Of course, every game is crucial when you're trying to win the Pac-10 and get a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. A win over Stanford is just a win, no more and no less than win over, say, Washington State…
But, as all Bruin fans know, it's much sweeter to beat Mike Montgomery than it is to beat Paul Graham…
Besides, if UCLA and USC can sweep the No Cal schools this week, that will put the local schools at 7-2 and 8-1, respectively, to complete the first half of conference play, while Stanford and Cal will both drop to 4-4. Since Oregon and Arizona still have to make the LA and Berkeley/Palo Alto circuit in the second half of conference play, that would put UCLA and USC in a commanding position to win the Pac-10.
Stanford lost 4 starters from last year's Pac-10 champion and Elite 8 squad. The loss in talent and experience has shown itself mainly in a less diverse, efficient and consistent offense. The Cardinal have been unable to replace the outside shooting of Mike McDonald and Ryan Mendez, nor do they have the ability to free up the J shooters or do major damage inside with the loss of the very skilled and wide-bodied Collins twins. However, they still have 2 legitimate All-American candidates, and that means the Cardinal can play with anyone in the country.
Stanford basically utilizes a high-low post offense, but they also employ flex, 1-4 and motion sets... but with few variations. I think the Cardinal has about 10 plays total, and it's usually enough. Defenders have to step out on Borchardt, because he can nail the outside J with ease, but he's got great hands and can roll to the basket in the blink of an eye. His presence stretches opposing defenses very thin, opening up driving lanes for the guards and forwards, who do damage going one on one in isolation of screens or coming off those screens to catch and shoot. With Borchardt screening high and low and another post player screening low, you will see the Stanford guards and wings running through the lane or setting screens themselves and popping off them to get open Js off ball reversals and skip passes. The Cardinal run 80% of their set plays through the lane.
Stanford also loves to run: Off rebounds, mostly. Apart from Borchardt and Casey Jacobsen, Stanford lacks consistent scoring power, so Montgomery makes up for it by forcing breaks, much like the Bruins did under Lavin in his first year. You don't have to be a great shooter or one on one player to make a layup. Any team that wants to beat the Cardinal has to limit their break opportunities. Unless you're Oregon, in which case you don't care. Stanford is the best rebounding club in the Pac-10 by far, with a rebounding margin of over 10 per game, and they generate a lot of offense through their breaks off rebounds and from offensive boards.
Defensively, Stanford hasn't seemed to miss a beat from last year, despite Montgomery's well-publicized protests to the contrary. The Cardinal is one of the top 3 defensive teams in the Pac-10, along with USC and Cal. I almost had a heart attack when I saw Stanford play a zone for about a minute against Oregon; the Cardinal is wedded to man d. They're second in the Pac-10 in FG% defense (39.5%). With Borchardt anchoring the paint, the Stanford players just get in the jerseys of their opponents and usually hold on when the refs aren't looking. Montgomery has a lot of depth this season, and he runs players in and out and will give up a lot of fouls to keep the opponent from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm. The Cardinal is a deep, physical team, the players get great defensive rotation from Borchardt and few teams have gotten their offenses flowing against them this season.
The aforementioned Casey Jacobsen, 6-6 215 JR SG/SF, and Curtis Borchardt, 7-0 240 JR C, lead the way for Stanford. Casey, from Glendora High, is everybody's All-American, and he's playing like it despite being the focus of opposing defenses. He's averaging 19.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.4 apg (tops on the team), while hitting 72.2% of his FTs and 40.7% of his 3s. He's got NBA range on his 3 and an excellent first step, which makes him a dangerous one on one player. The Cardinal likes to set a screen on a wing and let Casey operate. He will often draw a foul, or a double-team, or just score. His shooting seems off this year.
Curtis, from Eastlake High in Redmond, WA, is the best C in the Pac-10 and perhaps the best true C in the country. He's posting 16.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 2.5 bpg while making 61% of his FGs, 70% of his FTs (very good for a 7-footer) and 58.3% of his 3s (not a typo!). He might be closer to 7-2 than his listed 7-0, as he seems to tower over all of his opponents. He has a great touch from 3, excellent post-up skills and long arms. He can look like a rebounding machine at times and has had his share of 20/15 games this season. Cardinal fans have to be prepared for the likelihood that both Curtis and Casey will turn pro after this year, as they are both probable NBA Draft Lottery picks.
After the 2 big "Cs," Stanford has been searching for consistency. Julius Barnes, 6-1 180 JR PG/SG, from Rowland High, is the team's most talented supporting player. He's getting 10.5 ppg and 2.9 apg this season while hitting 30.9% of his 3s and 80.6% of his FTs. Julius is a very quick, athletic combo guard who can really get out and finish off the break. When I say "break," I don't mean a simple drive and layup. Stanford seems to have a secondary break and tertiary break option as well, which is what makes them so tough to stop. Julius can be number two or Curtis will be, and if Curtis gets the ball and doesn't have the shot, he'll kick it out to Julius, who loves to trail on the play. His outside shooting is streaky past 17 feet, but inside the arc he can get red-hot and nail 5 shots in a row. Julius will still sometimes take bad shots or turn the ball over, but he's improved his decision-making every season.
Tony Giovacchini, 6-2 180 SR PG (3.6 ppg, 2.8 apg, 35.3% from 3), is the team's starting PG. He will hit the 3 if you forget about him, and he takes good care of the ball, but he's not an exceptionally creative player or a good penetrator, and teams will often leave him open, figuring he's not going to beat them. Justin Davis, 6-8 230 SO PF (6.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), of Alameda St. Joseph-Notre Dame, is the team's starting PF. He's an athletic banger with limited offensive skills. He can dunk it and has developed a solid J out to 10 feet, and he runs the floor like a wing, but he's turnover-prone and foul-prone. Montgomery sometimes tears his hair out when Justin misses a screen assignment or gives up too easily on a defender who beats him off the dribble after drawing him away from the basket.
Off the bench, Josh Childress, 6-8 190 FR SG/SF, from Lakewood Mayfair High, continues to fluctuate between excellence and a freshman's lack of focus. A long, lithe player with a tremendous baseline game and a smooth J out to 3, Josh has been criticized by his coach for not playing strong d and he seems to disappear in some games, though that could just be a matter of not getting consistent PT. He's averaging 9.3 ppg and 4.9 rpg and hitting 81% of his FTs and 36.6% of his 3s, so he's doing something right. Josh will be the star of this team after Casey and Curtis are gone.
Rob Little, 6-10 265 FR C (3.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg), Teyo Johnson, 6-7 240 SO SF/PF (3.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg), and Joe Kirchofer, 6-9 240 SO PF (2.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg) give the Cardinal plenty off beef off the bench. Rob is an active wide-bodied young man with soft hands, a nice touch around the basket and surprising mobility. Teyo, a star FB player, can hit the J or take people inside. He's still getting his bb skills back. Joe is a banger with good skills who just lacks the athleticism and speed to make a bigger impact at this level of ball. These guys all contribute rebounds, fouls and the occasional score underneath, but none of them will come in and get you 10/5 if Curtis gets in foul trouble. But Teyo might break out in another week or two…
In the backcourt, Matt Lottich, 6-4 190 SO SG (3.6 ppg) has a reputation as a shooter, but so far he's only hit 29.4% of his 3s. He has nice size for a guard and it only seems to be a matter of time and experience before he starts to give the Cardinal another scoring threat off the bench. Chris Hernandez, 6-2 185 FR PG, out of Clovis West High, gives the team a very good backup point. His value isn't reflected by his stats (2.9 ppg, 1.3 apg). Chris has an A/TO ratio of 1.4/1, which is quite good for a FR PG. His PT has increased in conference play and he's played more minutes than Tony in at least one game this season. He's a very good defender and a much more creative player than the SR.
Hence, the Cardinal. They've lost 4 times this season, to Texas, BYU, Oregon and Cal. All of the losses were on the road, with the BYU game on a "neutral" site in Las Vegas, where I would guess most of the fans were BYU fans. The Cal game was a defensive struggle, with Cal controlling the boards and shutting Stanford down offensively. When you know the other team only has 10 plays, it isn't that hard to defend them if you have the depth and talent. The other 3 games, the opponent also outrebounded the Cardinal. All 3 of those games have eerily similar scores: 83-75, 81-76, and 87-79. My take is, Stanford just can't score as efficiently as they did last year. In the Pac-10, they're 4th in FG%, 6th in 3-point FG% and 6th in FT%. Last year, Stanford was 1st in all 3 categories. When they don't dominate the glass and they face an opponent who can match them shot for shot and score in the face of their tough man d, Stanford doesn't have the firepower to keep up. In all 4 losses, Casey and Curtis did their jobs, but no one else stepped up. The Cardinal haven't beaten a ranked team all season.
UCLA's first and most important assignment is to beat the Cardinal on the glass. That means Dan Gadzuric has to stay out of foul trouble, Matt Barnes has to stay inside on d, and the wings have to pitch in as well. With Justin Davis and company on the floor, Matt probably will stay inside a lot on defense. That means Jason will have to play high a lot, probably on Giovacchini, while Billy shadows Casey and Ced gets Julius in the matchup zone.
The second key will be for UCLA to get back on defense after a missed shot. You have to limit Stanford's ability to get easy baskets in transition and force them to actually run a halfcourt offense as much as possible. If you take away their breaks, the Cardinal has a hard time making even 40% of its shots.
The third key will be for the Bruins to run their 1-4 with patience. They are facing a straight up man. Yes, Borchardt carries a nasty message with him for anyone who gets inside the perimeter defense, but he'll get exhausted and into foul trouble if Matt, Billy and Ced take it to the rack off isolations and Dan is in there to dunk the offensive rebounds or get a handoff if Curtis switches. USC and Arizona beat UCLA in part because they have the quickness to apply extended pressure defense. Stanford lacks that ability. The 1-4 Bruins ought to be able to get a lot of high percentage shots and draw a lot of fouls against a halfcourt man d, even an excellent halfcourt man d. They are taller than the Cardinal at 4 positions, and quicker at 3 positions, 4 when Julius goes to the bench. How many chances like this are we going to get?
The fourth key will be disrupting some of those 10 plays that the Cardinal run. This will likely mean that UCLA will try and put more pressure on the ball than they usually do in their 1-2-2. We will probably see UCLA playing a "man with zone principles." This means that wherever Casey is, UCLA will be in a man. Wherever Curtis is, UCLA will be in a zone. When someone sets a pick up top or on the wing for Casey, whoever has the man setting the pick will switch and try and prevent Casey from penetrating. If Josh or Julius or Casey sets a screen in the lane and then pops out, you'll see another switch. The player in the lane will front the post, like in a zone. If UCLA had more quickness, they could hurt these guys. But they don't, so they won't. Not too much. But at least a little. 10 plays are 10 plays…
Note: We are still waiting word on the health status of Rico Hines (concussion), Dijon Thompson (sprained foot) and Dan Gadzuric (stomach flu). At this point, we expect all of them to play.
Until I see it, I don't get how a man d without extended pressure stops a 1-4 offense loaded with great scorers. And 10 plays are 10 plays…UCLA 84, Stanford 75.