Another game, another most-important-game-of-the season claim from Head Coach Ben Howland.
But again, he could be right.
When UCLA goes to Palo Alto today to take on Stanford it will decide who has an edge for third place in the Pac-10 standings, an edge which could be significant in deciding if a team makes it to the NCAA tournament. The Pac-10 will clearly get in Arizona and Washington, but it could very well only get a third team into the NCAA.
UCLA is 14-8 overall, and 8-6 in the Pac-10, while Stanford is 14-9 and 8-5. If UCLA beats Stanford it goes to 9-6 while Stanford falls to 8-6. In the battle for third in the Pac-10, that would give UCLA a ½ game edge over Stanford, and put them well ahead of Arizona State, who is 7-8 and UCLA has beaten twice.
Since Stanford beat UCLA a month ago at Pauley, 75-64, it's essential for UCLA to beat Stanford outright for third place. If it came down to a tiebreaker, the Pac-10 tie-breaker rules favor Stanford. They dictate that if two teams up tied in the conference, you then refer to the head-to-head record, which would be a wash with a split. But then the rules refer to how the teams did against the #1 team in the conference, which looks like it could end up being Arizona, a team Stanford beat once this season. So if UCLA and Stanford tie in the conference standings, more than likely Stanford would finish third, which makes finishing ahead of them in the standings essential.
It would also give the Bruins a road sweep in the Bay Area, giving them a huge boost in terms of another big road win, and momentum heading into the last four games of the regular season.
Standing in the way of all this is a stubborn Stanford team that refuses to give up. This season they epitomize that old fable about the baseball pitcher who first lost an arm and kept pitching, and then lost his sight, and then lost a leg, but perservered, and so on and so on. Stanford has lost some key personnel this season, and it looked like they'd be knocked out, but they perservered and stayed alive.
First they lost their leader, junior point guard Chris Hernandez, early in the season for a few games, and that really threw the Cardinal off track. To start out the Pac-10 season, they lost three games in a row, and looked like they were going to take a powder in Trent Johnson's first year as head coach. But Hernandez returned to form. Stanford then lost its sixth man off the bench, Tim Morris, to academics. Two players who looked to serve as potential back-ups, Mark Bradford and Evan Moore, opted to play just football.
Then came the big blow last week when the lost their leading scorer, 6-5 wing Dan Grunfeld, when he tore the ACL in his knee last Saturday in a win against Cal, and is out for the season. Grunfeld was averaging 18 points a game and torched UCLA for 25 in the first meeting between the two teams.
As a result of Grunfeld being out, only eight players actually saw the court Thursday against USC, and two of the three reserves played for just 8 and 3 minutes. Stanford had four players put in more than 35 minutes in that game.
Luckily for Stanford, 6-4 sophomore wing Fred Washington shockingly stepped up and scored 22 points against USC. Previously he had been averaging 2.3 points per game. He also had seven rebounds and four assists. Washington, a well-built, very good athlete, attacked the basket against USC's generally slack defense, and scored all of his points in the paint, recording five dunks and attempting only one jumper all night. It was a breakout performance for Washington, who is an L.A. kid, from Torrance Bishop Montgomery High School.
It would be just as shocking if today Washington had a comparable performance. UCLA's defense looks to be a bit tougher on Washington that was USC's. UCLA's best perimeter defender, Arron Afflalo will be assigned to Washington, and it would indeed be shocking if Washington had open lanes to the basket as he did against the Trojans. If you can take away Washington's ability to drive, you have a pretty good shot at shutting him down since he is a poor shooter and isn't a threat from outside, attempting only two threes all season and missing both of them.
The real offensive threats that UCLA will have to stop are Hernandez and 6-10 forward, Matt Haryasz. Haryasz could be the league's most improved player, having really come on in the second half of the season. He has strung together eight double-digit scoring games in a row, and got double-doubles in six of them, averaging 16 points and almost 11 rebounds per game in that stretch. He really stepped up himself without Grunfeld, getting his season-high 23 points against USC. He's now far more confident in his shot, nailing his jumper from 17-feet and in consistently, while playing aggressively around the basket. We had always thought that Haryasz is a potential pro and he's shown that potential this season.
Hernandez's offense, without Grunfeld, is now key for Stanford's attack. He becomes the Cardinal's lone outside shooting threat, averaging 14 points per game while shooting 43% from three. He's deadly behind the three-point line, but, as USC discovered, it's easier to guard Hernandez without having to be concerned about Grunfeld. Hernandez had his worst offensive outing of the season against USC, scoring just 4 points on 2-of-11 shooting, missing all four of his three-point attempts.
Without Grunfeld, it becomes quite a bit easier to defend Stanford. UCLA very well could employ its theory of doubling the post as it did against Cal, to thwart Haryasz and Stanford's other bruising low-post scorer, 6-10 senior center Rob Little, who hurt the Bruins in their first meeting. UCLA can now afford to double the post since it only really has to monitor Hernandez on the perimeter. Nick Robinson, the 6-6 wing, isn't a shooter, and 6-1 guard Jason Haas hasn't proven to be this season either.
IF UCLA plays the type of defense it did Thursday against Cal, using this same defensive approach, it definitely has a good chance of shutting down Stanford offensively. The Bruin defense was stifling, now allowing Cal's big men to get a good look as a result of the doubling, while challenging Cal's outside shooters all night. Also, UCLA stayed with Cal's slasher athletes, ones similar to Washington, very well.
Offensively, UCLA will have to continue to apply the same strategy that has been relatively successful lately – getting Dijon Thompson enough looks, especially early, while Jordan Farmar has to be aggressive in looking for his shot and the Bruins have to feed Michael Fey in the post. With so few players now on the Stanford roster, Haryasz especially can't afford to get in foul trouble, so it's key that UCLA get Thompson the ball and see if he can draw some fouls on Haryasz. Haryasz defended Thompson well in their first matchup, his length not allowing Thompson to get good looks at the basket. Thompson will have to get more than the 6 points he did in their first meeting for UCLA to win. And in terms of getting Stanford in foul trouble, Farmar needs to challenge Hernandez to have to guard him early. If UCLA can get Hernandez in foul trouble the Cardinal has absolutely no one to put on the floor on the perimeter besides Haas.
It's a testament to Stanford's toughness that they've stayed competitive this season. A good example of that fortitude is how they've played since losing Grunfeld. When he went down against Cal, the Cardinal extended their lead in that game, and Thursday they beat USC without him. It would be essentially the equivalent of UCLA winning without Dijon Thompson. It will probably be a different story today for Stanford – possibly the day that their no-Grunfeld luck runs out. And hopefully that's the case for UCLA. The Bruins are a better team than either Cal or USC, and they're playing probably their best ball of the season.