justin Davis, who is out with a partial tear of the MCL in his left knee. While Stanford has shown an uncanny ability to keep on winning when missing key personnel this year, the loss of Davis still hurts them. Sophomore center Matt Haryasz has been getting more playing time as a result, but Haryasz is still coming back from a sprained left ankle which forced him to miss two games earlier this month. While Haryasz is very talented, he isn't the physical banger that Davis is. Ryan Hollins or T.J. Cummings can match Haryasz's quickness better than they match Justin Davis' strength. They also still have bruiser Rob Little to contend with, though.
Stanford has gone through a stint in their schedule where it's taken a monumental effort to remain unbeaten. On February 7th, they beat Arizona on a 30-foot prayer by wing Nick Robinson at the buzzer. A week later they fought a tough battle against Bay Area rival, Cal. Then on Thursday, they had to fight back from a halftime deficit to beat USC. It took a career game from their wing Josh Childress to do it, with Childress scoring 36 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
Stanford has been expending quite a bit of energy in recent weeks to keep the unbeaten streak alive and sustain the #1-ranking. While Stanford is a very mentally tough team, it very well could set them up for a bit of a letdown against a UCLA team they might not be taking too seriously.
And UCLA is coming off arguably its best game of the season Thursday when it routed Cal, 66-49. In it, they showed better execution offensively than they have all season, but it's something that has been steadily improving. They showed a renewed dedication to defense and rebounding.
The Bruins match up quite a bit better against a slower-paced, steadier, less-athletic Stanford than they do against a bunch of erratic athletes like those at Arizona. Arizona's athletes are just ultimately too quick, especially in the backcourt, for UCLA to hang with them. UCLA has a much better chance to defend against the Cardinal, and if it can do so and possibly keep the game close, with their newfound ability to execute on offense, and if they catch the Cardinal on an off night, the Bruins could have a chance.
The #1 barometer of whether UCLA will be competitive in any game this season has been whether Cummings is playing well. If he's crashing the boards, playing defense and shooting the ball well, UCLA then has been able to match up talent-wise and stay competitive. UCLA goes as Cummings goes. So watch for Cumming's energy level early, and if his shooting touch is on.
Watch for an improved UCLA team to put out a respectable showing and stay within striking distance for most of the game, but the Cardinal's ability to execute and shoot free throws in the end wins it for them.