Tonight's game with California is no exception, with the Bears currently tied with UCLA for second in the conference, each holding a 5-2 record. If UCLA loses this game – at home – it would give the Bruins an uphill battle against other teams in the Pac-10 – particularly ASU – which has already faced some of their tougher games on the road. Bottom line: UCLA needs to hold serve at home tonight or a Pac-10 championship is going to be an uphill battle.
It ain't going to be easy. The Bruins aren't playing really well as of late. They've lost two of their last three games, something they haven't done in Pac-10 play since the 2005-206 season (losing at Washington and at USC in succession that season). Of course, if you remember, UCLA bounced back from those two losses and went on a powerful run to finish off that season, winning 12 games in a row before losing in the NCAA Championship game to Florida.
We'll see if this year's team has any type of similar bounce-back capability.
It's not as if Cal is an easy out this season. 16-4 overall, the Bears have greatly benefitted from the coaching of Mike Montgomery, who has instituted a tougher, more physical and disciplined style of play. Cal is admittedly over-achieving a bit, and has come back to earth some recently, having lost two of their last three, and one of those games being to Oregon State in Berkeley. But they still very easily could come into Pauley and beat the Bruins and it wouldn't be a surprise.
The Bears' unpredictable success this season is probably great attributable to the emergence of junior point guard Jerome Randle (5-10, 160). Randle averaged 11 points per game last season, and shot 39% from three, which is decent. He was, though, not a great playmaker for his team and tended to make mistakes. This season, however, he's undergone a considerable transformation; not only is he scoring at a frenetic pace (averaging 19 points per game, second in the conference, and shooting a whopping 47% from three), he's improved his decision-making considerably, with a 1.86 assist-to-turnover ratio. He's on his way to all Pac-10 honors, and he is clearly the engine that drives Cal this season. He is, too, the type of small, quick guard who combines a quick shooting release and an ability to get by his defender that has given UCLA's defense problems this season.
You probably could make a case that Cal has the best backcourt in the conference, with junior Patrick Christopher (6-5, 215) at the two-guard spot. Christopher was the guy who was projected to be the big gun for the Bears this season, and even though Randle has taken a great deal of the limelight, it's not hard to make a case that Christopher is also a big reason behind Cal's success. He's averaging 15.6 points per game (Cal being the only school in the Pac-10 to have two players among the top eight scorers in the conference), while also shooting 42% from three. He has very good length, good quickness on the bounce, and can score from just about anywhere on the court. The general scouting report on him for a couple of years is to force him left, but he's improved his left-handed ball-handling considerably this season.
What really is devastating about Randle and Christopher is their ability to get to the free-throw line – and then make their free throws. Randle has attempted an amazing 117 free throws this season (and made 102), and Christopher 53. Those two have attempted more free throws than Darren Collison (67), Jrue Holiday (33), Josh Shipp (43), Mike Roll (10) and Nikola Dragovic (12) combined. And, Randle is the all-time leader in free-throw percentage in Cal history, averaging 87% this season, while Christopher averages 85% from the line. Randle has made about the same amount of free throws himself as UCLA's two leaders in free-throw attempts combined (Collison and Aboya).
So, Cal has two guards who can shoot from the outside but also penetrate and score, or draw fouls and go to the line and knock down their free throws.
This isn't just déjà vu. This is déjà vu-plus, since Cal's backcourt is better than Washington's.
Another huge reason the Bears are doing well is the return of junior Theo Robertson (6-6, 225) after missing all of last season due to hip surgery. Robertson is the team's third leading scorer, averaging 12 points per game, and he's really boosted Cal's offense by being a third outside shooting threat, averaging a phenomenal 55% from three. He's strong and well-put together and is very good at muscling up on defense.
Junior power forward Jamal Boykin (6-7, 230) has been a very good role player for the Bears, scoring 10 points per game and leading the team in rebounding at 6.5 per game. He is good at the little things – setting screens, blocking out, etc., and makes up for a lack of athleticism. Defensively, he doesn't have great foot speed, so he struggles against quicker power forwards, or those that stretch the court. Offensively, he has a slow set shot, but if he has space, he's very reliable.
Junior Jordan Wilkes (7-0, 225) starts at center, and he's barely been serviceable this season. He's not very strong, and not very quick, which is a deadly combination at the high-major level. He also plays a great deal below the rim for a player his height, getting just 3.6 rebounds per game.
Montgomery goes with sophomore Harper Kamp (6-7, 255) more often, with Kamp averaging 20 minutes per game compared to Wilkes' 18. Even though Kamp isn't a great scoring threat, and just an okay rebounder, he is very physical and plays very hard. Montgomery uses Kamp to give breaks to both Boykin and Wilkes.
Cal has a pretty short bench. In fact, besides Kamp, the bench mostly consists of freshman Jorge Guitierrez (6-3, 185), who is a sturdy slasher type that also plays hard defensively. Freshmen Omondi Amoke (6-6, 215) and D.J. Seeley (6-3, 185) and junior Nikola Knezevic (6-3, 185) provide spot minutes. Knezevic, like all Nikolas, is a good outside shooter.
In conference, Montgomery, since he doesn't have much of a bench, has been forced to play his top seven guys a ton of minutes. Truly the lack of bench is Cal's primary weakness, with no one averaging more than 4 points or 3 rebounds per game other than Randle, Christopher, Robertson or Boykin.
There's also the matter of inside play. The Bears just don't have high-major talent in their frontcourt. Not only do they lack inside scoring, but it really has hurt their rebounding. They make a good team-wide effort to rebound, but they don't have that great rebounder on their roster.
What Cal does do exceptionally well is shoot the ball. They are sixth among all D-1 schools in field goal percentage, shooting 49.7% from the field, which is only 1 percentage point off the national lead. Then, the Bears actually lead the nation in three-point shooting percentage, averaging 46% as a team. And it's not a fluke; they've been leading the nation for most of the season.
After how UCLA struggled to guard Washington's perimeter players, it doesn't sound like a good match-up for the Bruins. Really what UCLA has going for it ispossibly that the Washington game was, perhaps, a defensive wake-up call. And the fact that Collison and Holiday have the capability of being very good on-ball defenders.
Luckily, for the Bruins, Cal has been very vulnerable to opposing team's guards themselves. So far in league play, opposing guards have had huge games against the Bears: ASU's James Harden – 26 points; WSU's Taylor Rochestie – 19 points; Washington's Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon – 22 and 24 points; Stanford's Anthony Goods – 19 points; Oregon State's Calvin Haynes and Roeland Schaftenaar – 21 and 22 points; Oregon's Tajuan Porter – 26 points. The Bears have not only allowed Pac-10 opponents to light it up from three, but also have allowed them to get into the lane. Watching Cal at the beginning of the season compared to their games in the Pac-10, their perimeter defense has clearly gotten worse. It very well might be that Cal is facing better competition in conference, and it also could be that Cal's starters are playing more minutes and fatigue is now a factor.
The Bears, defensively, have played almost exclusively man-to-man, which is a staple of a Montgomery team. There have been moments during the season when they have gone to a zone, and it will be interesting to see if Montgomery attempts it against UCLA, to help with dribble penetration and keep his players fresher.
This is pivotal game for UCLA. It's clear what UCLA needs to do to be successful – play better defense, rebound better, and penetrate on offense -- but it will be interesting to see if it manifests itself on the court. The UCLA players talked very candidly this week about what they feel they need to do, so it's not a mystery.
UCLA has the capability of matching up in the backcourt with Cal, and the potential advantage in the frontcourt. Aboya and his quickness should be able to exploit Wilkes, and be too much for Kamp. Dragovic is a tough match-up for Boykin; he'll most likely have to go out to defend him on the perimeter, and that should free up space down low for Aboya, and for UCLA's guards to penetrate.
It definitely, though, should be a battle of the backcourts. If Collison and Holiday can play to their capability on defense and have solid games offensively, along with the homecourt advantage, the Bruins should win, but it should be close.