While the Stanford win was both exciting and fulfilling for the Bruins and their fans for several reasons, there were two specific questions that were raised that still have yet to be answered and these two questions really could be the key to the rest of the season. The first question has to do with Coach Ben Howland's player rotation now that Michael Roll is out for at least three weeks, while the second question can be put succinctly: What the heck is up with Darren Collison?
Now that Roll is out, Howland is trying to figure out how to best maximize his remaining three guards, Collison, Russell Westbrook and Josh Shipp, while not tiring them out. All three played well over 30 minutes Thursday night and fatigue may be a question, if not against Cal, then later in the year. However, one of the things that Howland did, and has said he's going to continue to do, is have Westbrook come off the bench, which didn't seem to work. It's easy to see Howland's intent – to use Westbrook as a sub for Shipp and Collison to prevent fatigue. But it appeared that Howland recognized this fairly early in the game and he rode his three guards as much as he and the team could for the remainder of the game. If they're all getting 35+ minutes, wouldn't you prefer to have Westbrook start to try to help the team get out of the block quicker? Westbrook was probably the player chosen to come off the bench because he did so all of last year and probably has the best personality to "accept" coming off the bench for the good of the team. That's not to say that Collison or Shipp don't have unselfish personalities, rather, that they have both been starters for at least a year and it would be tough to get them or any player, for that matter, into a mentality of warming up, then cooling down on the bench and then coming into a game.
I said in my Stanford preview that Lorenzo Mata-Real's play would be a key to victory. I expected him to play 20 minutes or so. He played 14, while Alfred Aboya played 17. Both played well and Howland has the luxury of using either in the post depending on the situation. Aboya was more active than Mata-Real, especially on the offensive end, (Aboya hit a ‘3'?!?), but Mata-Real's play on the defensive end was significant. In short, Stanford star big man Brook Lopez had a more difficult time scoring against Mata-Real than he did against the smaller Aboya. Lopez did, however, have problems with both Bruin defenders and the change of pace that each brought didn't allow Lopez to get into a comfort zone on the offensive end.
The Stanford game was unique from a player-usage standpoint in that the Cardinal presented a singularly difficult match-up for anyone because of the Twin Towers known as the Lopez brothers who dominate the middle. Cal will present a very different, UCLA-esque type of line-up, so you would think that Howland would resume having Westbrook start, but he said in interviews after the Stanford game he was going to continue to have Westbrook come off the bench. So, the rotation will be probably like Howland intended it to be for the Stanford game, with Collison, Shipp and Westbrook maybe getting less time on the court as a threesome, with Mbah a Moute getting some time at the three, and then Mata and Keefe spelling the bigs, with maybe another Chace Stanback experiment. I guess if it worked, and got you a key road win in the Pac-10, don't try to fix it, but you can probably expect, still, the three guards to get 30+ minutes against Cal each.
The second question for the Bruins is more worrisome: The play of Collison. Thursday was the first game since his return from a knee sprain that Collison played without a brace, and he didn't look good. While it's expected for someone coming off a knee injury, however minor, to be a bit tentative on the offensive end, which Collison was, the problem has been Collison's defensive play. Stanford's very average point guard, Mitch Johnson, seemed to get by Collison at will. It didn't help that UCLA was late on several rotations when Johnson got into the lane, and Johnson did make some very acrobatic shots, but that still doesn't hide the fact that Collison isn't the same defensive player he was last season. This is something that should be watched, especially since the Bruins are so thin in the backcourt right now.
Cal is coming off a big win over USC, a game in which the Bears shot very well (49% from the floor and 44% from behind the arc). However Cal had two players who played 38 minutes and two more who played 31 minutes.
One of the players who logged 38 minutes is sophomore point guard Jerome Randle (5'10" 165 lbs.), a pretty quick player who will present Collison with the same challenges he faced Thursday. Randle is a different than many point guards in that he likes to shoot outside and is very capable of making those shots. He is clearly Cal's best three-point shooter, making 50% on the year, and almost half of his shots come from long range. He has the capability of getting inside, but while he is quick, he lacks the strength of, say, Mitch Johnson. Assuming he'll be content to stay outside more that Johnson did, Collison should have an easier time staying in front of Randle. Randle is averaging 13.7 PPG and is the team leader in assists with 40. He is very susceptible to on-ball defensive pressure, though, and does have 39 turnovers.
Sophomore Nikola Knezevic (6'2" 185 lbs.) will start at the ‘2', but depending on the match-ups, he may not play much. He averages 24 MPG, but only played 10 minutes against USC. He has the reputation of a shooter, and 30 of his 45 shots on the season have come from behind the arc, but he is only shooting 23% on his three=point attempts and he can be a liability on defense. If his shots aren't falling then he won't play much.
If Knezevic doesn't play much then the Bruins should expect to see senior Eric Vierneisel (6'7" 210 lbs.), who is also a shooter. Vierneisel is shooting only 21% from long range but he did put in 15 points off the bench against USC. Assuming Westbrook will guard either player, Vierneisel presents the Bruins sophomore with a more difficult match-up in that he has several inches on Westbrook. While both Cal players aren't athletic, which would normally be a significant advantage for UCLA, Westbrook had a few sketchy moments on defense against Stanford, which showed, perhaps, a little chink in his defensive armour.
Sophomore Patrick Christopher (6'5" 215 lbs.) will play the wing. Christopher is probably Cal's most athletic player and was the prize of last year's recruiting haul by Cal coach Ben Braun. Christopher is averaging 17.6 PPG and 3.7 RPG. He is a capable outside shooter, making 35% of his three point attempts, but he is definitely not a one-dimensional player. He has 54 three point attempts this season but has taken 160 shots. He is still developing his game, though, and still likes to put the ball on the floor primarily to his right. If you assume Josh Shipp has this defensive assignment, Shipp should be able to force Christopher to his less favored side. On the other hand, Howland could go with Westbrook getting most of the defensive assignment against Christopher, with Shipp guarding the less athletic Knezevic or Vierneisel, but that would also depend, again, on Collison, Westbrook and Shipp being on the floor at the same time.
The post is where the Bruins may have some trouble. Sophomore forward Ryan Anderson (6'10" 240 lbs.) has proven to be the best player from last year's recruiting class even though Christopher was more highly touted out of high school. In fact, some conference insiders consider Anderson the best player in the Pac-10 right now. Anderson leads the Bears in scoring at 21.6 PPG and is second in rebounding at 9.3 RPG. Whether it's Mbah a Moute, Aboya or even Kevin Love assigned to Anderson, they will have their hands full. Anderson is an inside/outside threat, shooting 54% from the floor and 44% from behind the arc. He leads the team in shot attempts and three-point attempts. He's also an 84% free throw shooter. To top it off, Anderson is a better than average passer when he moves to the perimeter. If he's weak in one area, it's putting the ball on the floor. Whoever guards Anderson will have to face guard him when he faces up or he could shoot the Bruins out of the gym.
The center is senior DeVon Hardin (6'11" 250 lbs.). I was more concerned about Love's match-up with Hardin before the Stanford game, but Love outplayed both Lopez twins, including shot blocker Robin, and that allayed some of my concerns. Still, Hardin is arguably the best defensive big man in the conference because of his shot blocking ability. He has 22 blocks on the season. He isn't much of a scoring threat on the offensive end if you get him out of his comfort zone. He's pretty raw offensively. But if he's allowed to get position on the low block, he is shooting better than 55% for the season. He still struggles at the free throw line, but his 64% is better than he has done in the past. Hardin leads the Bears with 9.9 RPG.
Love did a great job of using his offensive skill set to get his points in the Stanford game. It's telling that Love finished the game and looked like he still had gas in the tank at the end (which was a concern going into the game), while both Lopez twins fouled out. Love showed he is very disciplined on the offensive end last and Hardin is not the most disciplined player. Hardin is a tough match-up but Love proved last night he can rise to the challenge and then some. If Love can force both Lopez twins into foul trouble, you'd have to think he'll have the same affect on the less disciplined Hardin.
After Vierneisel, Braun uses two primary players off the bench, freshman Harper Kemp (6'8" 245 lbs.), and Duke transfer, sophomore Jamal Boykin (6'8" 235 lbs.). Kemp is a hard-nosed player who shoots very well from the floor (66%), and will take a ‘3' if left open. His 2.7 RPG translates to over 10 per 40 minutes. He doesn't play much but he has been at least as effective as Aboya and Mata-Real at the offensive end. Boykin has only played in four games and is still rounding into form. He has much the same skill set as Kemp, with the same, minimal athleticism. Both also, aren't the 6-8 they are officially listed.
Sophomore post Jordan Wilkes (7' 235 lbs.) will also get some minutes, but they have seemed to decrease with the emergence of Kemp. Still, that's essentially four forwards/posts coming off the bench. Braun really has no backcourt depth to speak of. When Randle needs a breather, Christopher has moved over to the point. It's significant to note that Christopher and Randle are the only two Bears to average well over 30 MPG.
Cal is liable to throw both zone and man defenses at the Bruins, and while the Bruins looked good running their man offense, the zone ‘O" looked only okay. Quite frankly Collison needs to penetrate a bit deeper and recognize when he has the defense beat, which he did several times against Stanford and then pulled the ball back out. That usually indicates tentativeness on the part of the player, which is explainable since Collison is coming off the injury. He has to show more faith in his knee and more aggressiveness in general so that teams don't key on Westbrook as the only Bruins who will drive the seams of a zone.
The Bruins beat the Cardinal, but it seemed more of a steady performance than an emotionally draining one. When they left the court at the end of the game, they still had a lot left physically and emotionally. Cal, on the other hand, won a very emotional game against USC. It almost seemed as if they were playing the game as the one they knew they had to win because the Bruins were going to be a tall order. Now that they have the win over USC, they can play much looser against the Bruins. So, this has the makings of a very good game.
There are two things, however, that should ensure a Bruin win. The first is the coaching match-up. Howland is better than Braun. He'll make better adjustments and has a better sense of game management than does Braun.
The second difference could be Shipp. Against Stanford, it seemed Shipp's demeanor was more of a leader, and that's what the Bruins have needed. In terms of his play on the floor, he was looking to get the ball inside to Love more than he has in the past, and even though he didn't make some of the passes, that seemed to have more to do with his own questions about his passing rather than simply being selfish. Shipp could be the driving force for this team, especially with Collison still not playing anywhere near his optimum level. That should help be the difference against Cal.