With ESPN in the house for its weekly Game Day show, and the game sold out and loud, the Bruins can expect a test at least as hard as the one they faced on Thursday. Because of the unique circumstances surrounding the game, this may be the most hostile environment that UCLA has faced yet this season. On top of the ESPN visit, Cal is tied with UCLA and Arizona State for second place in the Pac-10 and Coach Mike Montgomery and his players know that if they win out they stand as good a chance as any to win the Pac-10 regular season title. However, as is usual for the Bruins, this game will really come down to one key question: which UCLA team will show up? Will it be the one that allowed Stanford to jump out to a 14 point first-half lead on Thursday, or will it be the team that outscored the Cardinal by 19 the rest of the way? In terms of post-season positioning and momentum, this game is huge. The team must know that it has the easiest closing weekend of any of the Pac-10 contenders, with the Oregon schools visiting Pauley Pavilion next week. That means that Saturday's game against the Bears is one of the biggest mental hurdles that the Bruins will face in the next 14 days or so. This game is also important because the Bruins have yet to beat a "good" team on the road, which means a great deal in terms of confidence, but also in terms of NCAA tournament seeding. Many UCLA fans think that UCLA is in line for a 6 or 7 seed come March Madness, even if the Bruins lose to Cal, but that might not be necessarily the case. With UCLA's road record being pretty mediocre this season, a loss to Cal coupled with a quarterfinal or even semi-final loss in the Pac-10 Tournament and the Bruins could very well be looking at an 8-versus-9 game in the first round of the Big Dance. So, this game is huge.
The Bruins blew Cal off the floor in their first meeting of the year, but that was when UCLA was playing better team ball and the game was at Pauley. What got UCLA going in that game, which was essentially over early in the second half, was the fact that UCLA limited Cal to one shot per possession for much of the game and UCLA forced Cal into numerous turnovers. The turnovers came because Darren Collison simply shut down Cal's diminutive point guard, junior Jerome Randle (5'10" 160 lbs.). Montgomery has gotten Randle to play more under control this season and it shows in Randle's 17.7 PPG, which leads the team, and his 140+ assists. The trouble is that Randle still turns the ball over a lot (85 turnovers on the season), and that leads forces Cal to go through some rough stretches in close games. It was one of the reasons that USC was able to push their game with Cal on Thursday into overtime. Cal should have won going away in regulation, but Randle made some more than questionable decisions. Randle presents the Bruins with a real problem. He is quick, and guards like Randle have given Collison fits more often than not this season. In fact, Collison's defense on Randle in the first meeting may have been the Bruin senior's best defensive effort of the year. Don't count on that happening again; Collison simply looks a bit weary right now and it's doubtful if he has the ability to play with the sustained energy necessary to do to Randle what he did last month.
Cal starts a three-man backcourt, with junior Patrick Christopher (6'5" 215 lbs.), perhaps Cal's best player, and junior Theo Robertson (6'6" 225 lbs.), manning the wing positions. Both average in double figures and Christopher in particular is a handful if he plays with aggression. Jrue Holiday may find this match-up very difficult, as Christopher is a better version of Stanford's Anthony Goods, and Goods beat Holiday enough times on Thursday to show that Holiday still has mental lapses on defense. Robertson can be a dead-eye three-point shooter and Josh Shipp and/or Michael Roll can't lose sight of him or he could single handedly shoot the Bruins out of Haas. Robertson struggled in th game last month at Pauley (at least, in the first half, when it mattered), but with this being an important game and it being at home don't expect that to happen again.
Up front, Montgomery will go with senior Jordan Wilkes (7'0" 225 lbs.) and junior Jamal Boykin (6'7" 230 lbs.). Wilkins isn't a typical seven-footer in that he doesn't bang all that well. Think of a poor man's version of Gonzaga's Austin Daye. He doesn't shoot beyond the arc, but he also doesn't rebound well. Boykin has turned into Cal's most consistent rebounder and he had a pretty decent game against the Bruins in January. Boykin averages 10.1 PPG and 6.5 RPG. Because of their relative strengths, expect the Bruins to start Alfred Aboya on Boykin and Nikola Dragovic on Wilkes.
The Cal bench isn't particularly deep, with only freshman guard Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 185 lbs.) and sophomore forward Harper Kemp (6'8" 255 lbs.) getting any real minutes off the bench. In fact, Randle, Robertson and Christopher are all averaging well over 30 MPG.
Cal is definitely going to play better against the Bruins than they did down in Los Angeles. The Bears are better than they were then and UCLA isn't playing near the level they were back in January, especially on defense…or are they? After Stanford went up by 14 in the first half on Thursday, things changed and the Bruins started playing better defensively. They weren't great, but they were definitely better. One of the things that may have helped was that Malcolm Lee received some serious minutes for the first time in a while (he played 14 minutes for the game), and he can single-handedly change a game with his defense. The question is, if Lee plays, where do his minutes come from? It's been suggested that the Bruins go small, with Aboya being the only real inside player and Howland then going with Lee, Collison, Holiday and Shipp. The thinking is that Shipp is strong enough to stay with bigger ‘4's and he will have a quickness advantage on the offensive end, a la Dijon Thompson several years ago. The other thought is that Lee would get minutes from Holiday. No matter how Lee gets on the court, expect him to see more time.
Cal's defense is suspect and, as I said in the Stanford preview, UCLA is going to score. The question was whether or not the Bruins could stop the opponent from doing the same. The same thing applies in this game. If UCLA decides to show up and play intense defense from the opening tip, they should have a good night. Cal doesn't play great man defense and their zone is loose enough for UCLA to have consistent success. But Cal can penetrate on offense and get to the line. With this being at Haas, expect them to attack. That being the case, Dragovic can be exploited on the defensive end with his slow rotations, much like Stanford did on Thursday.
So, the key is that the Bruin guards must keep Christopher and especially Randle in front of them, thus lessening the pressure on the interior players to rotate. If they fail in that assignment, expect to see a lot of Malcolm Lee, despite the way Dragovic has been playing on offense.
If UCLA comes out slow and indifferent in this one, it will be a blowout early and it's doubtful whether they'd be able to climb back into the game. If, however, they play defense and rebound, then this will be a good game; a nip-and-tuck affair, if you will. UCLA does get James Keefe back and he was missed on Thursday, mostly because of the depth he provides. He's also been playing better the past two games so having him back, if he is indeed ready to play, will help.
However, with the four-game winning streak disappearing from the rear view mirror, I can't predict that UCLA will play like that until they actually do. I see the homecourt advantage being too much for the Bruins to overcome. Or, more accurately, the disadvantage of UCLA playing away from Pauley Pavilion. About the only thing that will truly offset this is the fact that Cal went to overtime against USC on Thursday and the trio of Robertson, Randle and Christopher played a combined 129 of 135 possible minutes, with Randle and Christopher playing 44 minutes out of a possible 45 minutes each. Hopefully they'll be tired. Where's that 10:00 a.m. game when you need it?