Pac-12 Game of the Week: UCLA at StanfordPosted by AMurawa on December 29th, 2011
A couple of weeks ago, there was no way we would have picked this game to be the most interesting game of the first week of Pac-12 play. While Stanford has been a pleasant surprise through their non-conference schedule, UCLA was on the very short list of the least enjoyable teams in the conference to watch. However, the Bruins have quietly strung together five straight wins albeit against abominable competition and the Cardinal, coming off a tough home loss to Butler, have to prove that they are capable of contending for the regular season title. In short, while both of these teams have plenty of doubters, and rightfully so, each has a chance to earn a modicum of respect by taking care of business on opening weekend.
Stanford’s loss to Butler last week could be explained away in a variety of ways: it was their first game against significant competition in two and a half weeks; the home crowd was absent most of the students and provided little boost to a sleepwalking team; the Bulldogs got plenty of fortunate bounces; and really, it’s a loss to a fast-improving team that has been the national runner-up the past two seasons. Regardless of the excuses, it serves as a reminder that the Cardinal have largely built their status as one of the conference favorites on a loss – a hard-fought six-point defeat against Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game. They have a win over North Carolina State (in which they had to fight back from a 12-point second half deficit) and a win over Oklahoma State, but neither of those teams look like future recipients of an NCAA Tournament invite. So, there is little so far in the positive results category to indicate that this Stanford vintage is significantly better than last year’s 15-16 team that won seven conference games.
However, if you dig deeper into the metrics, you see a Cardinal team that is winning games because of excellent defense (only twice this season – in the loss to Butler and the uneven win over NC State – have they allowed more than a point per possession), while doing almost all the things that you want to see an efficient offensive team do (they shoot it well, they hit the offensive glass and they get to the free throw line). Only their turnovers on nearly 22% of their offensive possessions present cause for alarm, and that should be a number that sinks as their primary ballhandlers (sophomore Aaron Bright and freshman Chasson Randle) get more comfortable. And if you trust only the eye test, you see a team that appears to run a lot more smoothly than they did last year, when deep into the season the Cardinal appeared to be out of sync on both ends of the court. Bright has taken over as an extension of head coach Johnny Dawkins on the floor, senior center Josh Owens is the team’s emotional leader and go-to scorer, Randle is a steadily improving freshman, and there are a handful of other nice pieces elsewhere on this roster (Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell) ready to make positive contributions on both ends. This is an improved Stanford team, but they’ve still got to prove it and they’ll have plenty of chances, starting tonight.
For UCLA, in a season of road games, this is, oddly enough, their first true road game of the season. Given their unique circumstances of playing all of their games away from Pauley Pavilion during its renovation, it is possible that this road trip to Maples Pavilion won’t even faze them. But the Bruins, much like the Cardinal, have much to prove not only in this game, but in the rest of the season. Their five-game winning streak (over, stop the presses, Penn, Eastern Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Richmond) has been enough to make some observers forget just how bad this team was over their first seven games of the season in losing to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State among others.
The fact that their five-game winning streak coincides with head coach Ben Howland’s decision to dismiss Reeves Nelson from the team, allows UCLA apologists to believe that it is a newfound team chemistry that has been the driving force behind their win streak and not simply the fact that they have been playing overmatched opponents. This is still a deeply flawed UCLA team, capable of being out-athleted by just about everybody they face. Their backcourt of seniors Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, along with sophomore Tyler Lamb and freshman Norman Powell, is no better than ordinary thus far, and the fact that Jones and Powell each suffered sprained ankles in practice on Monday potentially weakens an already thin unit, although both players are expected to play. Up front, the Wear twins have been solid additions, but due to a short roster have sometimes been forced to play out of position at the three, while sophomore center Joshua Smith is a rare talent who has diminished his own effectiveness by failing to get into decent physical condition.
Another big change for UCLA over the course of their winning streak has been their use of a zone defense. While Howland is generally regarded as a man-to-man coach, it became painfully obvious over the Bruins’ 2-5 start that this team just didn’t have the athletes to guard good teams in the halfcourt. Enter a 2-3 zone and the UCLA defense has been improved, holding its opponents to less than a point per possession in the last four games, something it failed to do in each of their five losses on the year. Again, part of that has to do with the schedule providing a break, but employing a zone defense not only allows this slow-of-foot Bruin team to keep quick guards out of the paint, but it also gives Smith a chance to stay out of foul trouble and to conserve energy defensively. Whether Stanford and its 38.4% three-point shooting can punch holes in that Bruin zone may be a key factor in the game.
For UCLA to have a chance to continue their winning streak, they will need to do three things: hit three-pointers (UCLA is not a great three-point shooting team, but they need to keep defenses honest to open up the lane for their big guys); defend the perimeter (Bright is hitting 48.9% of his threes, Randle is hitting 41.7%, and Brown, perhaps their best pure shooter, is just rounding into form, hitting 44.4% in December); and rebound, rebound, rebound (Stanford grabs nearly 40% of their misses on offense and limits their opposition to under 28% offensive rebounding, while UCLA has been unimpressive on the glass this year despite their frontline size). If they fail to do any one of those three things, the Cardinal should be the favorite to jump out to 1-0 in conference play.