I feel I've been pretty good about predicting scores and margins of victory for the Bruins and Thursday night was no different; I predicted the Bruins would win by 10 and they did exactly that (thank you Darren Collison for that final lay-up).
Who am I kidding? Did anyone think Thursday night's affair against Stanford would go down the way it did? I certainly didn't, and I would tell you that you were a liar if you said you had some clairvoyance regarding overtime. It was one heck of a game, though. It was quite a way to win the Pac-10 Conference and gain the #1 seed in the upcoming Pac-10 Tourney. But there is one more step to take on the journey to the Staples Center in the form of Saturday afternoon's final regular season opponent, California.
The good news for the Bruins, Coach Ben Howland and Bruin fans is that Cal had to play an overtime game against USC on Thursday night that. While it wasn't as intense as UCLA/Stanford, it had to be a major emotional letdown for the Bears as they blew a fairly large first-half lead and then stormed back to tie the Trojans late. Cal is going to be tired, as are the Bruins.
Three of Cal's starters -- Patrick Christopher, Ryan Anderson and Jerome Randle -- all played more than 37 minutes. That should offset the fact that Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook all played more than 40 minutes. The big difference in how these players should respond to the fatigue in their legs should come from the fact that UCLA is playing for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while the Bears are playing for nothing but pride. Now that should change come Wednesday night when Cal plays in its first round Pac-10 Tourney game but the Bears' could suffer some serious energy and motivation letdown Saturday.
Don't misunderstand what is being said -- Cal has talent. Anderson would start for the Bruins and Christopher and DeVon Hardin would all get minutes if they were also on the Bruin roster. The problem with Cal right now is their mental make-up. They really do look like they've packed it in, at least until Wednesday, and that accounts for their current losing streak.
Remember that three weeks ago Cal was squarely on the NCAA bubble with a realistic chance to play their way into the Big Dance. They haven't won since. They did have some fight last night, but that's because USC came out particularly flat. Any athlete, especially a young one, will fight to win if they think they have a chance to do so. Cal's problem is that they've come out of the gate the past few games, excluding Thursday, playing as if they knew they would lose. They didn't even look fired up for much of their game against arch-rival Stanford. If UCLA can come out and take a solid early lead, Cal has shown that they more than likely will fold. The question is whether or not UCLA can get a solid early start.
While the Bruin offense didn't execute that badly against the Cardinal, they certainly didn't make their shots, especially in the first half. If the Bruins don't want another dogfight on their hands, they have to come out intensely and focused early, and the it's now a question whether or not they can do that.
The question really comes down to balance; the Bruins don't have it because they don't have a bona fide outside threat like, say, a Mike Roll can be. Josh Shipp had been doing a good job of shooting from the perimeter until about two weeks ago. Since then he's not gotten the looks he had earlier in the year, he isn't hitting the looks he is being given, and he's now hesitating on his shot, a clear danger sign for a shooter. If I were Howland (and he calls me regularly for advice), I would have Shipp chucking up threes all game on Saturday just to get him to stop thinking about his shot, regardless of whether they go in. It really is time for someone to tell Josh to just go out and have fun. The Bruins have to have a legitimate outside threat going into the NCAAs. If they do, then the Bruins will be very tough to beat.
Cal's intensity may also be low because of the tenuous future of Coach Ben Braun's job. It's pretty common knowledge that Cal needs to at least get to a post-season tournament, and probably needs to get to the NCAAs, to save his job. The players know that, and the demeanor of the Cal kids seems to be one of resignation, like they are resigned not only to their fate, but also that of their coach.
I'm not going to do much Xs and Os in this preview, since I don't think this game will be about it. This one, like many this season, will come down to how UCLA plays. After Thursday night it should be very apparent now that the only team that can beat UCLA is UCLA. That's not to take anything away from Stanford. Coach Trent Johnson had a very good gameplan and the Cardinal guards played much better with the ball than they had previously showed. The Lopez twins are a handful to contend with and Brook, in particular, is a difficult stop on the defensive end. The Bruins earned that win. In spite of all that, most Bruins players would have told you that, if they lost the game, they lost because they didn't execute, not because Stanford is a better team.
Howland will be sure to remind the Bruins of what happened in Seattle a few weeks back, as I am sure he'll remind them of what ramifications will befall the Bruins should they lose to Cal. Keeping that in mind, the Bruins should be focused. The key will be the beginning of the game and whether the Bruins will come out with guns blazing.
The Bruins took it to Cal in Berkeley in the first match-up back in January. Cal was playing at home then and they were playing better; with more confidence. The Bruins should be sky-high after Thursday, and motivated, playing for the #1 seed in the West Region.
The final piece of this puzzle and prediction is UCLA's postseason experience. In the past two seasons, those that ended with Final Four appearances, the Bruins started showing a different intensity when the calendar turned to March. That seems to be happening now. Stanford is a very, very good team that should be playing into the second weekend of the NCAAs, and they played a much better game than UCLA did on Thursday. The Bruins, however, still won. Is there anyone out there who saw the look on the faces of the five primary UCLA players and had any doubt the Bruins would win once the game went to overtime?
To recap: The Bruins need to get Josh Shipp to come out of the "slump" he's in; UCLA needs to come out focused and intense and get a solid lead; Howland has got to get minutes for James Keefe (Okay, that last one wasn't mentioned yet, but the Bruins will need him in the NCAAs). Cal can win this game. after all, only Oregon State doesn't have the capability to win the Pac-10 Tournament next week. But there are too many things going against Cal and in favor of UCLA right now to expect that to happen.