It gives UCLA the chance to right itself after the loss to Stanford Thursday night. Cal is struggling, and right now probably the worst team in the conference. With a strong win, UCLA could get its confidence and swagger back.
On the other hand, it is all about expectation. Given Cal's struggles, UCLA is expected to beat Cal pretty soundly. And anything less than a sound victory would only fuel more of the recent doubt in the Bruins.
While Stanford is probably playing the best ball in the conference over the last couple of weeks, its Bay Area buddy, Cal, has probably played the worst. It got blown out by the lame-duck Trojans Thursday, 83-66. They got dominated by Stanford, in Berkeley. The Bears have lost four in a row and five of their last six (since beginning Pac-10 play). Not since beating Washington State in Pullman January 2nd have they played decently.
You would hope that today wouldn't be the day for them to alter than trend.
Cal, of course, is suffering from No-Leon-Powe Syndrome. The 2004 Freshman Pac-10 Player of the Year is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his knee.
Without him, the Bears are mostly a collection of role players, and fairly young ones at that, and a great deal of uncertainty. They were also setback by their point guard, 6-3 sophomore Ayinde Ubaka, missing 11 games when he broke a bone in his foot. The UCLA game will be his third game back, and he came off the bench in his first two, still getting in the swing of things. They moved him back into the starting lineup against USC, and he played fairly well. Ubaka is a big, strong point guard, with decent quickness and limited skills. As a freshman his shot was his weakness, but it's improved some since last season. The latest, though, is that Ubaka's status is unknown for the UCLA game since the most recent report out of Cal is that his foot might be better managed by not playing two consecutive games.
And then if that's not enough of a question mark, there are quite a few more. Head Coach Ben Braun has been juggling his lineup lately, benching players, and dealing with another injury, to his leading scorer.
Richard Midgley, the 6-2 junior shooting guard, has been hampered by a shoulder injury for a while. He's game-to-game because of it, having played against Stanford a week ago but sitting out the USC game Thursday. He's considered questionable for today. If he doesn't play, Cal has very little chance. Midgley is averaging 15 points a game, and is a very good long-range shooter, shooting 40% from three, who has kept Cal in games all season. It's suspected Braun kept him out of the USC game to rest him up for the UCLA game.
Their other two leading scorers were moved to the bench for the USC game, in an effort by Braun to shake up things. Rod Benson, the 6-10 junior forward, has averaged 13 points a game and has been a very consistent scorer around the basket. Benson didn't respond well, though, to coming off the bench against USC. Marquise Kately, the rugged, 6-5, 220-pound sophomore small forward, hadn't been playing well recently, but responded better coming off the bench. He's a physical, strong player whose skills still haven't come along to where you'd want them to be. He gets his 9.6 points per game mostly by garbage. He will, though, take the random three, which is what you want him to do, rather than beating up people in the paint.
The 6-8 sophomore, Dominic McGuire, has gone from being a starter, to coming off the bench, to being held out of USC's game for "failing to meet a team responsibility." He's expected to play today. He was, though, relegated to the bench because of lack of overall productivity. McGuire is an active, long athlete whose skills, again, are still relatively raw. He was a small forward out of high school but has since grown a couple of inches and is trying to make the transition to the baseline.
With so much uncertainty, the one guy who has stepped up a bit in the last couple of games has been 6-8, 260-pound junior center David Paris. Even though he's at 260 pounds, Paris has slimmed down, which has helped his quickness. His post game has come along well, now having a good scoring touch around the basket. He's so wide, when he gets the ball in the low block he's hard to stop. He's averaging 6.6 points on the season, but has been scoring in double figures recently.
With Ubaka gone, Cal has been starting walk-on junior point guard, 5-11 Martin Smith. Smith is truly a walk-on level player who, in the absence of Ubaka, at least didn't make many mistakes early on in the season. It's strange, but as the season has worn on, he seemingly has gained confidence and then has turned the ball over more often as a result. He's not overly quick, and isn't a real outside shooting threat. If Ubaka can't go, Smith will almost certainly start.
Against USC, the Bears started two freshmen, 6-7 wing Eric Vierneisel and 6-7 power forward Kevin Langford. You might remember them since UCLA showed some interest in them in high school, bringing in Langford on an official visit but not offering him a scholarship. Both have been solid additions for Cal, with Verneisel in particular providing some offensive spark for them. While he's not greatly quick, he does have good skills and a nice shooting touch. Langford isn't a great talent, but is steady and has given them solid minutes off the bench.
Another freshman, 6-10 Devon Hardin, might be another recruit UCLA fans remember. Hardin is a springy, 225-pound athlete with the body of an NBA player already. He's a good rebounder, using his hops and length, and is a good, quick-off-his-feet shot blocker.
Those ten players get the vast majority of Cal's minutes. It's just a question game-to-game as to who will start and get most of those minutes, and how many of those ten will be available on any given day.
Losing Powe, and with so much uncertainty on the team this year, the Bears really haven't gotten in an offensive rhythm. They're not well-disciplined and tend to break down and go one-on-one. They're at their best when they're getting the ball inside to Benson and Paris, and then kicking it out to Midgley. They also like to get out and run with the athletes they have, and to get Midgley an open look in transition. Because of their athletes, though, they have played decent defense. It's tough going inside against them with long-armed guys like Kately, McGuire, Benson, Hardin and Paris protecting the paint. So opponents have tended to shoot more from the outside against the Bears, which has kept opponents scores down and generally kept Cal in many games that maybe they shouldn't have been.
UCLA, in its front court, doesn't match up that well against Cal. UCLA's center Michael Fey tends to struggle against more athletic types. Depending on who Cal has available, they have some guys who match up well defensively against Thompson, and can throw steady fresh bodies at him in the form of Kately, McGuire, and Langford. McGuire might be the ideal guy to guard Thompson in the league – he's a former small forward who is taller, more athletic and quicker.
UCLA does have an advantage in the backcourt, especially if Midgely doesn't play or isn't 100%. Ubaka is pretty good defensively but still developing offensively. Jordan Farmar shouldn't have to expend too much energy on defense against him – that is, if he plays. Cal, overall, really is thin in terms of guards, being stocked with 6-6 to 6-10 forward types. And then they're playing a walk on guard 25 minutes per game. UCLA has a good edge in the backcourt, but if either Ubaka or Midgely doesn't play, the Bruins have an even bigger one.
UCLA and Cal should probably play even around the basket. They are both pretty decent rebounding teams, and have been getting a solid amount of scoring out of their frontcourt players recently. The key to the game is the play of UCLA's perimeter players. If UCLA's backcourt players have just a decent game shooting, that should give them the edge, since against Cal opponents tend to stop looking inside because of the Bear's good interior defense, while there are usually open looks on the perimeter.
If Midgley doesn't play, you can expect UCLA to win soundly. If he does, UCLA still should win this game, but Midgley will keep the score closer.
Perhaps the biggest curiosity about this game is to see how this UCLA team will respond after its worst performance of the year against Stanford on Thursday.