The four-game gauntlet begins Thursday night with UCLA's first conference road game against possibly the best team in the Pac-10, the California Golden Bears. Tracy Pierson posted on the premium basketball forum earlier this week that he feels that the Bruins just don't play as hard as the other teams in the conference. Assuming that's true, and most fans can see that it is, at least over the course of the season to date, then the question of which UCLA team will show up in Haas Pavilion really is the critical factor.
UCLA went into the Arizona game last Saturday on a bit of a high. The young Bruins had just played arguably their best game of the year, certainly their best half, in beating Arizona State. Howland had proved adaptable, finally, as he let the Bruins run a zone defense that clearly bothered the Sun Devils. The offense was running as smoothly as it had all year. Then Saturday came and it was as if UCLA fans were watching a completely different team. The Bruins lost to Arizona 77-63 in a game where the score was probably indicative of how much the Bruins were outplayed. It certainly didn't help that the Bruins shot a putrid 21% form the floor in the first half, but the Bruins lost this game on the defensive end of the floor as they allowed dribble penetration on virtually every possession as Howland stayed with a man defense, and allowed the Cats 10 offensive boards while only getting 11 defensive rebounds themselves. Cal is much closer in style and athleticism to Arizona than Arizona State, at least on offense. However, the style of defense that Cal plays offers UCLA its one glimmer of hope at winning this game.
The Bruins had almost no success at containing the Wildcats on the outside as the UCLA defense looked slow on the ball and with their rotations. The one Bruin who was successful on defense was Malcolm Lee, who almost rendered invisible Arizona's best player, guard Nic Wise. Cal has a Wise-like player of their own in senior point guard Jerome Randle (5'10" 172 lbs.). Randle is more of a scorer than Wise and may be a bit quicker than his Arizona counterpart, but he is also much less competent at taking care of the ball. Randle averages 19.6 PPG, shoots 47% from the floor and 44% from beyond the arc. He even shoots 92% from the free-throw line so fouling him isn't a good option either. However, Randle still can play out of control, which has been a problem for him over the course of his career. He still takes ill-advised shots from ridiculous angles and distances, and even though they go in sometimes, he still has the capability of taking his team out of a good run as much as he's capable of starting one. Moreover, Randle has 49 turnovers on the year. For those doing the math, that's almost 4 turnovers per game. Lee has the capability of slowing down Randle, but that begs the question of what the rest of the Bruins will do against a pretty good Cal line-up.
Senior wing Patrick Christopher (6'5" 220 lbs.) has never quite lived up to his billing coming out of high school, but he is still a skilled, athletic player who will give the Bruins trouble. If UCLA thought Kyle Fogg was a handful then they are in for it against Christopher, as he is eminently better than Fogg. Even though Christopher is only averaging 16.2 PPG, it's because he's shooting only 30% from the three-point line. He is better than that and is due for a big shooting game soon. Mike Roll simply can't stay with Christopher and Jerime Anderson, likewise, would be completely overmatched. The question here is whether Howland will play Tyler Honeycutt more minutes to offset Christopher.
If Howland decides to go with a man defense then hopefully Roll can stick with senior Theo Robertson (6'6" 230 lbs.). Robertson, thankfully for the Bruins, is almost entirely an outside shooter, albeit a very good one. He's been out half the season with an injury and since his return he's been looking to get to the basket more, or at least take one or two dribbles and take the mid-range jumper. Either way he's going to be difficult for Roll to guard. If Roll plays off Robertson, he's shooting 47% from beyond the arc.
The backcourt match-up clearly favors the Bears. They simply have too much length and athleticism for the Bruins to handle in a man defense. The wild card will be Honeycutt and if he plays big minutes.
However, the frontcourt match-up may be more favorable to the Bruins. The four inside players for Cal aren't offensively imposing. Three of the four aren't that big or long either. The two who will start are senior Jamal Boykin (6'8" 240 lbs.) and junior Markhuri Sanders-Frison (6'7" 275 lbs.). Boykin plays a lot while Sanders-Frison doesn't, but together they average over 11 boards per game. Boykin is more of an offensive threat, but that's not saying much. He's generally the 4th offensive option and scores many of his 11.6 PPG off garbage and put-backs. Nikola Dragovic can match up with him since Boykin isn't very quick and not a threat off the dribble; he'll have to if UCLA stands any chance. Defensively, Boykin is an inside player who is bothered by "bigs" who pull him outside. Dragovic, and to a certain extent James Keefe, should be able to get open looks. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see more of Keefe, at least in this game.
Omondi Amoke (6'7" 225 lbs.), who is more of a defensive stopper, will probably see minutes in place of Sanders-Frison if the Bruin ‘4', whoever it is, starts making shots. He helped shut down Stanford's Landry Fields and will relish doing the same to Dragovic, Keefe and Brendan Lane. This would also allow Boykin to play inside against Reeves Nelson.
The final Cal big man is its most intriguing, Chinese behemoth Max Zhang (7'3" 240 lbs.). He is a fan favorite in Haas and he knows how to throw his body around near the rim. He is a bit thin for his height and he is slow, but he can be a handful. Whether he plays big minutes will be determined by how the game is going and if Nelson is simply having a good game.
The backcourt depth of the Bears took a hit with the injury to Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 195 lbs.), the back-up point guard. He suffered a knee injury against Stanford and looks unlikely to play this weekend. That leaves the Bear backcourt quite thin if something were to happen to Randle. Freshman Brandon Smith (5'11" 185) would get a much larger role should Gutierrez, in fact, be out. The Gutierrez injury could be a big one as he is Cal's 6th man and averages over 20 MPG. Senior Nikola Knezevic (6'3" 190 lbs.) is also in the mix, but he isn't a pass-first guy. He is another three-point shooter, with exactly half of his shots coming from outside.
Cal is a better athletic team than UCLA. However, that's where the general similarities with Arizona end. In fact, upon closer inspection, Cal doesn't have many of the qualities that Arizona does. For instance, Cal doesn't have a legitimate low-post threat every time down the floor like Arizona does with Derrick Williams. Also, Cal doesn't play swarming pressure defense like Arizona does and here is where the ray of hope for UCLA exists.
Coach Mike Montgomery has always been a man-first coach. His Stanford teams lived on the ability to play Howland-like halfcourt man defense, with one difference, and it was a difference that I felt at the time and still feel cost Stanford in several NCAA Tournaments. When UCLA upset Stanford in Steve Lavin's last Sweet 16 run at Maples Pavilion, they won the game because Stanford refused to extend their man defense beyond the three-point line. Montgomery is known for this in the college game; his defense picks up at the arc, no further. Howland's halfcourt defense extends beyond (which I think Howland should change if he insists on playing almost exclusively a man defense, but that's for another time). That's a subtle reason why the Bruins were able to get to multiple Final Fours. I digress; the point is that UCLA won't see a lot of ball pressure out on the perimeter outside of the arc. That means in some ways Cal's defense will have the speed and pressure of ASU, not Arizona. Obviously UCLA lost because they couldn't shoot straight and couldn't rebound as well as not playing defense, but if their shots fall early then that could bolster UCLA's defense as well. I've stated for a while now that this UCLA team is a front-running team, that their offense will dictate their intensity and their defense, not the other way around. If UCLA can shoot and if they play a zone more than a man (the length they can deploy will at least bother Cal's outside shooters), then there is a chance, however slight, that UCLA can pull the upset. It probably won't happen, but the game will be closer than most fans think precisely because of the style of defense Cal plays.
Then it's on to Stanford in what will be, regardless of the Cal outcome, a must-win for the Bruins.