Both teams are coming off improbable one-point victories and are looking for momentum as the conference schedule kicks into high gear. As is usual, the question of which UCLA team will show up for the contest in terms of focus and intensity is critical to determining the outcome of the game.
UCLA is coming off what is clearly their most impressive win of the season, a 76-75 overtime victory at California on Wednesday night. What makes that victory even more remarkable is the fact that UCLA didn't play well. Tracy Pierson alluded to UCLA's offensive execution in the second half as reason the Bruins were able to pull out the win, but he also spoke to UCLA's poor defensive performance. I would echo that analysis. It is precisely that mediocre-at-best defensive performance that should leave all Bruin fans wondering how UCLA won the game. The Bruins have been consistent in at least one thing this season: when they've been focused they are a competitive team. When they aren't focused they get blown out by the likes of Long Beach State. Against Cal, the Bruins looked uninspired for the entire first half and portions of the second. So what was the difference in that game? I have stated numerous times this season that the Bruins are a front-running team and, although they certainly came from behind on Wednesday night, their offense carried them. When Nikola Dragovic started burying threes in the second half anyone watching the game could see UCLA's energy level rise. That's what I meant by "front-running." The Bruins get their defensive energy from their offense, not the other way around, as Coach Ben Howland's three Final Four teams did. How this will carry over to the Stanford game is a mystery and the effectiveness of being front-runners game in and game out remains to be seen.
Stanford is coming off a dramatic one-point victory of its own, 54-53, over USC. The Cardinal were able to slow down the game enough that USC couldn't take advantage of its athleticism. The game was quite even statistically as they both hit seven free throws, both hit roughly the same number of shots from the floor (22-20) and both had roughly the same number of turnovers (12-11). The difference in the game was that Stanford outrebounded the Trojans by four and held them to 41% shooting for the game. The question for Stanford is whether they can reproduce that kind of defensive effort against the Bruins.
On paper, Stanford is probably the least talented team in the Pac-10, although Wednesday night's shelling at the hands of Seattle could arguably put Oregon State in the conversation. The Cardinal really only have two players who an opposing coach needs to truly worry about and it's questionable if either of those players would start on the upper tier Pac-10 teams. Other than that, the Cardinal rely on solid team play and a fairly aggressive man-to-man style on defense that Coach Johnny Dawkins brought with him to Palo Alto from his assistant days at Duke.
The leader of the Cardinal is senior wing Landry Fields (6'7" 210 lbs.), who is the Cardinal's leading scorer at 22.5 PPG and leading rebounder at 9 RPG. Most significantly, Fields takes over 32% of the Cardinal's shots from the floor. He was known as a three-point specialist when he arrived at Stanford as a freshman but he has developed a nice all-around game. In fact, of his 236 field goal attempts this season only 41 have come from beyond the arc. Part of that is because he's shooting a miserable 29% from downtown. Having been pretty thin his first three years, Fields is thought of as a wing. But he's bulked up some this season and he often plays the ‘4' for Dawkins. This will be an interesting match-up for the Bruins, especially if the Cardinal do indeed go small. If Fields is at the ‘3' then he'll be taller than all three Bruin backcourt players and it will almost necessitate Malcolm Lee being matched on him. Howland could also opt to use Tyler Honeycutt for large chunks of minutes, but Honeycutt had some defensive breakdowns (typical for a freshman) against Cal that make his guarding Fields a risky proposition. If Fields plays the ‘4', then Howland will have a dilemma because Dragovic simply won't be able to guard Fields. If that's the case then Fields could score 30. Obviously this could all change if Howland decides to utilize the zone defense for the majority of the game.
The other go-to player for Stanford is sophomore guard Jeremy Green (6'4" 190 lbs.), who is a better athlete than Fields. Green averages 16.7 PPG and is the primary outside threat for the Cardinal. Don't let that fool you however, as Green is just as apt to get to the rack as he is to launch a three-pointer. Green is also the team's third-leading rebounder at just under 4 RPG. Green takes over 23% of the team's shots from the floor. That means, between the two of them, Green and Fields take over 55% of the total shots for the Cardinal. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who the Bruins will need to defend. The problem is that if Lee is guarding Fields, then the question becomes, who guards Green? Again, if Howland wants to play man defense then this might be the game to play the same personnel as he did against Cal; have Honeycutt start and Jerime Anderson come off the bench to relieve all the guard spots.
The point guard is fellow sophomore Jarrett Mann (6'3" 185 lbs.), who leads the Cardinal in assists at over 5 per game. He also has as many turnovers as Cal's Jerome Randle (48), but at least Mann can claim youth for his poor ball possession at times. Mann has been a horrible shooter from the floor this season, averaging just over 41% and only 30% from the ‘3' point line. He has been to the free-throw line 80 times, which ranks just behind Fields for the team lead. The trouble is he has only hit just over 50% of those charity shots. He would fit right in with the Bruins, wouldn't he? Seriously, though, Mann isn't a great athlete and moves stiffly for his size. If Howland does decide to go with a man defense (no pun intended), then Anderson should be able to guard Mann well.
The two "post" starters should be 6'9" sophomores Andrew Zimmerman (215 lbs.) and Jack Trotter (220 lbs.). Zimmerman is the better offensive player while Trotter is the better defender. Trotter is also significantly better at the free throw line. The other major offensive difference is that Zimmerman will attempt some three-pointers (he's missed all 10 attempts this season), while Trotter won't. Reeves Nelson should be able to pound on either of these players in the paint. Nelson pounded Cal inside and if he hit even 65% of his free throws in that game then the Bruins win by nine or ten in regulation. The one who is placed on Dragovic will be interesting as they have the quickness to contest Dragovic's outside shots, but they don't have the size to prevent him from backing them in down low. The problem is that low-post moves are not a strength of Dragovic's.
Dawkins doesn't have a deep bench, especially in the frontcourt where sophomores Matei Daian (6'10" 240 lbs.) and Elliott Bullock (6'11" 220 lbs.) combine to play a collective 16 MPG. Daian at least is a big body who can defend while Bullock is a decent rebounder. Daian, however, may be the slowest big man the Bruins face this year while Bullock is reed-thin. The Bruins are deeper off the bench up front with James Keefe and J'mison Morgan, both of whom would start and get big minutes for Stanford.
Dawkins can at least give larger roles to his backcourt bench in the form of senior Drew Shiller (6'0" 180 lbs.) and junior Da'Veed Dildy (6'4" 190 lbs.). Shiller is third on the Cardinal in scoring at 8.1 PPG, second in assists and leads the team in three-point shooting percentage (50%). He plays starter's minutes and often will be on the floor with the smaller Stanford line-up. Shiller would be on the floor for 35-plus minutes per game but his defense is a liability. That's the primary reason Mann starts over him. Dildy is basically an athlete who gives the wings a breather. In many ways he's a poor man's version of UCLA's Mike Moser, but he plays more out of control. He can be a force at the defensive end.
UCLA looked very good beating Arizona State last week but was then humiliated at home by Arizona. The Bruins have a very good win under their belt now that they beat Cal earlier in the week, so will the Bruins again fail to play with intensity and focus? That really is the million-dollar question. Perhaps the end of the Cal game could provide us with a glimpse of an answer. The players on the bench were unified (quite literally by the arms) as they supported their teammates on the floor. The players on the floor played with emotion, but for the first time I can recall this season that emotion was shown more in a sense of brotherhood, as if the Bruins were saying to each other, "we're all in this together." That's the first time I've seen that from this Bruin team.
The good news is that if the Bruins come out flat they are playing a team that isn't exactly built to take advantage of that. Stanford lacks quality across the board, both in terms of size and athleticism, let alone basketball talent. They want to slow down the game and play smart, turnover-free. And they tend to take care of the ball. But they also struggle against teams that run a lot of zone. When the Cardinal gave Kentucky all it could handle earlier this season Kentucky played almost exclusively man defense.
I was surprised that Cal extended their defense the way they did on Wednesday. It was very unlike a Mike Montgomery team. It also wasn't very smart. The Bears applied pressure all over the place except to the Bruin point guard. As a result Jerime Anderson played a solid game and made up for the lack of scoring from Malcolm Lee. When not in a zone, Stanford will apply more pressure on the ball then did Cal and they will apply it almost the entire way up the floor.
The bottom line is that UCLA has a lot more talent on its roster, and more athletic talent at that, than does Stanford. This may be the only pac-10 team I can say that about this season. The Bruins should win this game, and quite frankly it's a must-win to take advantage of Wednesday's victory. However, we just don't know if the Bruins will "show up."
Let's hope they learned from the Arizona game. I expect a bit of a let-down coming off the Cal victory, but not enough to lose. Stanford got its big win when it defeated USC on Wednesday, but let's not forget that is a Trojan squad that had just learned that the postseason was taken from them by sanctions and their point guard, Mike Gerrity, had his first truly horrible game since being inserted in the line-up.
Still, it will be close enough to make UCLA fans squirm in their seats.