Once again the UCLA Bruins will take on the California Golden Bears in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Much like last year, the game will pit the #1 seed Bruins against Cal, who this year are the #9 seed in the tourney. Last year the Bears upset the Bruins in overtime and most "experts" point to that game as the reason why UCLA did not get a #1 seed in the West Region in last year's NCAA Tournament. What most people don't remember is that the Bruins played Cal at Pauley Pavilion only two weeks before the start of last season's Pac-10 Tourney and the Bears gave the Bruins all they could handle before UCLA pulled away to win by 10. Like last year, Cal will be playing for their post-season lives while UCLA will be playing to cement a #1 seed in the West Region…just like last season.
As with most Bruin games this year, the outcome will be dictated by the intensity and focus that the Bruins show, especially on the defensive end. So the question for today is: Which UCLA team will show up? Will it be the one that dismantled the Arizona schools at Pauley (and the one that hasn't been seen in a while), or will it be the Bruin squad that was "lucky" to pull off two victories at home last week?
Cal enters this game coming off of a hard-fought victory over a short-handed Washington squad last night (The Huskies were missing Jon Brockman). This is different from last year when Cal was able to coast to a victory in the play-in game over Oregon State.
Cal also saw the return of big man DeVon Hardin last night and his play helped the Bears to the victory. Hardin missed the UCLA game, but he didn't miss a thing on the defensive end last night. His mere presence in the second half was a primary reason why Washington suddenly went cold from the floor after Cal faced a 12 point deficit.
The Bears know that their coach, Ben Braun, is likely going to be fired at the end of their season short of a miraculous run by Cal to the Pac-10 Conference Championship. Whether the Cal players truly like Braun and want to see him stick around is a question only the players can answer and I'm not going to speculate how they feel. Remember, though, that this is the man that all the Cal players decided to play for when they committed to Cal.
Finally, there is last Saturday to remember. Cal is angry at the way the game with UCLA ended, feeling that Ryan Anderson was fouled with mere seconds remaining in the game and Cal leading, and that Josh Shipp's eventual game-winning basket should not have counted because it came from behind the backboard. Most people know about those two plays. But Cal could also have griped about Josh Shipp's fist to the ensuing inbounds pass (the fist to the ball is illegal), or about UCLA's celebration with.1 second left on the game clock. That could have been called a technical foul. While Anderson looked like he was picked cleanly, there have been many shots go over the corner of the backboard before, and no ref is ever going to access a technical for fans on the court, the point is that Cal is "pissed" and they've let the national media know about it (unlike Stanford who, like Cal, were the victims of a disputed call that one could argue cost them a victory at Pauley two nights before the Cal game). Cal wants this game.
So where does that leave the outcome of today's game? Cal will be tired, that much is sure. Braun had four players log more than 33 minutes, with his backcourt of Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher playing 39 and 40 minutes respectively. Their legs will be tired. Randle should be missing a small amount of spring in his step, allowing Darren Collison to stay with him. Russell Westbrook will also be fresh and should be able to nullify Christopher. Also, Cal won't have time to develop any real "fresh" gameplan for the Bruins. Cal had to have known they'd have their hands full last night and had to practice accordingly.
Hardin's return may be a blessing in disguise for the Bruins. Last Saturday Jamal Boykin had a career game against the Bruins and showed that he is a more varied offensive threat than is Hardin. The Bruins beat Cal handily in Berkeley when the Bears had Hardin but struggled with the pick and roll when Boykin saw big minutes. Boykin is unlikely to have as big of a game today and although that kind of game by him isn't out of the question, he clearly won't see the minutes he saw last Saturday. Add to the fact that Coach Ben Howland will have seen the game tape and will have realized that the Bruins struggled defensively and he will have worked the Bruins through those deficiencies this week.
Braun may be coaching for his job, but his players are probably more focused on how angry they are at the outcome of last week's game. That motivation clearly trumps any motivation that Cal may have to play for their coach. In fact, if I were a betting man (I'm not), I would say that Braun's tenuous job status will not play into today's game with regard to Cal's motivation at all. This may be a good development for UCLA, as young people tend to play better when playing for someone else, even if it's for a buddy, then when playing selfishly.
Finally, there's the "motivated by anger" angle. One thing that pundits haven't talked about is how angry the Bruin players may be after last weekend's controversy. The Bruin players have acknowledged through the media that they feel as if they got the benefit of some calls, but something else was creeping into the sound bites -- the attitude of, "Yeah, give us another shot at these guys (Cal and Stanford), and we'll show you who's lucky." The Bruins have been leaving games to be decided until late and while I hate to think that it may come back to bite them, the reality is that it may, unless they use something like what happened last week as motivation and/or a lesson.
I've been saying for the past several weeks that UCLA will finally bring their ‘A' game and yet they haven't. Last weekend's results are as close as a team can get to a "lesson" without actually losing a game. Maybe those games will finally be the motivation necessary for the Bruins to bring it from the opening tip. Finally, UCLA also knows that a win today should virtually lock up a #1 seed in the West. While being the #2 hasn't hurt the Bruins the past two seasons, and while they would stay in the Anaheim/Phoenix bracket, being #1 does give you a bit of an easier road to the regionals.
These things had better motivate the Bruins because if this situation doesn't, then nothing will, which doesn't bode well for the NCAA Tournament.