When the Bruins and Golden Bears played in Berkeley last month, the Bruins came away with a very easy 62-46 victory. In that game the Bruin defense was very good and Cal had trouble getting off shots. But now it's a month later and both teams are different than when they first met. Cal is coming off a sweep of the Oregon schools and is playing with confidence. UCLA is coming off a particularly good and well-played victory over Arizona in Tucson. Now the Bruins are playing to clinch the Pac-10 title while Cal is still remotely holding out hope for an NCAA at-large bid. Beating UCLA on the road will go a long way to making that come true.
Cal comes into the game with a 6-8 conference record, (14-12 overall), and fighting for the seven seed with Washington in the quickly approaching Pac-10 tournament. Getting to seventh place in the conference may be difficult because Cal announced yesterday that the building block of their program, junior post DeVon Hardin (6'11" 235 lbs.), will not play this weekend and the feeling is now that he will not play again this season. The Bears knew they would have to face the season without sophomore post Jordan Wilkes (7' 230 lbs.), but losing Hardin is a particularly heavy blow as the team and Coach Ben Braun both expected him back by the end of the season. In short, Cal lost the one real difference-maker they had on the roster.
The leading scorer for the Bears continues to be freshman forward Ryan Anderson (6'10" 235 lbs.). Anderson is in the mix for conference freshman of the year along with Spencer Hawes, Taj Gibson and the Lopez brothers. However, Anderson seems to have hit the freshman wall. He is averaging 16.4 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 8.1 RPG, but his numbers have been very up and down over the past four games, culminating with a very poor performance against Oregon State. Anderson is a good 3-point shooter and is tied for the lead on the team with 44 made from behind the arc. Lorenzo Mata will be guarding Anderson and the last time they met Anderson gave Mata some difficulty. Expect that to end on Thursday as Mata's defensive game is starting to really come around, and, as I said, Anderson is playing very inconsistently.
Cal mostly runs a four-guard line-up and the closest starter they have to being a "forward" is sophomore Theo Robertson (6'6" 225 lbs.). Robertson is a solid role player who is asked to do more right now. He averages 8.8 PPG and 4.1 RPG, and has the ability to hit the three, while still being able to get to the hoop (58 FTA, third on the team). Josh Shipp will have to continue to play the kind of defense he displayed against Arizona as well as letting the game come to him offensively. This will be the most important match-up of the game in that Coach Howland and the Bruins need to see if the Shipp they saw in Tucson is the Shipp they're going to get for the NCAA Tournament run. The other option is for Howland to match-up Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on Robertson. Luc's length should bother Robertson and he has enough quickness to give Robertson real problems.
The point guard position is manned by senior Ayinde Ubaka (6' 4 " 200 lbs.), who is probably Cal's best player. The first time the Bears and the Bruins met Ubaka was sick and didn't score at all. That's very unusual for the team's second leading scorer (14 PPG). He also is the team's leader in assist at 4.4 APG and in turnovers at 1.8 TPG. He is a decent outside shooter but he is only averaging 42 % from the floor this season. He is a threat to penetrate, or at least attempt it, on every possession. In many ways Ubaka is like Arizona's Mustafa Shakur, only stronger. Darren Collison really took it to Shakur defensively on several possessions last Saturday and he was able to shut out Ubaka the last time out, so you have to give the edge to Collison based on the way he has been playing.
The traditional shooting guard spot is manned by Omar Wilkes (6'4" 185 lbs.), who is third on the team in scoring at 9.8 PPG and is the team's best 3-point shooter, percentage-wise. He is not a real threat to go to the hoop, and has only attempted 22 free throws on the season. Arron Afflalo will almost certainly start out on Wilkes and, although Wilkes seemingly gets up to play the Bruins, Afflalo looks like he's bringing his all-around game to another level recently.
Afflalo may be switched onto freshman Patrick Christopher (6'5" 210 lbs.) when Christopher comes off the bench. Christopher was actually the most celebrated member of his recruiting class but, until recently, the proverbial light bulb hadn't come on with him. However, the past two games Christopher has scored 24 and 16, and he could be a handful for the Bruins if he continues his run of good play. He can slash and shoot, and he has the strength and ability to give Afflalo a challenge.
The final starter is actually senior Alex Pribble (6'4" 215 lbs.), but Pribble is still only playing about 10-15 MPG. He is very much a "glue-guy," doing the little things that every team needs, like rebounding, defense and getting floor burns. More than likely Shipp will be matched-up on Pribble and then switch over to Christopher or Wilkes when Pribble goes out.
The only other bench players who get significant minutes are junior forward Eric Vierneisel (6'7" 205 lbs.) and freshman post Taylor Harrison (6'10" 250 lbs.). Vierneisel will see more floor time and is basically a better version of Pribble, in terms of style. He is definitely more of an outside shooter than a threat to drive and Shipp will probably be matched-up with him when he's on the floor To illustrate the point, about 3/5s of Vierneisel's shots have come from behind the arc this season.
Harrison is strictly a bruiser who will try to establish a true low-post presence for the Bears. He isn't near the athlete that Hardin is so he isn't the defensive threat that Hardin can be. He hasn't been a very good shooter this season, but with his strictly low-post game, expect Mata to guard him.
This game represents a true "sandwich" game for the Bruins since it comes after Arizona and before Stanford. I think that's really the only shot that Cal has; that UCLA will not take them seriously. This really should be a bell-weather game for the Bruins; we all know that they can get up for the Arizonas of the world, but they need to give a more consistent effort night-in and night-out. There can be no more ASU near-misses; not this late in the season. If the Bruins can blow out Cal like they did the first time then they really may be rounding into form.
Expect the Bears to play both man and zone, if nothing else because the Bruins seem to have more trouble against a zone. UCLA had no trouble with it, though, in Berkeley. UCLA will probably start slow, as they've done all season, but I expect it to be for only a few minutes in this game since UCLA should be getting their NCAA-Tournament game-face on. I really thought I saw something about this team and where it's going against Arizona, but I won't feel truly confident about that until they start to turn it up against Cal. Expect the Bruins to be comfortably ahead by the 10-minute mark of the second half. Hopefully it will be an opportunity to allow Russell Westbrook more minutes, as well as James Keefe and Ryan Wright this game. The bench better get the minutes here because, other than the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament, this may be the last team the Bruins can do it against.