The Bruins are coming off of a workman-like ten-point win at Oregon State while Stanford is coming off a lost weekend in Arizona, dropping contests to both Arizona and Arizona State. Before the win in Corvallis the Bruins lost in overtime to Oregon in a game they clearly could have won, some say should have won. The key factor in UCLA's trip to the Oregon schools was the fact that UCLA brought effort and intensity to both games on the heels of two good games at home when the Bruins swept the Washington schools. The key question for Thursday's game is the same as it's been all season: will UCLA play with the focus and energy necessary to be successful?
You might remember that it was less than one month ago that UCLA travelled to the Bay Area where the Bruins lost to Stanford after defeating California earlier in the week. In the Stanford loss the Bruins put up statistics that were odd, to say the least. UCLA shot over 50% from the floor from the game, which would normally indicate a victory, but the Bruins turned the ball over 22 times, which, for a team of UCLA's limited abilities, was a killer. UCLA was quite unfocused in that game, especially on the offensive end, and some things have clearly changed since then.
After the Stanford loss, UCLA was pummeled at home by USC. Since then the Bruins have brought sustained effort to each game and it has led the Bruins to going 3-1 in the four games since the USC debacle. The Bruins also switched their defense to one that is exclusively a 2-3 zone and this has caused serious difficulties for their opponents. One could argue that if the Bruins could shoot 70% as a team from the free-throw line that they would be undefeated in their last four games. As it is, free-throw shooting is a work in progress.
The zone is a key piece to this game as Stanford struggled mightily against Arizona State, who also runs a defense that is solely a match-up zone. While the ASU zone is different than UCLA's, the fact that both teams could force Stanford to become a jump-shooting team is significant. Stanford simply doesn't shoot the ball well as a team from the outside. Last Saturday Stanford went 6-28 from beyond the arc, which translates to 21% from distance for the game. Sophomore Jeremy Green (6'4" 190 lbs.) particularly struggled, going 4-13 from distance. Against UCLA in the first match-up, Green scored a career-high 30 points and shot 5-8 from the three-point line. The ASU zone clearly bothered the Cardinal and Green in particular. Now Green has to face a zone again, but one that he didn't see last week.
Green and senior Landry Fields (6'7" 215 lbs.) are clearly the two key players for the Cardinal. Fields leads the team in scoring at 22.3 PPG, while Green averages 18 PPG. They combined to shoot 14-39 from the field against the Sun Devils. Against UCLA last month they shot a combined 18-34 from the floor. They went a combined 10-11 from the free-throw line, which is the only thing that got them to 70 points. Also, while Fields leads the team with over 8 RPG, his production on the boards has fallen off as he's had to work harder on the offensive end. The point here is that if the Bruins can hold Fields and Green to a combined 35% shooting from the floor as ASU did then the Bruins will win the game fairly easily.
As mentioned earlier, Fields and Green are the bulwark of the Stanford offense. Slow down one of them and the Cardinal are in trouble. In the first contest against UCLA, sophomore Jack Trotter (6'9" 220 lbs.) scored 10 points while frontcourt mate sophomore Andrew Zimmerman (6'9" 215 lbs.) chipped in with 8. That's 6 more points than their combined average to date. They were able to score their combined 18 against a Bruin defense that was lazy and was in a man-to-man for much of the game. Opposing bigs are clearly not getting the kind of looks the Stanford duo got in the first contest against the Bruins since UCLA went exclusively to the zone.
As has been the case for Stanford throughout the season, Fields and Green are taking well over 50% of the team's shots. Against ASU they took 57% of the Cardinal's shots. It can't be emphasized enough that to shut down one of these two players is to doom Stanford to defeat.
Conversely, the Bruins are playing more efficiently on the offensive end. As they have been practicing the zone defense each week they have collectively become more adept at defeating opposing zone defenses. Even in the defeat at Oregon, when the Bruins were able to initiate their offense against Oregon's pressure zone, they got many good looks. That doesn't mean the Bruins will shoot well with those looks, but they clearly aren't settling for "prayer" shots at the end of the shot clock. It should be pointed out that the Oregon ball pressure did bother the Bruins to an extent. Stanford won't be able to put that kind of pressure on the Bruins because they lack the athleticism that Oregon has in their backcourt. Green is a decent defender, but nothing great, and sophomore Jarrett Mann (6'3" 185 lbs.), the starting point guard, has average athleticism at best. The other primary backcourt player, senior Drew Shiller (6'0" 180 lbs.), is a defensive liability. Shiller's lack of athleticism should allow Coach Ben Howland to play Mustafa Abdul-Hamid for as many minutes as Howland deems necessary, or Jerime Anderson, depending on how Howland views the match-ups. Keep in mind that Stanford's defense was sieve-like against both Arizona and ASU, giving up over 80 points in both games. While that's understandable against the Cats, for ASU to score 88 as they did on Saturday is akin to most other teams topping 100.
There are two other things to consider here. First, Stanford may have beaten UCLA in Palo Alto, but the Cardinal are a different team on the road. Stanford is 1-9 away from Maples Pavilion this season, although the one win was against a pretty good Virginia team. Stanford simply is a poor road team. Secondly, the Bruins are starting to play with, dare I say, confidence. When UCLA lost at Stanford they were a team that was still trying to find itself. Since the loss to USC the Bruins clearly have bought into the zone defense that Howland is using and they are playing with purpose.
This is probably the most important weekend series of the season for the Bruins. After Stanford the Bruins host first place California. By winning these two games the Bruins could position themselves for something unheard of several weeks ago, namely a run to the Pac-10 regular season title. UCLA is in third place in the conference right now, one game behind first place co-leaders Cal and Arizona. UCLA could conceivably be in first place all by itself at the end of the weekend. Cal has to play UCLA and USC in Los Angeles while Arizona has to travel to Washington and Washington State. Any outcome to any of this weekends top games wouldn't shock me, but it certainly is in the realm of possibility for the Bruins to sweep while Cal and ‘Zona get swept. Now, of course, I'm putting the cart before the horse -- UCLA has to take care of business against Stanford -- but I can do that since I'm just a writer and not actually playing the games.
When looking at the match-up on paper, the Bruins clearly have the better starting five, although Stanford has two players in Green and Fields who can take over a game, a luxury that the Bruins don't have. Add to that fact that the Cardinal don't play well on the road and Stanford doesn't play well against a good zone defense and you have the recipe for a UCLA victory.
I know I said I would predict the Bruins to lose every game after the USC loss as a reverse mojo (we can all believe in luck, right), but I predicted an Oregon loss and the Bruins did lose, while I then predicted a UCLA win over OSU and the Bruins won far more easily than I anticipated. Predicting a UCLA win on Thursday is kind of my way of getting back to reality. Of course, the presumption is that the Bruins will "show up." If they do then UCLA will be playing on Saturday for first place in the conference.