Stanford Preview

#5 UCLA opens up Pac-10 conference play on the road at #20 Stanford tonight, and it's a big challenge for the Bruins, especially without Mike Roll, whose talents would be critical in this specific match-up...

UCLA returns to action Thursday night by opening Pac-10 Conference play at Maples Pavilion against the Stanford Cardinal. Let's get this out of the way immediately; this will be UCLA's toughest game to date. Stanford has a massive inside presence and a great deal of experience in their starting five. It's a conference game and it's on the road. With all due respect to Texas and Michigan State, the ingredients for Thursday night make it a more formidable task than the Bruins faced against either the Longhorns or the Spartans. The same questions that have dogged the Bruins for the past several weeks will be asked going into the game, namely, will the Bruins start slow yet again, or will they come out with energy and fire, especially on the defensive end of the floor? Will Darren Collison start playing the way many feel he's capable of playing, or, more to the point, will he start playing with the desire and energy that made him one of the best returning guards in the country coming into the season? Will Josh Shipp be a "team" guy or will he be out to get his? Will Lorenzo Mata-Real be healthy (because the Bruins are going to need him)? Finally, how will Kevin Love perform against the first truly threatening "big men" he will have seen this season?

Stanford comes into the game with an 11-1 record and a top 30 RPI rating. The record is a bit deceiving in that they haven't really played anyone of substance. Arguably their best win of the year came on the road against a very mediocre Texas Tech team (one that lost to Centenary), and even then it was only by one. Their lone loss came against Siena of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a team that is currently 6-4 and lost to Cornell. At least the Cardinal can make the argument that they lost that one on the road.

Looking at the Stanford schedule has seemingly induced many on BRO to state that they think this game will be an easy one. Keep in mind that for most of the non-conference season the Cardinal played without their best player, sophomore post Brook Lopez (7', 260 lbs.). Since his return against Santa Clara three games past, Lopez is averaging a team-leading 19.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG. In short, Stanford is a legitimate Pac-10 title contender with Brook in the line-up. He is virtually a lock for the NBA lottery after the season. He is truly one of the best and most talented true fives in the country.

As if Brook wasn't enough of a headache, Stanford Coach Trent Johnson starts Brook's twin brother Robin Lopez (7', 255 lbs.), in the other post position. Robin averages 10.4 PPG and 6.1 RPG, but his numbers belie his contributions to the team. He is clearly the team's best interior defender (31 blocks so far this season) and, of the twins, he is the one who prefers to play with his back to the basket in the low post.

Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins will have a bit of a dilemma on their hands trying to guard these two behemoths. That's why having Mata-Real is critically important; he is clearly UCLA's best interior defender. Additionally, he has the size and the strength to be able to handle on of the Lopez brothers without significant help from his teammates. Finally, Stanford is sure to double team Kevin Love when he receives the ball in the low post. If that is indeed the case, Mata-Real has elevated his offensive game to the point where he can make Stanford pay for doubling down on the Bruin freshman. This is where I see a change coming in Howland's use of personnel.

UCLA's standard starting five of Love, Collison, Russell Westbrook, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Shipp will undoubtedly be on the floor for the start again. But I believe that Mata-Real, if healthy, will see significant minutes, in the area of 20 plus. The question then becomes -- who loses minutes at Mata-Real's expense? I see the minutes coming from the three guards/wings. Howland will not want to pull Luc off the floor because of the obvious rebounding advantage he can give the Bruins and Love is the best option from which to get one or both of the Lopez brothers in foul trouble. That leaves the three backcourt players, and because Howland may rotate among those three, he can take advantage of the area where the Bruins have a real advantage: the backcourt.

The three backcourt players for the Cardinal are juniors Lawrence Hill (6'8" 215 lbs.), Anthony Goods (6'3" 205 lbs.), and Mitch Johnson, (6'1" 190 lbs.). Many may remember last season's game in Maples, one in which the Bruins had a big early lead and played a horrid second half and lost the game. Part of the reason that Stanford was able to come back from the big deficit was the play of Hill. He was simply unconscious. It seemed that everything he threw up went in. There was one shot he put in from about 12 feet out where his body was turned almost ¾ of the way away from the basket. Luc, who was guarding him, stood with a look on his face that screamed, "You've got to be kidding me." Hill was arguably Stanford's best player last season and he was tabbed to be one of the better players in the conference. That has not been the case so far this season. Tracy Pierson has written about how several Bruins were concentrating more on making the NBA jump rather than winning. Rumor has it that Hill has been guilty of the same offense and it has cost him dearly. He's only averaging 9.8 PPG on 44% shooting. Most egregious is that Hill is shooting less than 30% from behind the arc, and it's not as if he's only taken a few shots. He is averaging 5.8 RPG, but it hasn't been enough to offset the perception that he's been selfish on offense and, quite frankly, has played very poorly. There was even talk of Johnson benching Hill in order for him to get his head straight.

Goods has had a pleasantly surprising season. He is second on the team at 12.8 PPG and he is the chief outside threat for the Cardinal, shooting a respectable 40% from behind the arc on 71 shots. He's gotten to the line 24 times, one more than Hill, where he's shooting 70%. He's got an impressive assist-to-turnover total of 29-16, which is excellent for a shooting guard.

Johnson has been the engine of the team at the point. He's only averaging 6.7 PPG, but that doesn't matter in the Stanford offense as he knows his role is to get the ball to the scorers. He is averaging almost 3 assists for every turnover and does a very good job of initiating Stanford's motion variation offense. Johnson's issues come on the defensive end where he, as well as Goods, have had their lack of athleticism exploited. It's not that they can't stay with their man one-on-one, it's that they lack the recovery power necessary to chase around screens, and against players like Collison, and especially Westbrook, that could be deadly to the Cardinal's chances.

Coach Johnson isn't stupid; he realizes his team's limitations and I am sure remembers last year's game at Maples. If Hill was the player who beat the Bruins, then Johnson's contribution was putting his team into a zone defense. The Bruins had arguably their worst offensive half of the season in last year's second half at Maples. That also seems to be a bit of the Bruins' Achilles Heel this year, too. That is why Roll would have been critical: The Bruins are facing a team that doesn't have the athleticism on offense to exploit Roll's lack of quickness, especially as he comes off of an injury. So, UCLA missing Roll is a huge factor in this specific match-up. <-p> While there are eleven Cardinal players that average double digits in minutes played, it seems that Johnson has shortened his bench over the past few games. The only two bench players to see significant minutes are senior wing Fred Washington (6'5" 215) and senior forward Taj Finger (6'8" 200 lbs.). They are both very effective role players, especially Washington who has the second-most assists on the team (30) behind Mitch Johnson. They both take few shots, but because they both shoot over 50% from the floor, their shots are effective. They both average 6 PPG or better and 4 RPG or better.

When Coach Johnson really needs to give his backcourt a rest, he turns to sophomore Landry Fields (6'7" 200 lbs.) or junior Kenny Brown (6'1" 200 lbs.). Fields is strictly a shooter who lacks athleticism so, unless the Bruins play zone defense (yeah, right), Fields shouldn't see the floor that much. Brown has the size and strength to at least play solid defense when spelling Goods or Johnson.

There are many questions for the Bruins to answer, both individually and collectively. There is also the question of personnel usage, especially with the loss of Roll, and the two combined make for a very intriguing game. There is really no one who can replace what Roll would have brought to this match-up. It was announced yesterday that James Keefe will come out of his redshirt and play tonight, which gives UCLA an eight-man rotation, even though it's merely adding another frontcourt player and not anyone in the backcourt where the team is thin. With Keefe back, Mbah a Moute will then have to pick up some minutes at the three, and Chace Stanback or Nikola Dragovic could possibly also get some time, but you can bet they'll be on very short leashes. They allow one guy to go around them on defense and they'll be yanked, possibly for the rest of the season.

With the game being played on Thursday night and Stanford's students still being on winter break until next week, there is the possibility that the Bruins won't face the home court advantage that Maples often gives the Cardinal. But that shouldn't have a major impact on what happens in the game.

Stanford is over 20 spots higher in the RPI than are the Bruins, but that is misleading. UCLA has played Texas, Michigan State and at Michigan (mark my words…the Wolverines will be good come February), and Davidson, who would arguably be the best team on Stanford's early season schedule if they had played. The Bruins have faced tougher competition when playing the best of their non-conference schedule. The Cardinal have the home-court advantage, which could be significant as Kevin Love has yet to play his first conference road game.

The match-up in the frontcourt will be significant, but if neither side sees real foul trouble the game should be decided in the backcourt. Howland is a master at scouting teams and I am sure he has seen that a player like Love, who has very good offensive instincts, hands and footwork in the low post, can get Robin Lopez in foul difficulty. Some might remember that Robin was in serious foul trouble early in last year's game at Maples. That was without a player like Love in the low post.

If the Cardinal go zone then expect the Bruins to try and penetrate early with Collison and Westbrook to get good looks. That is also where Roll would have played a significant part, but the outside shooting burden now falls predominantly on Shipp and Collison.

The advantage for the Bruins, though, lays in the backcourt. Arron Afflalo was a warrior and a leader but he wasn't and isn't the athlete that Westbrook has proven to be. Westbrook has consistently been the best Bruin defender when it comes to fighting through screens, and Goods doesn't shoot well from outside if he can't spot up.

I called Mitch Johnson a liability last year because of his lack of athleticism. Collison certainly has the "quicks" to exploit Johnson and to force him sideline-to-sideline on defense, thus stalling Stanford's half court sets. Collison, too, will play for the first time without his knee brace so hopefully he'll show more sustained effort and quickness in this one.

Finally, there's the bench; even without Roll, the Bruins have Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya and Keefe. That is certainly more effective than Fields and Brown. Because of this, look for the Bruins to speed up the tempo when they can to tire the Stanford guards.

The Bruins could win this one going away, but Stanford could just as easily win. There are just too many variables, as you can see from my numerous conjectures, to see which way this is going to go. So then lets' assume it will be somewhere in the middle. That usually means that better talent will win out. But it won't be easy.

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