With each game remaining on UCLA's schedule, they could literally win or lose all of them, easily.
The game tonight against Stanford is exactly that. It could easily go either way.
It is, though, a huge game for UCLA. In the aftermath of the big Arizona loss Saturday, and how big that game was built up to be, it has kind of diminished the importance of this Stanford game a bit, and unjustifiably.
If UCLA beats Stanford tonight, it would then be favored to also beat an under-manned Cal team on Saturday, and then USC at Pauley next Thursday, and it would give them a 7-2 record for the first half of the Pac-10. That was with playing what is arguably four of the toughest six conference games for UCLA. While, from a ratings standpoint, we had said that beating Arizona Saturday was critical toward UCLA getting an NCAA bid, beating Stanford tonight, from a win/loss record and Pac-10 finish standpoint, will also go a long way for the Bruins in terms of the NCAA.
So that all sounds well and good, but the problem is – Stanford right now perhaps is the toughest opponent for UCLA in the Pac-10.
The Cardinal is 8-7 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-10, but they have righted their ship considerably from the first half of the season. They started out slowly, adapting to losing some of their biggest contributors from last season, including the best player in the conference, Josh Childress. And then their leader and best player, junior point guard Chris Hernandez, was hindered with an injury. But since starting out 0-3 in conference, they've now won two very impressive games with Hernandez back at full strength, dominating Cal in Berkeley last Saturday and beating Arizona in Palo Alto the Saturday before that.
In the last week you could easily make the case that Stanford has been playing the best ball in the conference.
It is predominantly dependent on Hernandez. He is an exceptional player, with great decision-making and leadership to go along with very good skills. As UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland pointed out in his weekly press conference, the 6-1 Hernandez bench presses over 300 pounds, which presents a bit of a matchup problem for UCLA's freshman – and far physically weaker – point guard, Jordan Farmar. Farmar, though, to his credit, has risen to every challenge in terms of opposing point guards so far this year. Hernandez is second on the team in scoring, averaging 14 points a game. He's a great, heady passer, and with him in the game, Stanford will push the ball to try to get some easy points off transition baskets.
After Hernandez, Stanford has been carried by 6-5 junior wing Dan Grunfeld, who is third in the league in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game. Grunfield has improved 14.7 points per game from last season, which is the biggest improvement by any player in the nation. He is deceptive, since he does look like someone who could do your taxes rather than take you off the dribble, and he's become a real scorer, not just able to knock down the outside shot but also take it to the hoop. He plays hard, often times getting rebounds you think he seemingly shouldn't, averaging 5.7 per game.
Another huge key to the improved Stanford we've seen in the last two games has been the improved play of senior, 6-10, 260-pound mountain Rob Little. Little has had consecutive double-doubles in his last two games, and in three of his last four outings. His emergence has really been critical to Stanford, with his renewed ability to rebound, in particular. Stanford has been hurt on the boards for a majority of the season, particularly on offensive rebounding, and Little averaging 11 rebounds and four offensive rebounds in three of the last four games has been instrumental. He's also getting a better offensive feel, converting pretty consistently when he catches the ball in the post.
Presenting a matchup problem is Stanford's other baseline starter, 6-11, 230-pound junior "forward" Matt Haryasz. Dijon Thompson, UCLA's 6-7, 205-pound power forward will have the assignment of guarding Haryasz, who isn't necessarily a banger but has some considerable size on Thompson he can exploit. At times this season Haryasz has looked like the potential NBA player many believe him to be, but other times he's been soft and unfocused. He is skilled, has good scoring skills around the basket and uses his length well to rebound (averaging 7.7 per game). After the Hernandez/Farmar matchup, the Haryasz/Thompson pairing is easily the most interesting.
Rounding out the Stanford starting five is the "old man," 25-year-old small forward Nick Robinson. The 6-6 Robinson isn't very skilled offensively. In fact, he very rarely can hit a shot beyond a lay-up, but he's a scrapper and is a very good defender. He could very well get the assignment of defending Thompson for a big portion of the game, since Haryasz could be hard-pressed to stay with Thompson defensively.
Stanford has taken some considerable hits to its depth this season. The guy getting the most minutes off the bench was Tim Morris, the 6-4 freshman wing, who was playing fairly well, having some good athleticism and a good outside jumper. But Morris now academically ineligible. The fool took what Chris Hernandez described as the toughest class he's taken at Stanford, some biology class, and Morris didn't pass. Doesn't he know he's an athlete and he should be taking a Tchaikovsky Appreciation class? These Stanford guys are so dumb.
Then, on top of losing Morris, Stanford also lost Mark Braford, a guard, and Evan Moore, a 6-7 inside player. Both were two-sport athletes who then chose to be just one-sport athletes during this basketball season and just play football.
That has definitely meant increased minutes for 6-2 junior guard, Jason Haas. He went from averaging about 10 minutes a game to 27 in Stanford's last three games. Haas will commonly come in at the point guard position and the Cardinal will then move Hernandez to the off-guard spot (which has made Hernandez average 37.5 minutes per game in his last four games).
So you would have expected 6-4 sophomore wing Fred Washington to see increased time also, but he hasn't. In fact, he looks like he's been in the doghouse the last two games, and you would expect him, since Stanford has played well the last two games, to stay there. Washington is a good athlete and defender but a liability on offense.
In the front court, Stanford has had to rely on two freshmen, 6-10 Peter Prowitt, and 6-8 Taj Finger. Neither has made a big impact, while Prowitt is the bigger body and better able to defend big, opposing posts.
New Head Coach Trent Johnson has certainly had a time of it in his first season. It's utterly silly that anyone would be questioning the hire. Former head coach Mike Montgomery knew he was losing some considerable talent, for one. And Stanford, probably along with UCLA and Washington State, is still among the best disciplined teams in the conference.
In fact, that's what could present UCLA with its biggest challenge. The Bruins have generally done better against looser, less-disciplined teams this season, like Oregon, Arizona and Washington. They have tended to lose focus defensively when playing against a patient, disciplined offensive team, which Stanford is.
Stanford, though, usually known as a tough, physical team that dominates the boards, hasn't been one this year predominantly. They haven't rebounded really well, and if Little is taking the day off on the boards, which he has this year on occasion, it really has hurt them. Without much shooting coming off the bench, the Cardinal also haven't been great at shooting threes this season, last in the conference in three-point shooting percentage, while only averaging 3.8 threes made per game. While UCLA also hasn't defended a well-disciplined offensive team well, neither has Stanford, most likely due to their limited bench, particularly when it comes to perimeter depth.
Stanford, though, as we said, has played the best ball in the conference in its last two games. If Hernandez is Hernandez, and Little gets his double-double, they're as good as anyone in the conference on any given night. For UCLA, as it has been since Thompson was moved to the four, exploiting his matchup advantage because of Stanford's lack of depth will probably be a key factor in the game. With such a short bench, Haryasz very simply will have to guard Thompson, which he can't do. All eyes will also be on the point guard matchup, though: Will Jordan Farmar -- who has gotten knocked a bit for his stamina after the Arizona game this week – be able to stay physically with Hernandez?
Stanford has beaten UCLA seven straight times in Pauley Pavilion, which is something anyone who lived during the John Wooden era chokes on when they hear. Whether UCLA can stop the streak here, in 2005, as we said, is a toss up...