Stanford Preview

Last Saturday, UCLA went up against Washington State, a team on a losing streak, and the Bruins lost -- at home. Now, they go on the dreaded road to face another team, Stanford, on a losing streak. Is it a deja' vu all over again?

UCLA returns to action on Thursday night when they face the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto. This game, and the following one on Saturday against California, are critical games in terms of UCLA's postseason fate. It's not that the Bruins shouldn't make the NCAA Tournament, but a sweep of their last four regular season games and then a nice run in the Pac-10 Tournament might put UCLA back up in the area of a protected seed come Selection Sunday. However, the Bruins have some serious questions that must be answered, chief among them: Can Coach Ben Howland can get this year's version of the Bruins to play with a sense of urgency? In short, will UCLA show up to play?

Stanford enters the game having lost their last four Pac-10 contests, including being the victim for Oregon's first conference victory of the year. The Cardinal aren't playing well and their confidence level is pretty poor right now. However, they do have some talent and the capability of playing much better. Add to the fact that the game is at Maples Pavilion and Stanford is a dangerous opponent.

Stanford has three significant offensive weapons in seniors Anthony Goods, (6'3" 200 lbs.) and Lawrence Hill (6'8" 220 lbs.), and junior Landry Fields (6'7" 210 lbs.). All three average in double figures for Coach Johnny Dawkins, with Goods leading the way at over 15 PPG. He was the primary offensive threat for the Cardinal up until about the weekend the Cardinal traveled to Los Angeles. That was the last weekend (against UCLA at Pauley) that Goods led the Cardinal in scoring in a game. Since that time either Hill or Fields has led Stanford in scoring and Goods has fallen off considerably. Part of this is fatigue and part of it is that conference coaches are figuring how to defend Goods and force other Stanford players to beat them. Goods, also, quite frankly, is limited as a player and was playing above his ability for the first half of the season. Heck, he didn't even start in the loss at Oregon (after going scoreless at Oregon State), giving way to freshman Jeremy Green (6'4" 180 lbs.), who gives the Cardinal more athleticism and defense.

Fields and Hill are doing what they can to try and lead Stanford to victories but, as I wrote in the preview of the first meeting between these two teams, Hill is nowhere near the player that people expected him to be after his huge sophomore season. Fields, who was almost exclusively an outside shooter his first two years in the Bay Area, has really improved his game to become and inside-out scoring threat.

The other two starters for Dawkins are senior point guard Mitch Johnson (6'1" 185 lbs.), and sophomore Josh Owens (6'8" 210 lbs.). Johnson has been starting for three years while Owens is the most athletic of an unimpressive group of post players. Senior guard Kenny Brown (6'2" 200 lbs.), sophomore Will Paul (6' 10" 250 lbs.) and freshman Jack Trotter (6'9" 200 lbs.) get some time off the bench, with Paul starting in place of Owens some games.

The thing about the Cardinal is that they are trying to play Duke-style defense, with high ball pressure and ball denial, without Duke-level athletes. It worked in the beginning of the year, but as teams have become accustomed to this style of defense (as opposed to UCLA's lane denial defense), they have exploited Stanford's lack of athleticism. In defense of Dawkins, while he has tried to mold his system around his players, rather than the other way around, there isn't much he could do since the Cardinal are limited athletically. This hurts them at the offensive end, too, and it doesn't help that Johnson probably isn't a Pac-10 level point guard; at least not night-in and night-out.

It may seem as if I am badmouthing the Cardinal a bit, and I probably am, but I point out their deficiencies because UCLA's last opponent, Washington State, had those same deficiencies, and the Cougars shot the Bruins out of Pauley Pavilion. The difference between Wazzu and Stanford is that WSU has a real post presence that Stanford lacks and that Wazzu has a point guard in Taylor Rochestie that is deceptively quick. I even said that in the game preview. Stanford's guards have nowhere near the first step and IQ of Rochestie.

UCLA needs to establish an identity now or else their season will end fairly quickly. Obviously it all starts with defense. Defense is a mindset as much as it is ability. Rebounding is the same. It's not that the Bruins don't want to play defense, it's that they are inexperienced at doing so the way Howland wants. So, where does that leave the Bruins in this game? Stanford probably won't be able to shut down the Bruins on offense, but they can certainly do a better job of stopping UCLA's penetration than they did a month ago. Either way, the Bruins will score points. On defense, however, the Bruins must set the tone for the game. In the first meeting between these two teams, the Bruins were devastatingly effective in stopping penetration and getting turnovers. The Bruins of that game were playing with a different level of energy than the Bruins are right now. UCLA has to get that energy back. So here's what needs to happen for the Bruins to be successful at maples:

-- Darren Collison has to stop Johnson from penetrating

-- Jrue Holiday has to start playing with some aggression on the offensive side of the floor.

-- Stanford really has no one who can match-up with him. -- Alfred Aboya has to be Alfred Aboya

-- The team's defense needs to read their rotations better on both double teams and ball screens

I know this sounds simple, but the Bruins, except for Aboya, have been missing these things for the better part of two weeks. Thankfully for the Bruins they are playing the one team in the conference that is a great match-up for them. UCLA needs this game, and although Howland spoke about how the Cardinal will play their best game of the year because it's Senior Weekend, etc., the way Stanford is playing they look like a team getting ready for the NIT.

I hate making predictions these days because I've been flat wrong more times than not, but I fully expect the Bruins to play well in this one.

Stanford 67

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