The stakes of the game are high; if UCLA wins, they will win the conference outright for the third year in a row. It will also make it much more probable that the Bruins will gain a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with the Pac-10 Conference Tourney still to come as well as a home tilt with Cal on Saturday. With a win the Cardinal will be in position to at least tie for the conference crown depending on what happens on Saturday to the Cardinal and the Bruins. Stanford is also in line for as high as a #2 seed in the NCAAs if they win, and could fall to as low as a #4 seed with a loss. This is the definition of a big game and the Pac-10 schedulers couldn't have had it come off any better.
Nationally, this game truly is ranking up there with the Duke/UNC game, and that by itself is pretty remarkable considering the generally perceived East Coast media bias. Because of UCLA's prominence over the past several seasons, commentators such as ESPN's Jay Bilas and Doug Gottlieb have really taken to the Bruins. Bilas, in particular, continues to sing the praises of the Bruins, Coach Ben Howland and Kevin Love. Since UCLA is getting this kind of weekly attention, any opponent they face is going to get mentioned. As the opponents get better, then they, and UCLA, gain more mention nationally. This week, the "critical" week before conference tournaments start, clearly the two marquee games are Duke/UNC and UCLA/Stanford. Yes, the Bruins are truly back among the elite, or perceived elite.
UCLA defeated Stanford back in January in the first Pac-10 game of the season. Since then both teams have gotten better. UCLA has become more comfortable recognizing that they work best as a team when Kevin Love touches the ball. Stanford has played to its strengths (Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez) and minimized, for the most part, its weaknesses, specifically its lack of athleticism in the backcourt. Stanford has also gotten better because Coach Trent Johnson has recognized what systems work best with his team.
In January, Johnson employed mostly a man-to-man defense against the Bruins and UCLA had one of their better offensive performances of the season. That was at a time when UCLA clearly operated its offense better against man defenses than against zones. Johnson has intimated since then that if he had it to do over, he would have played more zone. Just based on some of Johnson's comments, expect to see more zone from the Cardinal on Thursday night. However, the Cardinal are primarily a man defensive team because of the height they have across their frontline.
Stanford's Brook and Robin Lopez are very good at using their height to both block and alter shots. Even more importantly, their combined size is the primary reason that Stanford typically holds opponents to one shot on each offensive trip. The system that Johnson employs on defense with the Cardinal is predicated on forcing dribble penetration to the middle or the extreme baseline. The idea is that the Stanford wings know that they have a shot blocker behind them to make up for an overplay on the perimeter. In fact, if you watch the Cardinal you will notice that they really overplay the perimeter shot, trying to force the opposition to put the ball on the floor and take it towards the twins. UCLA has to be able to exploit this. First of all, the Bruins must continue to get the ball into Love in dangerous positions in the half court. A few weeks ago, Stanford guard Anthony Goods commented that UCLA was the only team that didn't alter their game planning for the Cardinal because of the Lopez twins. That says a lot about Howland and the Bruins. The Cardinal operate the same way; they will not deviate much from what has got them this far. That means if the ball goes in to Love, Kevin shouldn't expect a double team. However, if the double team does come, Love is adept at both feeling it and passing out of it. If Stanford sticks to playing one Lopez (probably Robin) on Love's back, then Love stands a good chance of getting one or both of the Cardinal big men into foul trouble. Love did this in the first game in Palo Alto. Love also has the ability to pull his defender away from the basket because of his outside shooting ability.
In terms of the perimeter, UCLA needs to take advantage of Russell Westbrook and his ability to hit a pull-up jumper in the lane. Westbrook needs to recognize that taking every drive all the way to the hoop won't be a good idea in this game. Russell has a very nice pull-up game and it would force one or both of the Lopez's higher in the lane, thus opening up cutters for Westbrook to pass to for easy lay-ups. If the Lopez boys don't step up to help then Westbrook has to be able to hit the 10-12 foot shot. Darren Collison will also be a key in that he can hit those floaters that he often puts up in the lane with big guys all around him.
Josh Shipp has been in a bit of a shooting slump and this sort of game may be the kind that gets him out of it. Against Washington State last Saturday, the Cougars were able to free up their wings for open three-pointers because the Stanford wings aren't particularly athletic. In short, they can't get around solid screens very quickly. Johnson made a very good adjustment in the second half as he had his wings help less, but switch on screens and relied on the big guys to alter shots and clear the boards. The difference is that all of the Bruin bigs will come out to set screens and I don't think Johnson is going to have Brook or Robin Lopez switch on screens so they can guard Westbrook or Collison. That means that they will play their man defense much like they did in the first half of the Wazzu game. That means that Shipp can use screens to open himself up for some good looks from behind the arc. Hopefully he can shoot his way out of his slump.
Lorenzo Mata-Real and James Keefe may be big players in this game. Mata-Real has the size, guile and experience to match up with the Stanford bigs and Howland has indicated that he would like to see him on the floor more with Love at the same time. Keefe has the shooting range that would force one of the Lopezes to have to come out to the arc to guard him. If Keefe is left open, he has shown that he will bury the jumper.
On defense, the Bruins are clearly going to stick with doubling in the post and rotating. The doubling of opposing bigs hasn't been a problem this year, but the rotation down low has been a problem, specifically because it's been slow at times leading to easy lay-ups. The Bruins simply can't get caught on slow reads as Stanford moves the ball, much like the Bruins were caught by Arizona several times this past Sunday. The good news is that neither Lopez is a particularly adept passer, with Brook being decent and Robin being mediocre. The Cardinal also move the ball slowly as their offense is predicated on getting the ball to the wing and then pumping it inside to one of the twins. It's an offense that is based on a triangle offense. Stanford can kick the ball back out to one of their "shooters," like Goods and Lawrence Hill, but they are basically the same kind of shooters that UCLA has so it's not as if J.J. Redick is going to be launching threes. The key here is going to be UCLA's ability to prevent dribble penetration. UCLA has been getting better at that over the past few weeks and they need to step it up a notch in this game. The Bruins defense has clearly been a step below the defense of last year's team. If the Bruins hope to compete for a national title, this is the kind of game to start revving up the defensive intensity on the perimeter. Collison particularly has to take advantage of the match-up he has with Cardinal point guard Mitch Johnson. If the Bruins backcourt can force the Cardinal guards, particularly Johnson, to move laterally, then they can't get the ball to the Lopezes in dangerous spots and it tends to neutralize the Cardinal offense.
The game will come down to those factors and one other: rebounding. UCLA has to hold their own on the boards, much like they did in Palo Alto. A few offensive put-backs and key defensive rebounding will allow the Bruins to work on the Cardinal psyche, especially on the Lopez twins as they are emotional players and are apt to make frustration fouls.
The game is at home, and even though the Bruins have lost two home games this season, they have also produced most of their best performances (think Arizona and Wazzu). The Bruins are also more athletic than the Cardinal, especially on the perimeter. Bottom line, many things need to break right for Stanford in this game. Frankly, the Bruins are a bad match-up for them. The Bruins will be very focused for this game as they know what a victory means, but they may be a bit too amped at the beginning. The game should be relatively close, but don't be surprised if the Bruins are able to beat Stanford by double digits.