UCLA, to make the NCAA tournament, almost certainly needs at least one win against the Bay Area schools this weekend. Getting this first one tonight against Cal would be similar to getting the one last Thursday against Arizona State in what was also a must-at-least-split scenario.
The Bears are a curious team. At 12-10 and 5-7 in the conference normally you wouldn't think a team with such a record would be particularly tough.
But Cal beat UCLA in Pauley late last month handily, 64-51, with the Bruins never really even threatening in that game. They've also won at Washington State and Arizona State.
But there have been other games when they weren't in the game themselves. They were manhandled by USC, and last week, even after Stanford lost its leading scorer in Dan Grunfeld, the Bears couldn't mount any kind of threat against the Cardinal, losing 71-56.
For Cal, it truly is all about matchups. Teams that they've haven't matched up with well have beaten them pretty soundly. The teams, for whatever reason, they match up with fairly well they've played fairly tough.
They match up pretty well against UCLA, unfortunately.
They do mainly because Cal has superior post players compared to UCLA, and it was very evident in the last meeting between the two teams. David Paris, the 6-8 junior center, had a career day, scoring 20 points. Rodrick Benson, the 6-9 junior, contributed 14, and had 14 rebounds. They totaled 34 points and 19 rebounds. Comparatively, UCLA's big men, Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins, and Lorenzo Mata, had 14 and 9 between the three of them. The difference in outputs between the two – 20 points and 10 rebounds, would be an exceptional game for an individual post player in its own right.
Cal's post players generally had their way with UCLA in its first meeting. Paris looked like Ike Diogu against the Bruins. He was too quick for Fey to guard and too strong for Mata to guard. In that first game, though, Hollins played just one minute, and he's now getting most of the back-up five minutes. So, Hollins will have a shot at guarding Cal's posts – and his quickness might be able to offset Paris, and definitely help with the even quicker and more athletic Benson.
It could also help that UCLA will probably double the post, which they curiously didn't do in the first game. Cal is a good team in which to double-team their post, since they don't have great outside shooters to offset it.
Their best outside shooter, though, has returned to the lineup after missing the first game against UCLA, which is a frightening thought. Richard Midgely, the 6-2 shooting guard, sat out a few weeks with a shoulder injury, but he's now healthy, or relatively. Midgely is still averaging 14 points per game, but hasn't quite been the same since he returned, getting just three points against Stanford on an off shooting night, but it'd be smart to anticipate him having a better shooting night against the Bruins.
UCLA, recently, has been playing defense with relatively good intensity, and it's been independent of how well they're playing offensively. They'll need another good effort against Cal, who tends to wilt when opponents play tough, physical defense.
UCLA struggled last time out against Cal offensively, mostly in trying to beat Cal's zone. Since then, UCLA has seen a lot of zones, and has now developed a decent attack against them. They were doing so well against Arizona's zone in the first half last Saturday that Arizona only stayed in its 1-3-1 for a total of three minutes in the second half.
UCLA's leading scorer, Dijon Thompson, is the barometer offensively for the Bruins. How well he does will usuallly determine how well UCLA's offense will do. He has struggled mostly against individual defenders who are bigger than he is and just as quick, including Cal's Dominic McGuire, who was mostly responsible for guarding him in the last meeting. Thompson was held to just 6 points.
You have to give Cal a few points for being at home, traditionally a place where UCLA doesn't play well. But there isn't a new zone that Cal can spring on the Bruins this time, and UCLA has been preparing to defend Cal's post players, relishing a rematch with them after they were embarrassed by them the first time around.
In other words, like with just about any game this year, the one's a toss-up. If UCLA can bring a good effort defensively, double the post and make Cal beat you through its outside shooting, and then get Thompson or Jordan Farmar off early offensively, the Bruins have a good chance to win.