Cal Preview

In a nutshell: The winner of UCLA/Cal tonight stays alive in the Pac-10; the loser probably comes in no better than fourth. Cal is 15-1 at home this year...

UCLA (17-8, 9-5) takes on Cal (18-6, 9-5) at Haas Pavilion Thursday night at 7:30. The game was previously not going to be televised, but Fox, under pressure, decided late Wednesday to televised the game on Fox Sports West 2 at 7:00 p.m.

The Cal Bears are 32-4 in their last 36 games at Haas, 15-1 this year. They are also 17-1 this season when leading at the half. So, one might say that the key to beating the Bears is to play them on the road and take the lead by halftime…

On a more serious note, Cal beats people by playing the best team defense in the league (usually a strict man, with some fullcourt pressure man d, but the Bears will lapse into a zone now and then). On offense, Cal will use a midwestern motion, but the Bears have not shot the ball well this season on a consistent basis.

In the matchup at Pauley earlier this season, UCLA won 64-57. Cal hit 37% of its shots overall and 20% of its 3s (5-25). UCLA hit 51.1% of its FGs in a slow, grinding game which saw the Bruins limit the use of their bench and the Bears take way too many 3s for a team that doesn't shoot well even at its best moments.

I expect Cal to go inside more, rather than settle for as many 3s, but I also predict Cal will hit more of its 3s. I believe UCLA will counter by showing a new defensive look to the Bears as well as using more players this time around. But more on that later.

In the backcourt, Cal has ShanTay Legans, 5-10 175 JR PG (7.5 ppg, 3.9 apg), Dennis Gates, 6-3 195 SR SG (6.1 ppg, 2.9 apg), and AJ Diggs, 5-10 160 SO PG (3.0 ppg, 1.5 apg). All 3 guards do a good job of taking care of the ball (Cal has the best TO margin in the Pac-10), as well has hawking the other team's PG. Although both ShanTay and Dennis are good foul shooters, none of Cal's guards has been consistent from behind the arc this season. ShanTay and Dennis can get streaky. Cal's guards rarely penetrate into the key, but might try against the Bruins this time around to open passing lanes to the big men. ShanTay usually starts, but Cal might use all 3 guards at the same time later in the game.

Joe Shipp, 6-5 220 JR SF (14.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Brian Wethers, 6-5 210 JR SG/SF (9.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg), and Ryan Forehan-Kelly, 6-5 195 SR SF (7.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg) man the wings for the Bears, with Joe and Brian usually starting. Joe is by far the team's best shooter and scorer. Brian is a powerful slasher and very good defender who will likely guard Jason Kapono. Ryan is an excellent outside shooter and another good defender. Joe and Brian were happy to settle for 3s in LA, but I suspect both players will try to take UCLA along the baseline up north. If UCLA's defense collapses, then Cal will start kicking it out to Joe and Ryan for spot-up 3s.

In the post, Cal uses Solomon Hughes, 6-11 225 SR C (8.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Jamal Sampson, 6-11 235 FR C/PF (7.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg), and Amit Tamir, 6-10 250 FR PF (11.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg). Solomon and Jamal have blocked 67 shots together this season, but are much stronger on help d than they are stopping a tough big man inside. All 3 players are mobile and athletic. Solomon and Jamal tend to score inside of 5 feet, Tamir from 10 feet out (but he can post up as well and is the best ballhandler of the bunch). Tamir, from Israel, was scoreless against UCLA at Pauley, but recently torched Oregon for 39 points. He leads Cal in 3-point shooting at 38.8%. Solomon and Jamal start and Tamir comes off the bench.

I have no doubt that Cal would like to get the ball into Jamal, Solomon and even Tamir as much as possible against the Bruins. In addition, we will likely see Joe and Brian isolating Jason and Billy on the wings and trying to drive by them on the baseline, as Stanford, USC and ASU have done so successfully at times. Ben Braun no doubt wants to see a more vigorous inside-out game, so that when UCLA is slow on its defensive rotation Tamir, Joe and Ryan (and Dennis and ShanTay) can get high percentage spot-up 3s after the initial attack inside.

As a counter, I expect UCLA to show Cal some classic 2-3 zone, in addition to its 1-2-2 matchup and "man with zone principles." A 2-3 zone will keep Dan Gadzuric down low for the entire game, rather than requiring him to move up top to switch off on guards and wings who come off picks. With Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono stationed closer to the baseline, the formation might enable UCLA to control the baseline a little more effectively. I suspect UCLA has been working on a 2-3 zone this week more for Stanford than for Cal, but the Bruins might find it come in handy against the Bears.

With these switching defenses, including a more classic zone, UCLA's guards/wings will have to be more active than lethargic, so I assume that Lavin will give Ryan Walcott, Rico Hines and Dijon Thompson a fair amount of PT, as opposed to the first go-round between these two teams at Pauley. Ryan, in particular, could give UCLA a boost against the quick Cal PGs, and we might finally see Ryan and Ced playing in the same backcourt together.

On offense, the Bruins will continue to try and get the ball into Dan as much as possible. Both Solomon and Jamal are foul-prone and even more emotionally high-strung than Dan, who appears to be going into high gear as the season rushes to a close (well, as the first season rushes towards a close; we have 3 seasons this year). Other than that, you can expect Lavin to ask his team to just execute the dang offense, whether it be the 1-4 and "41" (motion) against a man d, or the zone offense against a zone d.

Whether his team is listening to him might be the vital question. The Bruins have amply demonstrated that when they run their offense(s), take good shots and don't turn the ball over, they can play with anyone (and beat anyone). They've also demonstrated to everyone's (dis)satisfaction that when they don't run their offense(s), take bad shots and turn the ball over, anyone can play with them (and beat them).

At home, Cal is more than just anyone. They're 15-1, they've beaten Oregon and Stanford, and they've shot over 50% from the floor 7 times at Haas.

Prediction: Cal 78, UCLA 66.

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