While the Cal game could be an indication that UCLA may be moving to a different gear in terms of execution, and consistent intensity, etc, the Bruins face a stern test on Sunday, taking on the suddenly hot Stanford Cardinal.
This is a big game for UCLA, enabling it to continue the momentum the Bruins started back in the second half against USC and hope to use through next Thursday's contest against Oregon. It's also a huge game for the Cardinal; it isn't often that you get a legitimate chance to knock of the #2 team in the country. Needing some strong wins on its resume, Stanford is probably looking at this game as its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Stanford's recent play is starting to remind some of UCLA's run at the end of last season. The Cardinal are playing with confidence and appear to be buying into coach Trent Johnson's offensive and defensive schemes. It helps when you have two of the most talented freshmen post players in the country in Robin Lopez (7'0" 250 lbs.) and Brook Lopez (7'0" 235 lbs.), Lopez. In fact, Stanford's starting five are as big as, well…trees. This will be the biggest team that UCLA faces in the regular season, with no Cardinal starter measuring less than 6'4". Before anyone frets over Stanford's starting (and talented) lineup that goes 7', 7', 6'8", 6'5" and 6'4", there are still some real reasons for optimism if you're a UCLA fan.
Stanford absolutely crushed USC Thursday night and they played well doing it. However, before anyone rushes to judge Stanford as completely coming of age, let's look closer at the game. Frankly, USC came out with a horrible game plan on both ends of the court. Tim Floyd made the mistake of starting Abdoulaye N'Diaye, stating earlier in the week that N'Diaye had earned more minutes based on his recent play. In essence, though, by pulling Dwight Lewis out of the starting five Floyd made the mistake of trying to match up with Stanford's size instead of forcing Johnson to contend with the Trojans' unorthodox four-guard, one-post line-up. It has been that line-up that has been the key to USC's successful season to date. Without getting into too much detail, the change by Floyd didn't work, and even though N'Diaye only played 4 minutes, the damage was done, as you could simply see that the Trojans were in the wrong place mentally throughout the game. USC played a terrible game, and Floyd, as well as his players (Taj Gibson in particular), made no real adjustments to change the tide. It had to be one of USC's worst games of the year. So even though Stanford looked good, some of that can be chalked up to how poorly the Trojans played.
UCLA is a much tougher match-up for the Cardinal. In fact, I was more worried about the Cal game because of their more potent backcourt than I am about the Stanford game. And while you should be concerned about Stanford, for all of Stanford's prowess up front, the reality is this game is going to be won or lost in the backcourt. Advantage: UCLA.
Over the past several games Johnson has moved sophomore shooting guard Anthony Goods (6'4" 170 lbs.), to the point. Goods is the best guard on the team and it says something of Johnson that he is trying to get his best players on the floor. But Goods isn't a point guard, as evidenced by his 42 assists…and 43 turnovers on the season. Granted, many of those turnovers came when he was playing the ‘2', but the point is still valid. Goods has had an especially more difficult time against teams that run a good halfcourt man-to-man defense. Enter UCLA and Darren Collison (and Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook). Goods is a solid player, being second on the Cardinal at 13.1 PPG and averaging 3.3 RPG, but he hasn't played a backcourt with the potential to disrupt him like UCLA. Expect the Bruins to harass him all over the halfcourt, with Collison's quickness being especially daunting when it matters. Goods is the most significant three-point shooter on the Cardinal, having attempted 122 three-point shots (out of 194 on the season), so the Bruins must be aware of Goods' floor location at all times, especially if they have to double down on the Lopez brothers. Goods averages over 80 % from the free throw line.
The ‘2' guard is ostensibly manned by senior small forward Fred Washington (6'5" 210 lbs.). Washington is the defensive stopper on Stanford when Johnson decides to play man, so you can expect him to be given the task of stopping Afflalo. Washington is averaging 7.1 PPG and 5.2 RPG and he averages almost a steal per game. He will be a better defensive match-up on Afflalo than anything Afflalo saw against Cal. Interestingly, Washington has attempted more free throws than any other Cardinal player (73), but he is making them at only a 58% clip. In terms of defense, Washington is the one player that Stanford can ill afford to get in foul trouble. If he has to sit for long minutes and Stanford plays exclusively man, then Afflalo could go off.
The starting small forward will be sophomore Lawrence Hill (6'8" 205 lbs.). Hill is a talented forward who can hurt the Bruins both inside and outside. He is Stanford's leading scorer and rebounder at 15.6 PPG and 6.4 RPG. He is hitting 40% on his 3s and is averaging 60% from the charity stripe. Hill is a smooth player who would rather face the basket than post up. He has a nice inside game, though, and his match-up with Josh Shipp will be an interesting one. Shipp will have an advantage in guile and strength and he will have to use both to keep Hill occupied and eventually tire him out. On offense, Shipp must continue to be patient and run Hill off as many screens as possible. Hill has a slight frame and if Shipp plays smart, he can wear down Hill this way, making Hill less of a factor on the offensive end of the floor.
In the post area is where Stanford will look to exploit an advantage. Of the twins, Brook will occupy the traditional ‘4' spot. Brook has been thought of as a bit more talented than his brother, but in some ways that's like saying, "six of one, half a dozen of the other." Brook is definitely a back-to-the-basket type of player, but he has more of an ability to hit a mid-range jumper, probably being effective out to 15 feet. This is an area that Robin still needs to work on. Outside of 5 feet, Robin just isn't that effective. One of surprises this season with the twins has been their passing and turnovers. Generally, Brook was thought of as the "headier" player, with an ability to pass out of the post and find cutters better than Robin. But it is Robin that actually has the better assist and turnover numbers, even accounting for the fact that Brook missed several games. Perhaps it is the rustiness of missing games that has forced Brook into poorer numbers or perhaps it's where he sets up on the floor. Regardless, Robin seems to be more comfortable passing the ball out of the post at this point. Another area that could be the cause for Brook's higher rate of turnovers is the fact that he has more of an ability and more of an inclination to put the ball on the floor. Now this is all relative; the Lopez twins are 7' tall and, generally speaking, watching a player with that size try and take more than one or two dribbles can be painful to watch (unless your name is Garnett). Brook tends to dribble with his body too straight up, causing him to dribble too high (and he's starting pretty high anyway). This makes him a perfect target for a quick guard or wing to come in on the double team and take the ball away. The brothers have pretty similar numbers: Robin averages 10.1 PPG, Brook 9.4; Robin averages 6.4 RPG, Brook 4.8. Brook has been the better free throw shooter, but that's not saying much as he's hitting only 61%. Robin checks in at 54%.
Stanford's surge this season has been directly tied to the recovery and emergence of Brook. When you have two 7-0, 250-pounders that are good athletes on the floor, it definitely changes the game, as it has for Stanford. Against USC, the Lopez twins made Taj Gibson look like he was about 6-6 and 185 pounds. In that game, Brook had a triple double, with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 12 dominating blocks. And Stanford is stating Brook is only playing at 70%.
As I stated earlier, the backcourts of the respective teams are going to dictate the outcome. That means Collison, Afflalo, Westbrook, Roll and Shipp will match up against Goods, Washington, sophomore Mitch Johnson (6'1" 185 lbs.), who leads the team in assists and is the only true point guard on the team, and freshman Landry Fields (6'5" 185 lbs.), a three-point shooting specialist who is only averaging 24% form behind the arc. Big advantage for UCLA. The Stanford backcourt and wing players simply can't play defense like their UCLA counterparts. If Collison and Afflalo,et al, can get the Stanford guards moving laterally, then the Cardinal will find it difficult to even get the ball inside to the twins or Hill. Defensively, when the Cardinal go man, they will try and funnel any Bruin players towards the middle and the shot-blocking brothers (and, scarily, Robin actually averages more BPG than Brook). That means they will try and force the Bruin ballhandlers back to the middle, which is perfect for players like Afflalo and Westbrook, who like to get into the lane but then stop and hit the mid-range jumper. Why USC thought they could keep driving to the basket with two 7-footers stalking the paint is a mystery.
The Cardinal really don't play anyone off the bench with any size for any significant time. Coach Johnson does have junior forwards Peter Prowitt (6'10" 250 lbs.) and Taj Finger (6'8" 185 lbs.), but Prowitt is slower than a three-toed sloth and has played sparingly as of late and Finger is averaging about 5 MPG over the same span. Still, even though the Bruins can bring more bodies for the post off the bench, the Cardinal have an advantage. The key will be neutralizing the twins on the offensive end, and the Bruins are the kind of team, like Arizona in some respects, that can do that. Arizona beat Stanford pretty handily earlier this season by forcing the tempo, but also by hitting the midrange and long-range jumpers. In short, the twins can't block what they can't get to. I am sure they will lay off the Bruin posts/forwards (except Shipp) when they get the ball in the high post, etc., inviting them to drive so that the twins can do to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and company what they did against Taj Gibson. Luc and Alfred Aboya need to hit a couple of jumpers. James Keefe may get up to 10 minutes in this game because of his ability to hit the jumper. Remember, though, that UCLA is a perimeter-dominated team on offense and this should work to their advantage.
On defense, the Bruins will need to front the twins as much as possible and get good and quick help. That means reading plays and fighting through screens like they have been the past two games. Under Howland the Bruins have typically focused on doubling only one big if a team has two talented posts, and letting the other be guarded one-on-one. If Howland chooses to do that here, it would probably be to double Brook Lopez. He's more apt to put the ball on the floor and he is, quite frankly, more dynamic on offense. The Bruins can probably force him into more turnovers than his brother.
Finally, there is the experience question. The key players for Stanford, especially the twins, have never had key roles in a game this big, whereas the Bruins are pretty used to this. What will Stanford do the first time things start to look bad? Will they fold? Typically, when freshmen play in this kind of game for the first time, they struggle a bit. Because of the experience factor and because Stanford's strengths really don't affect the Bruins, UCLA should be successful. One final point: Stanford would rather slow down the game a bit, but except for Oregon and USC games, the Cardinal seem unable to get their opponents to play at their preferred tempo. The last time the Bruins played a team that let the opponent dictate tempo was Michigan. I'm not saying that Stanford is Michigan, but…