The Bruins, in beating Arizona in yesterday's Pac-10 tournament quarterfinal, advance to the semi-finals today where they will face the top-seeded California Golden Bears, who were a 16-point winner over Oregon in their quarterfinal game.
In the Arizona preview I wrote how the game would come down to UCLA's ability to be active on defense, take care of the ball on offense and bring intensity and focus for the majority of the game's 40 minutes. The Bruins held the Cats to 40% shooting for the game, including 21% from behind the arc, played with fire for the whole contest and were able to take care of the ball when necessary, although they did commit 15 turnovers. I raise these three points because the same three areas will be the keys to the game against Cal.
In terms of match-up, the Bruins caught a break by beating Arizona because they now face a very similar team in Cal. The Golden Bears' strengths are 1) the ability of their point guard and Pac-10 Player of the Year Jerome Randle to use his quickness to drive the lane (much like Arizona's Nic Wise), and his ability to hit deep shots (again, like Wise), 2) a dangerous wing shooter in Theo Robertson (like Arizona's Fogg), and 3) an active an bulky inside presence in Jamal Boykin (akin to Arizona's Derrick Williams). The game plan that Coach Ben Howland used yesterday against the Cats, namely the quick doubling of the post and immediate help in the lane at the expense of leaving outside shooters open, will probably be the game plan for the Cal game. The one difference, and it's potentially huge, is that Cal has senior swingman Patrick Christopher to give it a fourth offensive option, while Arizona didn't. This factor will probably be the key to the game. If Christopher plays well then the Bruins will lose and it might not be close. If Christopher disappears, as he did in the second half of the game the Bruins won at Haas Pavilion, then the Bruins have a decent chance of winning. Keep an eye on Christopher as he turned his ankle in the win over Oregon and it looked like one of those ankle sprains that you can play on as long as you keep it warm, but once you sleep on it there tends to be swelling and stiffness. It will probably be tender for tonight's game and the severity of that injury and Christopher's tolerance for pain will go a long way to determining his effectiveness.
There is one more item of note for this contest: against Arizona, Howland began using Brendan Lane as a lower wing defender in the 2-3 zone and moved Nikola Dragovic to the low middle spot. This is significant. Lane is quite long and it goes without saying that he is much more active on defense than Dragovic. He clearly bothered some Arizona shooters on several outside shots yesterday. More importantly, deploying Dragovic to the middle allows Howland to minimize many of Dragovic's deficiencies. Other teams can't overload Dragovic's side and take advantage of him when he's in the middle. He certainly has a big assignment when looking at guarding the interior, but he has to move much less and he can be in better position to rebound. Finally, Dragovic is stronger than Lane and can potentially deal with a big body like Boykin better than the Bruin freshman.
The Bruins do have a couple of things going for them as they enter this game. First, they got a bit more rest than the Bears, although Oregon didn't give Cal much of a game so Cal Coach Mike Montgomery was able to liberally rest some of his starters. More specifically, Reeves Nelson has had two weeks to rest his body coming into the tournament and he looked very fresh against the Cats. How his body responds to its first extended exertion in two weeks will be something to watch, but he should be rested. Finally, having played Arizona last night, the Bruins turn around and play a team with a similar style. There isn't much that Howland needs to change in terms of a game plan from yesterday to tonight. On the flip side, Cal has to now play a team that uses the shot clock and plays a zone defense after facing an Oregon team that plays up and down the floor and, even when they played a zone, the Ducks played more of a match-up zone that actively pressures the ball. Cal has to face a whole new scheme in the Bruins.
All of these things, the health of Christopher and Nelson, how Cal responds to the change in style from last night to tonight, and how Howland hides Dragovic, will impact the outcome of the game. However, the game will come down to how intense and focused the Bruins are throughout, how active they are on defense and how well they take care of the ball against Cal's ball pressure, which is sure to be more intense than anything Arizona showed yesterday. On that note, Jerime Anderson couldn't have picked a better time to play a pretty good game. He looked much more confident than in the past two weeks and the Bruins hope that he can carry that through to tonight.
It was great to see the Bruins play with fire after such a miserable season. Still, even with that, expect the Bruins' season to end tonight. The fact that Cal has four talented scoring options will make it very difficult for UCLA down the Bears. However, Cal did shoot poorly in Berkeley against UCLA and that could certainly happen again since Cal is a streaky-shooting team. But Christopher is the key. With him the Bears simply have too much experienced talent for the Bruins.