The obvious question: Will the Bruins be able to focus on Stanford after the emotional high of the big win over California? Pressure?
Some might feel the need to ask whether the young Bruins can handle the pressure of winning not only the game at Stanford, but also the pressure of winning an outright conference title. If the Bruins haven't yet proved emphatically by the way they beat Cal, then they will never be able to convince people of their ability to handle pressure.
In quick review, the game Thursday night at Haas Pavilion was essentially for the PAC-10 title. Cal had already defeated the Bruins at Pauley and at the half, with Cal winning by 11, 31-20, the Bears looked like they were ready to blow the game and the conference wide open. To most Bruin fans the only thing they had to hold onto was the fact that the Bruins had trailed in their previous two games and come back to blow out both opponents. But that was at home…against last place Oregon State and underachieving and poorly-coached Oregon. The game Thursday was against one of the best teams in the conference in one of the most difficult road venues in the West. But come back the Bruins did, and they did it with some of their best basketball of the year. The bottom line is that after dealing with all that pressure, at the end of last night, UCLA had clinched at least a tie for their first PAC-10 title in nine years.
Stanford enters the game with the Bruins with an overall record of 15-11, 11-6 in the conference. They have an RPI of 70 and with those numbers some argue that the Cardinal still have an outside shot at getting into the Big Dance. A win over UCLA would greatly enhance Stanford's profile and set them up for a slightly easier run in the conference tournament. And it's not as if the Cardinal are without talent. This is a team that has defeated both California and Washington, both of who are, or at least were, right on the Bruins' heels. And the talent is dangerous and experienced.
The Stanford attack starts with senior Chris Hernandez, (6'2" 190 lbs.). Hernandez has been a starter at the point for the Cardinal since the day he stepped on campus. Hernandez flirted with the idea of entering the NBA draft after last season and looking back on this season, he may have well been better off by staying in the draft. To say that Hernandez has had a disappointing senior season would be the epitome of understatement. But, Hernandez has played much better as of late, looking like the player that many thought he would be when he returned to Stanford this season. On Thursday against Southern Cal, Hernandez was the consummate leader, scoring the last several points for the Cardinal as they pulled out a 58-56 win. When he is on his game, Hernandez is very difficult to guard. He's strong and deceptively quick, and when he plays with confidence, can get to the basket with relative ease. When his outside shot is on he is almost unstoppable. But the problem for Hernandez has been that he has rarely played with confidence this year and his shot has been very streaky. The first time Hernandez played against the Bruins and Jordan Farmar, Farmar truly dominated Hernandez on both ends of the floor. Since that time Farmar's ankles have been the subject of much debate and his defensive abilities have been inconsistent. Regardless of who guards Hernandez -- Farmar, Darren Collison (who is coming off of one of his best games of the season), or Arron Afflalo -- the key will be forcing him outside and out of the lane.
There have been times this year when Hernandez hasn't run the point. During that time, the point guard duties have been taken by freshman Mitch Johnson (6'1" 185 lbs.). Johnson is more of a pure point than is Hernandez, and will look to drive and dish. His shooting has been horrible this season and when he seems to not be able to penetrate, or his defense is a bit lax, Coach Trent Johnson has had no qualms about replacing him with sophomore Tim Morris (6'4" 215 lbs.) or freshman Anthony Goods, (6'3" 195 lbs.), which has been more often lately. Morris is more of a two guard while Goods is more of a slasher. Bottom line is that if the three primary Bruin guards play as they did during Thursday's second half, then the Bruins have a clear advantage.
Up front, the Cardinal start senior Matt Haryasz (6'11" 230 lbs.), sophomore Taj Finger (6'8" 180 lbs.), and senior Dan Grunfeld (6'6" 220 lbs.). If Leon Powe is the best low-post threat in the conference, then Matt Haryasz isn't far behind. Haryasz has better touch than Powe, but he isn't the intimidating physical force that Powe is. Haryasz is averaging 16.9 PPG and 9 RPG, leading Stanford in both areas. In the first game between the Bruins and Cardinal, the Bruins doubled Haryasz every time he touched the ball in the offensive end. As a result, Haryasz had a poor game. Based on what the Bruins did against Powe in the 2nd half last night you'd have to figure on that being the game plan once again.
Grunfeld, who started the season coming back from a torn ACL, is finally rounding into shape. He has played relatively well the past few weeks, although he hasn't matched his 2004-2005 numbers. He is dangerous as he can hit the 3 and still has a bit of deceptive quickness that can get him to the basket and draw the foul. In the first meeting, Cedric Bozeman didn't play and Mike Roll was a seldom-used sub. Now both are playing very well on the defensive end and you have to figure that between them, they will be up for the challenge of Grunfeld.
Finger is a garbage-type player and fans may see more of freshman Lawrence Hill (6'8" 205 lbs.). Hill is playing 5 minutes less per game than Finger but is averaging roughly the same number of points and rebounds. I fully believe that the question is not how the Bruins are going to guard Hill and Finger, but how the Cardinal will guard Luc Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. If the Cameroonian duo are too much for Hill and Finger then Coach Johnson may have to go with sophomore Peter Prowitt (6'10" 250 lbs.), who is strong but very slow.
Once again, the game will come down to styles. I predicted that Cal would use a lot of zone against the Bruins and they really didn't at all, to their detriment. I fully expect to see Stanford play a lot of zone because, as we all know, the Bruins have had problems with zone defenses and because the Cardinal simply don't have the quickness to play with the Bruins. On offense, the Cardinal are generally a smart team (it's Stanford, so what did you expect?), and their offensive deficiencies this season are more of a result of their inability to shoot well rather than from not being able to run an offense. They will make the Bruins work hard on defense, setting good screens and showing generally good footwork.
To prevent a grinding affair the Bruins really need to get off to a good start. They need to jam the cutters coming through the lane and they need to rebound as well as they did in the 2nd half of the Cal game. On offense, they must show patience in the half court but be prepared to run when they can. If this sounds like a repeat of the 2nd half of the Cal game, well, that's how well the Bruins played in that half (and the overtime). The game really will be dictated by the Bruins. They are the better team, the one playing with more confidence and with a stronger presence on the bench (by the way, did anyone notice how intense Howland was against Cal?). I am going to steal an idea from Tracy and say that the attitude of a winning warrior was dripping from Arron Afflalo, as well as Jordan Farmar, and is permeating the rest of this Bruin team. The only thing to worry about is the fact that Maples is a difficult place to win. But these Bruins have proved many times this year that they can play good, winning basketball on the road. The PAC-10 title is theirs for the taking. UCLA looks ready to grab it…forcefully. This one won't be that close.