Stanford's engine is driven by senior PG Chris Hernandez (#11 6'2" 190 lb. 11.5 PPG), who put his name in the 2005 NBA draft but decided, quite properly, to return to Palo Alto for his final season. Hernandez is not having a good senior season. He is shooting only 39% from the floor and seems to be forcing things offensively. Watching the Virginia tech game, Hernandez tried to carry the team on his long range shooting as Tech surged into the lead, but many of his shots and several passes were off target. He is shooting 42% from 3, but with his shooting being poor overall, that makes it easier to defend him around the arc. The guess is that UCLA will match up sophomore Arron Afflalo against Hernandez. Afflalo will be able to body up Hernandez more than Jordan Farmar, and with Hernandez's shot being off, Afflalo will be able to either play off him a bit or get right in his grill and force him to put the ball on the floor, whichever Coach Howland wants him to do.
Dan Grunfeld (#20 6'6" 220 lb. SR 14.8 PPG), will start at one wing spot. Grunfeld was an offensive revelation last season before he blew out his knee against Cal. Since the start of this season, Grunfeld's shot has simply not returned with the rest of him from injury. His shooting average is only 38%, and considering he's taken more shots than anyone has on the team, that doesn't bode well for the Stanford offense. His 3-point shooting is even worse, at 28%. Grunfeld was never very athletic to begin with and anyone who has seen the Cardinal this year knows he is even less so. He is slow on offense and a defensive liability. He is playing with little confidence and little lift in his legs. That is why the guess is that Cedric Bozeman will begin the game on him. Bozeman is much more athletic and quicker than Grunfeld and Grunfeld's lack of explosiveness and leg strength probably won't be able to match up with Bozeman. Grunfeld is the second leading rebounder on the team, but the question is whether or not that is a product of someone having to be the second rebounder on the team, if you know that I mean…
Tim Morris (#10 6'4" 215 lb. SOPH 6.1 PPG), should start at the other wing spot. Morris is a nice complimentary player but can't carry a team. Moreover, he's really a year behind as a player because of his academic suspension last year. He, too, is a spotty shooter, averaging only 39% from the floor and only 25% from behind the arc. He also isn't the best rebounder, averaging only 2.8 per game. He is slow and won't look to drive, so more than likely Jordan Farmar will be assigned to him defensively, at least at the start. Farmar's advantage in quickness should be able to overcome any strength advantages that Morris may have. That and Farmar has vastly more experience in playing in games of this magnitude (and it is a big game).
Taj Finger (#31 6'8" 190 lb. SOPH 5.6 PPG), will start at the ‘four. This is actually a very good match up for the Bruins. Finger does shoot over 50% from the floor, but has taken only one 3 all year, so Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who will undoubtedly be on Finger defensively, can spend more time helping on Stanford's post, Matt Haryasz. Luc is much more athletic than Finger and has the edge in court sense over Finger. Finger is relatively light for his size so strength won't be an issue for Luc. Finally, Luc has very long arms; they are the arms of someone 2-3 inches taller, while Finger arms that belie his size and plays shorter than Luc does.
Finally, we get to the overwhelming match-up nightmare for the Bruins, Matt Haryasz (#52 6'11" 230 lb. SR. 18.1 PPG 10.1 RPG). This young man has developed into a terrific player. Nevertheless, he does have an Achilles Heel. His shooting percentage is only 49% from the floor. You'd think that someone who shoots from as close in as he does would have a decidedly higher percentage. However, he is a load and the Bruins will have to double team him early and often off entry passes. He is a very good passer, so don't expect to see the same problems that Michigan's Courtney Sims had against UCLA. Bottom line is the Bruins will have to win the game in other areas because this is a huge advantage for the Cardinal. Lorenzo Mata, Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya, Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins will have to provide good tag-team defense to keep Haryasz in check. The Stanford bench is fairly pedestrian. 6'10" sophomore Peter Prowitt, 6'2" senior guard Jason Haas and 6'1" frosh Mitch Johnson get most of the bench minutes. Prowitt is a big man, (250 lb.), but has only taken eight shots all year. Haas is a senior, but he is shooting around 31% for the year. Johnson gets the most minutes, but his shooting has been downright putrid, shooting less than 29% from the floor. All three average less than 2.5 PPG. One player missing is 6'5" junior wing Fred Washington, who has tendonitis in his knees and has sat out the past two Cardinal games, and his availability for Thursday night is questionable. As it is, he has only played in six games, started only two and he has only averaged about 16 MPG. This from a man that the Cardinal were counting on heavily this season.
With all the superior individual match-ups that the Bruins have, you'd think they'd win in a cakewalk. However, there are two other aspects to this game that really could even out things for the Cardinal. First is their defense. It had been porous over the first five games, but has improved recently. Even in the loss to Virginia Tech, they played solid defense. You maybe should discount their last two games; certainly the Princeton game as the Tigers are a shadow of their former selves, but still, the Cardinal are doing a better job as evidenced by their opponents shooting percentage over the past three games, (less than 43%). The Cardinal are now also employing a 2-3 zone defense for extended periods of time. This started in the second half of the Virginia Tech game and has continued to work for them. The Bruins will face a team that they are used to seeing in a man-to-man set suddenly try to be Syracuse West. In addition, the Bruins haven't been all that great in attacking zone defenses this season. This could also hurt the Bruins style-wise. A zone slows thing down and really allows the zoning team a chance to dictate pace. It will mean shortening the game and give the Bruins fewer opportunities to run against the Cardinal, whereas sloppy turnovers will lead to fast break opportunities for Stanford. The Cardinal also aren't sloppy with the ball themselves, averaging less than 13 turnovers per game.
Stanford also is a pretty good free throw shooting team at 72%, and their big three of Hernandez, Haryasz and Grunfeld all shoot over 76% from the charity stripe. This should get them easy points. All of this tends to even things out, especially if Stanford is careful with the ball and the Bruins get frustrated by not getting easy points.
The second aspect to talk about, and I can't stress how important this is, is the mental one. Stanford has owned UCLA recently (The Bruins haven't beaten the Cardinal in Pauley Pavilion since 1999) and the kids on both rosters know that. How will UCLA respond to adversity? Will they say, "Here we go again"? How will the freshmen react to their first conference game? Will AA and JF be too full of adrenaline at the start? These are serious questions and we can only surmise. It's likely that Howland will have to control the game closely early on to get the young Bruins in the flow of things; not to try too hard, as it were. Stanford will be relatively relaxed, being a team dominated by upperclassmen. This is the kind of match-up that didn't bode well for UCLA last season, both in terms of style and personnel. This will be a close game. In the end, however, I think that Howland is a better coach, crucially, the Bruins have the better players (unlike last year), and they are playing at home. Finally, I think that the Bruins are catching the Cardinal at the right time. Writers for the Bay Area newspapers have been writing over the past few days about how Stanford is beginning to put it together. Well, maybe, but not just yet. Beating Denver and a bad Princeton team at home is one thing. Beating the best team you have played up to this point, (UCLA) on the road is quite another. It shouldn't happen…but UCLA fans will be made to sweat a little.