The UCLA Bruins defeated the USC Trojans last night in one of the Pac-10 Conference Tournament semi-finals and will take on the Stanford Cardinal today at 3:15 PST at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Stanford arrived in the final by way of defeating Washington State, 75-68. Stanford finished the season in 2nd place in the Pac-10 and probably should have split the season series with the Bruins after losing last week's overtime affair at Pauley Pavilion. Stanford boasts the "Twin Towers" otherwise known as the Lopez brothers. Brook and Robin Lopez present arguably the toughest frontcourt match-up of any team in the country. Against Wazzu last night, Brook was particularly impressive, scoring 30 points and pulling down 12 boards. Because of the Lopez's and because of the unavailability of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the Cardinal present a tough match-up for the Bruins as UCLA seeks to win its second Pac-10 Tournament title in the last three years.
Stanford is probably a more formidable team than USC but the Trojans present the Bruins with match-up problems that Stanford simply cannot. More specifically, the Trojans have the ability to drive to the hoop and highlight what has been a deficiency in the Bruin defense -- namely the defensive rotation. Stanford simply doesn't have that kind of firepower. The strength of the Cardinal is truly in the low post and that is where the strength and guile of the UCLA defense resides. This certainly isn't meant to take anything away from Russell Westbrook and to a lesser extent, Darren Collison. The two Bruin guards have a way of disrupting the flow of any team's offense, but it has been a hallmark of Howland's UCLA teams that the UCLA post double-team works as well as it does. This should mean that Stanford presents an easier match-up for the Bruins, if that can be believed.
However, that doesn't mean that UCLA will win the game. That will come down to three factors: the intensity that UCLA brings to the game; the ability of UCLA's frontcourt players to make the Lopezes, especially Brook, work hard for points and rebounds (and perhaps get one or both of them in foul trouble); and the ability of UCLA to offset the loss of Mbah a Moute.
As usual, this game could very well come down to which UCLA team shows up, especially defensively. Will it be the team from the Cal game on Thursday and the second half last night? Or will it be the one that allowed USC to score 34 points in the first half last evening? The Bruins are now going to face the second team that they played last week that led sports writers around the nation to question UCLA's "luck". The Bruin players could very well be looking at this as another "statement" game, ala Cal. If that's the case, then the Stanford guards and wings are going to find it difficult to get initial entry passes into the Lopez twins. However, the Cardinal should also look at this as a redemption game. They were the team that supposedly got "jobbed" on the foul call with 2.5 seconds left. However, the way the Cardinal composed themselves after the game, generally not commenting on the call, (as opposed to Cal who openly complained about the supposed non-call for Ryan Anderson until they got their clocks cleaned by the Bruins in the quarterfinals), indicates a team with maturity and a more emotionally dangerous team than the Cal team UCLA faced two days ago. The bottom line, however, is that Stanford brought a great deal of intensity to the game last week and the Bruins only brought their intensity at the end of the game. Yet UCLA won, clearly indicating that if both the Bruins and the Cardinal play their best, most focused and intense basketball, that the Bruins are the better team.
One of the less talked about issues from last week's game against the Cardinal was that UCLA was able to make Brook Lopez work very hard at both ends of the floor, but the Bruins lost track of brother Robin too much and this allowed Robin to have one of his better games of the year; one which almost defeated the Bruins. UCLA's offense is what it is; it will live and die by how quickly and crisply they move the ball and how under control Russell Westbrook is, especially now that he has taken on more ball handling responsibilities. UCLA's defense, however, has the ability to make this game easier or a dogfight. When UCLA beat Stanford in Palo Alto earlier this season, they were able to get Robin Lopez in foul trouble and they rotated and recovered defensively very quickly. The result was a relatively easy Bruin victory. Last week at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins were slow on their rotations and looked slightly off on their recovery responsibilities. The result was an overtime game that Stanford arguably should have won. The Bruins have got to be able to double-team the post and cause the Stanford bigs to turn the ball over or at least to pass the ball into a non-dangerous spot on the floor. This is where Lorenzo Mata-Real may play a big role. The Bruin senior is the best Bruin post defender and with the loss of Luc, and the fact that Stanford presents a specific match-up issue, Mata-Real should see vastly increased minutes.
Luc's loss does hurt UCLA, make no mistake about that, especially on the boards, however, last night's emergence of James Keefe, who played the entire second half, was a significant development. Perhaps Coach Howland knew that Keefe would be his secret weapon all along and he didn't want to let other teams scout him out. Who knows? But what we do know is that Keefe now gives the Bruins an offensive option that they wouldn't have with Luc in the game. Luc's offensive game flows from his ability to take his man off the dribble. Despite the fact that Luc has improved his outside shooting ability, the prospects of his scoring consistently from beyond 8 feet are iffy right now. Keefe brings an outside shooting ability that the Cardinal will have to respect, even if he doesn't make any shots. Against the Trojans last night, Keefe attempted two three-pointers, and while missing both, he clearly stretched the Trojan defense. If Keefe can pull one of the Lopez's away from the hoop, (or Taj Finger for threat matter), it should allow Kevin Love more space to get the other Lopez in some sort of foul difficulty.
Both teams have their NCAA bid sewn up and have for some time. The only question that remains is which seed each one will get. Many pundits have argued that the Bruins sewed up the West Region's #1 seed with last night's win. However, it appears that the Bruins aren't completely satisfied with that. Stanford knows a win today will lock up a #3 seed and, with a little luck, may even move them to the #2 seed line. The difference in a game like this sometimes is coaching, but Stanford's Trent Johnson is very good at game planning, while UCLA's Ben Howland is excellent at making in-game adjustments. They essentially offset each other, at least when coaching against each other this season. That means it will come down to intensity and focus, as games like this often do. There are few, if any teams in the nation that can match-up with the Bruins when they bring their ‘A' game from the opening tip.