The game will be shown nationally on CBS and will showcase, surprise, surprise, two teams who are tied for first place in the Pac-10. Granted, Arizona and Arizona State are also tied for first in what has got to be the most competitive major conference race in many years. It is so competitive that two other teams, Washington and USC, are only a game out of first place. The competitive nature of the conference is great for fans, but in realty shows the mediocrity of the Pac-10 this season.
UCLA is coming off a harder-than-it-needed-to-be victory over a Stanford squad that had been crushed in its last two outings, while Cal is coming off of a tough loss at USC. For the Bruins, the Thursday night game against the Cardinal was almost a disaster. The Bruin zone defense, one that Coach Ben Howland said was getting better and better, was sliced up by a Stanford team that was clearly prepared to face it. Still, with the athletic advantage that UCLA had, the zone defense should have caused Stanford some problems. Stanford shot 44% from the floor, including 50% from beyond the arc and the Cardinal's two best players, Landry Fields and Jeremy Green, combined to score 53 of Stanford's 73 points. Fields had one of the most impressive games ever for a visitor to Pauley Pavilion, scoring 35 and pulling down 10 boards. He was virtually unstoppable. His game, however, highlighted what was wrong with UCLA on Thursday and why the Bruins are so hard to predict from game to game, specifically the level of effort and focus the Bruins will bring to a game. Against Stanford former Bruin great and television analyst Don MacLean stated several times that he thought the Bruins were playing with less energy than they had the past two weeks. While that may not have been the case, something was certainly missing for the Bruins and quite simply the Bruins can't win many games without completely firing in terms of focus and intensity.
Cal had almost the reverse game against USC that UCLA had against Stanford. The Bears led for much of the game only to falter in the second half. Like Stanford, the Bears had two players, seniors Jerome Randle (5'10" 172 lbs.) and Patrick Christopher (6'5" 220 lbs.), who combined to score 40 points, with Randle scoring 29, but the rest of the Bears couldn't pick up the slack as USC won by 3.
The last time Cal and UCLA played in Berkeley the Bears faced a Bruin team that had just started employing the zone defense. Certainly the Bruins have gotten more efficient at running the zone and can even throw in some 1-2-2 wrinkles from time to time, but the Cal team that UCLA faced last month was passive in attacking it, almost as if Cal collectively thought they were so much better than the Bruins that they could simply show up and win. Don't expect Cal to be so passive against UCLA's zone this time around. For one thing, Cal Coach Mike Montgomery is very good at his craft and he certainly won't allow the Bears to take the Bruins lightly this time. The Bears should also be an angry group after they lost a game at USC that they should have won. Further, the Bears know that this game is for first place in the conference and that alone should motivate them. Finally, Montgomery and the Bears are going to be able to watch film of UCLA's Thursday night game against the Cardinal and see how Stanford was able to effectively carve up the UCLA zone. To put it in perspective, Stanford is one of the two least athletic teams in the Pac-10 (not counting the Bruins), and they were able to use quickness to get into UCLA's defensive seams. Cal is arguably the quickest team in the Pac-10 and will be able to get into those seams much easier than the Cardinal did.
Before UCLA went to a man-to-man defense deep in the second half (which actually worked to stop Stanford on several possessions), Stanford was able to maximize their offensive strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. For instance, Landry Fields was positioned consistently on Nikola Dragovic's side of the floor where he was able to blow by the Bruins senior or put up a good look from distance. Granted, Fields was unconscious at times, but the point is that there's a reason why opposing coaches set up plays to run at Dragovic's side of the zone. Another example was Stanford's setting up their lone post player, Jack Trotter, in the short corner where he was able to make a couple of short jumpers that forced UCLA's bottom three defenders to respect him and thus opened up the middle enough for Stanford to drive in from the wings. Finally, UCLA clearly wanted Stanford point guard Jarrett Mann to be the one to have to beat the Bruins, so much so that UCLA rarely had the top two players in the zone pinch the middle when Mann would have the ball. Frankly, even though Mann didn't take advantage of that (he scored only 7 points and 3 were on a last second three-pointer), it was a risk that UCLA won't be able to take against Cal. A further risk for the Bruins would be to play a man-to-man defense against the Bears. Stanford doesn't have the quickness across the board to hurt UCLA when they did in fact make the switch to man. Cal, on the other hand, has the quickness to bury the Bruins if they try to man up.
Randle is arguably the most effective lead guard in the conference. He has tremendous range on his shot and is very quick when driving to the hoop. He is option #1 for the Bears' offense and leads them in scoring at 19.3 PPG. In fact, Randle leads the Bears in virtually every offensive category. Still, as has been his calling card throughout his career, Randle is just as apt to shoot his team out of games as he is to start a scoring run. The key for the Bruins will be accounting for him on each possession. Being primarily a zone team now, that job is easier for UCLA because Randle is the one bringing the ball up the floor. He's not a great shooter coming off screens, preferring to create his own shot. Expect the Bears to run a lot of ball screens against the top two defenders in the zone with the idea that it will loosen things up for Randle. If that doesn't work then expect to see sophomore Jorge Gutierrez (6'3" 195 lbs.) move to the top of the offense and Randle move to the wing much like Stanford's Jeremy Green did on Thursday. That way Randle can at least get a one-on-one match up to try to exploit or can even get his shot off from deep as Green did in the second half of Thursday's game. It should be noted that Gutierrez was out the first time these two teams hooked up and his presence is huge for the Bears. It's a pretty safe assumption that had he played in the first go-around for these teams that Cal would have won.
If Randle were the only outside shooter on the Cal roster then you would have to feel good about the Bear's chances. However, Cal also has senior Theo Robertson (6'6" 230 lbs.), who is statistically Cal's biggest outside threat (45% on three-point shots for the season) and can stretch a zone defense considerably. Robertson's presence alone will prevent the Bruins from giving as much help as usual from the weakside of the zone for fear that Cal will throw skip passes to open shooters on the wing where the Bears will almost certainly take full advantage of open shots.
Senior Christopher is Cal's best pure athlete and second-leading scorer but it's now safe to say that his career has been a disappointment. That's not to say that he's not a very solid player, one who Howland would take in a heartbeat, but big things were predicted of Christopher and he simply hasn't consistently delivered. The first time UCLA and Cal met this year is a perfect example. Christopher dominated the first half and completely disappeared in the second. Against the zone, Christopher can be very dangerous because he is the prototypical player to run the baseline. If, as I assume, that Cal uses their bigs to play at the free throw line to set screens, etc., then Christopher is free to run the baseline. His athleticism will allow him to get into the seams between the bottom three defenders and he has a god enough shot to stretch the two bottom wing defenders out to the three-point line. He's also a good finisher when being dished to on a drive.
One thing the Bears don't have is offensively effective post players. Senior Jamal Boykin (6'8" 240 lbs.) is an imposing body but doesn't have the softest hands. If he is positioned at the top of the free throw line on offense then expect the Bruins to sag off him and invite him to shoot. Montgomery may choose to have him run the baseline, as he has against Syracuse and Arizona State earlier in the season. The Orange and ASU are the two zone teams that Cal has faced this year, getting blown out by Syracuse at Madison Square Garden and winning at ASU. Boykin averaged 19.5 PPG in those two games, but both the Syracuse 2-3 zone and the ASU 1-3-1 zone are different than what the Bruins run. Boykin is tailor-made to attack the weakside of a 1-3-1 and Syracuse has an amoeba-like 2-3 that looked to take away Christopher, who shot a miserable 6-20 in hat game. Also, about 10 of Boykin's 14 points against Syracuse came well after the game was no longer in doubt.
The point of this, though, is that Cal doesn't have a big who can burn the UCLA zone from the short corner. If Montgomery runs Christopher along the baseline then that puts Boykin in a spot that negates the things he can do on the offensive end. Montgomery could put Christopher at the free throw line, thus allowing Boykin to work down low, but that would make it easier to help on both Randle and Robertson as well as force Christopher to take a pounding with all the screens he'll likely be setting. Still, expect Christopher to be there sometimes, especially when sophomore Max Zhang (7'3" 240 lbs.) is in the game. Zhang is a terrible passer and Howland will be dancing a jig if Montgomery positions the big man from China at the top of the key.
As well as Stanford played against the Bruins on Thursday, the fact of the matter is that the only reason the game was close was because the Bruins simply were missing something in their defensive focus. The effort was certainly there, but focus is very important on defense and when it's missing it can lose a game for a team. The Bruins can't afford to come out without focus; their margin for error is too thin for the Bruins to win many games playing defense like they did against the Cardinal.
This should be a great game with both teams working hard and being focused. If either team isn't focused then expect the other team to win fairly easily. Still, that shouldn't happen. The Bruins played Thursday like part of their psyche was already looking at the Cal game. Cal is going to be playing with fire after the USC loss.
With both teams bringing fire to the floor then talent usually wins out and Cal is more talented than UCLA. Although the Bruins have made great strides and are a threat to make a run to the conference tournament title in March, Cal is simply a better team, although not so much better that they automatically will win. This may be the hardest game to predict yet this season. There really is no outcome that would surprise me.