The final two games before "Championship Week."
And it's finally time for UCLA versus California, Part II. Fans of both schools have been quietly waiting for this one for several weeks, since it became clear that the Bruins and the Bears were going to be at or near the top of the PAC-10 Conference standings when March 2 rolled around. There is a lot to play for in this one, but also a lot to look at when trying to analyze the outcome of the game: Will the Bruins be able to win on the road with the conference title on the line? Will this young team, riddled by injuries for most of the season, finally be able to get over the hump and give UCLA and its fans their first conference title in 9 years?
Cal comes into Thursday night's game having only gone 2-2 in their last four games. The loss last Saturday to Washington was to be expected, but the loss to Arizona State (which just lost big to Arizona), after manhandling Arizona, and the near-miss against Washington State, has left most in Berkeley shaking their heads. Cal has some top-flight talent, but their coaching has left something to be desired on occasion this season. So what will Cal bring to the game on Thursday, and more importantly, what will UCLA bring to counter the Bears? The Bruins are coming off a sweep of the Oregon schools, playing very good second halves in both games after middling first halves. This will be the Bruins' first road trip since being defeated by Washington and rather easily by USC.
To stop the Cal attack, or to even slow it down, a defense must primarily take care of sophomore power forward Leon Powe (6'8" 240 lbs.). Powe is arguably the best player in the conference because of his ability to score (19.9 PPG) and his ability to single-handedly own the boards (10.1 RPG). In the first meeting between Cal and the Bruins, Coach Ben Howland decided to double Powe almost every time he touched the ball. Powe didn't have a particularly strong offensive game, scoring only 5 points, but he owned the boards, pulling down 12 rebounds. He is a true "beast" on the low block and there are many positions where he receives the ball where he is virtually impossible to stop.
Now, there are two schools of thought here. The first is that you play Powe like you did the first game where you really limited his touches and forced him to pass the ball out of double teams almost all the time. Powe is a decent passer, but he's more likely to look for a safety valve rather than find a cutter going to the hoop. This defense will probably cut down on Powe's overall production, but, as the first game showed, other players have an opportunity to step up and lead the team to victory.
The second school of thought is to take on Powe with one defender and no help, and let him get his, but prevent anyone else from really hurting you. This is dangerous because Powe is fully capable of going off for 30 points which, with the game being at Cal, will further fire up his teammates. Howland has always shown that he will go with the first option, and quite frankly, that is probably the best option for this UCLA team and the type of personnel it has. Luc Mbah a Moute will more than likely get to start defensively on Powe, but this is not the kind of match-up that is good for Luc. Powe's size, along with some poor decision-making on Luc's part, put him into early foul trouble at Pauley and the Prince never recovered, finishing one of his poorest games of the year with 3 points and 3 rebounds. Luc has appeared to have matured as a player since that game, but his ability to stay out of foul trouble, which means stay on the floor, will be key.
Alfred Aboya will also have the opportunity to take on Powe. Aboya had a nice game the first time these teams me, finishing with 8 points and 3 boards. He, too, has improved in leaps and bounds since that first game, and his athleticism and length, combined with Luc's minutes, will give Powe as hard of a match-up as he's faced this year.
The reason that the double-teaming of Powe wasn't successful in the first encounter was because Cal had two other viable post options to throw at the Bruins, senior Rod Benson (6'10 220 lbs.) and sophomore DeVon Hardin (6'11" 235 lbs.). Hardin, in particular, burned the Bruins, scoring 10 points and pulling down 8 rebounds. More importantly, he altered UCLA's interior shots more than any other defender this year. But that was against Lorenzo Mata. The new player in this mix that wasn't available the first time these teams played is Ryan Hollins. There are probably two truly key components to this game, and the first is the play of Hollins. If Hollins shows any of the fire and competitiveness that he has for most of the time since he returned from injury then the Bruins will be able to neutralize Hardin. Hollins is the only Bruin with the combination of length and athleticism that will bother Hardin. And Hollins has shown a predilection for being able to finish on dump-off passes from Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison. At the time of the first Cal game, Mata had not yet developed the confidence to be as consistent as Hollins has been the past 6 weeks. Benson did return to the Bear line-up last week, but his effectiveness is nowhere near where it was pre-injury. He's simply out of shape.
The other key to the game will be the ability of the Bruins to limit the penetration of junior point guard Ayinde Ubaka (6'3" 200 lbs.). In a low scoring first meeting with Farmar and Collison, Ubaka torched the Bruin guards for 18 points, including 7-7 from the charity stripe, and had a team-high four assists. More importantly he stamped his will on the game and clearly outplayed his Bruin counterparts. Over the past two weeks the Bruins have had a great deal of trouble with quick penetrating point guards. The only one they've been able to stop has been OSU's Jason Fontenet, and that was only for a half. Even in the second half blowout of Oregon on Sunday, Duck PG Aaron Brooks scored 17 against the Bruins by being able to get into the lane and hit some big outside shots. Ubaka is probably the best combo point in the PAC-10. He is the best at deciding when to shoot, when to pass and when to penetrate…and that is precisely why Arron Afflalo will be assigned to slow him down. Keeping Ubaka out of the lane will force the Bears into a more controlled half-court, motion offense that will allow the Bruins easier and more effective defensive rotation. Collison will be assigned to guard Ubaka, too, and my guess is that Farmar will rarely be assigned Ubaka because of his recent inability to keep guards out of the lane.
The other guards/wings in the Cal line-up will be senior Richard Midgely (6'3" 195 lbs.), sophomore Omar Wilkes (6'4" 185 lbs.), and freshmen Theo Robertson, (6'5" 240 lbs.) and Serbian national Nikola Knezevic (6'2" 190 lbs.). In simple terms the Bruins will use Cedric Bozeman against the taller players and Farmar against the smaller players. And let's not forget Mike Roll, whose recent defense has been as indispensable as his offense, Oregon game notwithstanding. Midgley has the ability to score in bunches as a three-point threat but his ability to shoot off the dribble is highly questionable. There might be a method to Howland's madness if he has Farmar guarding Midgley. In the first meeting with the Bruins, Midgley hit 2 of 3 from beyond the arc. Last Saturday he was 4-7, and if statistics are any indication, the Bears are a much better team with Midgley on the floor. Wilkes is the better offensive threat and Robertson the better defensive stopper while Knezevic has proven to be a valuable substitute at both the point and 2-guard spots. In the past few games, however, the Serb has been more of an afterthought, playing less minutes and being less effective with those minutes. Wilkes really hurt the Bruins in Los Angeles, scoring 12 points, including hitting 2 three-pointers. Robertson has been playing more lately, with Wilkes being soft on defense. On Saturday, Wilkes was ineffective, with 6 points and poor defense, while Robertson played 25 minutes and scored 13 points, while guarding the quick Washington backcourt. Again, the key here lies with the Bruins. When theses two teams squared off in January, the Bruins were without Bozeman. Wilkes was able to beat the Bruins for points because of his adrenaline (he wanted to really hand it to UCLA, his father's school), and because Josh Shipp looked very lethargic on defense. Expect Bozeman to be able to shut down either Wilkes or Robertson. Off the bench Roll has proven to be a valuable defender in his own right, and his size and basketball IQ will serve him well when guarding either Bear wing.
The Bruins should expect to see a lot of zone from the Bears. As has been pointed out before, the area of zone offense has been a real bugaboo for the Bruins this season. As Michael Miller commented in his Oregon review, the Bruins run an overload offense that is only going to work if the Bruins are either shooting well or have someone with the ability to drive catching the skip pass. This is the kind of game that cries out for Mike Roll to be aggressive with his shots. He's a shooter. How do shooters get out of slumps? They shoot more. If his first few shots don't fall, then he has to stay with it. Bozeman must play aggressively on Thursday. He will receive the ball in a position to get to the hoop, but he has to be willing to do so. Darren Collison will probably also see a lot of minutes so that Farmar will be able to move to the wing. Personally, I would love for the Bruins to run a basic 1-3-1-zone offense against the 2-3 zone. Put Luc in the middle and any combination of Framar, Roll, Collison, Afflalo and Bozeman on the top/wing, with Ced on the point so that the others can be shooters/penetrators, and let Alfred run the baseline. Or even go with four guards and let Ced run the baseline. Bottom line is that this team's personnel is built for the 1-3-1 (high post offense). But that's why Howland is the coach…
Speaking of coaching, this game may come down to just that. Coach Ben Braun of Cal is not exactly known as the master of Xs and Os. On a good day he helps his team a bit, but when he gets into big games, he has a tendency to overcoach, as he did on Saturday, and most often it's done to the detriment of his team. Sometimes you have to put in a game plan and just let the kids play. There's a question if Braun knows how to be that hands-off. On the other bench is Howland who is generally the picture of cool. Some have questioned his use of timeouts and his substitution patterns, but let's face it; Howland has won several games for the Bruins this year because of his adjustments and game management.
So, the game is going to go like this; Haas Pavilion will be rocking and the game will be a grind-it-out affair for much of the first half. But I see this game as being a lot like the Oregon game. The Bruins will struggle a bit in the beginning, but I truly believe that they are a different team defensively now than they were in January. And Cal has had some unsettling trends that they've shown lately, including the questionable decision-making by many Bears when a game is tight. They have looked less than average in their past three games, and while I know they'll be up for this game, they lost to a very disciplined ASU squad (on that day), should have lost to a very disciplined Wazzu and got beat by a Husky team that played just disciplined enough for the game never to have really been in doubt. On the flip side, Cal generally plays better in big games -- just ask the Wildcats -- and this is about as big a game as it gets. In the second half, I see the Bruins making a few mini-runs that will give them a 6-8 point lead, and then the game will go back and forth until the final buzzer. And when that happens, the game is usually won with defense and coaching. Guess what?…………………..