PREVIEW - UCLA AT CALIFORNIAWe've devoted lots of time to tomorrow's game with UCLA (6:00 - FSN) because it's a game with lots of upside potential for the Bears. Lose, and well you expect to lose to the #3 team in the land. Win, and you begin to see the outlines of a NCAA bid thanks to a skyrocketing RPI. Let's have a look at the matchups, with thanks to Bruins Nation for lots of excellent hotlinked material.
When Cal has the ball...
We'll start here, since defense is what defines Ben Howland's Bruins. While the Pac-10 has a number of teams that play sound technical defense (Cal, Wazzu, USC), no team gets after it like UCLA. They deny even the simple perimeter pass, and extend pressure coverage well past the arc. That's why UCLA leads the conference in steals at 8.4 a game. Frankly, we haven't seen CBB defense like this since Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of hell in the early 1990s.
Fortunately, Cal takes care of the basketball. In fact the Bears are 15th best in the country at offensive turnover % (as defined by Ken Pomeroy). Having a senior point guard helps - but everybody (outside of Vierneisel) is doing a good job in this respect. So here's our first key to the game - how will backup Jerome Randle handle having Darren Collison (left) in his shorts for 15 or so minutes tomorrow night? If Randle turns it over a few times, the Bruins can break for cheap baskets that are very difficult to make up.
Luc Richard M'bah a Moute is a question mark for tomorrow's game - Howland held him out of the Arizona game with a hyper-extended right knee and he's likely a gametime decision. If the Prince cannot go, then Alfred Aboya slides into his spot at the four (with Lorenzo Mata at the five). Aboya is a very solid if unspectacular player who lacks the explosiveness of the Prince on either end. Theo can perhaps out-quick Aboya, though that's far from certain.
Ryan Anderson needs to run Mata ragged. Mata is a solid post defender, but we're not convinced he can keep up with Anderson, who's adept at scoring from outside. No doubt Braun will put Ryan on his horse on the baseline in an effort to open up the middle to cutters and second-chance points.
Ayinde Ubaka enjoys a size advantage over Collison, and the Bears need to find ways to establish Ayinde inside as long as Collison checks him. If that happens, Howland may switch Arron Afflalo (right) to Ubaka, at which point Omar needs to step up. (We're frankly hoping that Howland makes this move since it would free Ayinde up to run the point and not worry about the inside game). This would be our second key to the game - Omar Wilkes. Cal desperately needs its junior wing to build on last Saturday's fine performance at Oregon on the offensive end and take the game to UCLA. If Cal becomes a two-man team, it will almost surely lose this game.
We'd ordinarily say that Cal will try to chew clock and go deep into their possessions, but after the Oregon track meet we're not so sure. One more thing - the Bears cannot settle for threes against UCLA. The Bruins have the 18th highest ratio of 3-pointers defended to total FG attempts; and we're guessing that the majority of those aren't good looks.
When UCLA has the ball...
Cal will likely run a fair bit of zone against the Bruins. It makes sense based on both personnel and past results. UCLA struggled against ASU's 3-2 matchup zone, though they performed better against Arizona's zone last Saturday running a four-guard lineup at times.
The Bruins have lots of shooters - they shoot 53.3% from the field and 38.9% from three. Collison is above 50% from three, and Afflalo is dangerous (if a bit streaky - remember the NC game last year). Michael Roll is very dangerous off the bench. Still, it's worth risking a hot shooting night to prevent penetration by Collison and Afflalo, who figures to have a significant advantage in his matchup with Omar Wilkes.
Collison was absolutely unconscious in non-conference play, shooting 59.3% from the field. He's cooled off a bit in the Pac-10, at just a bit below 45% from the field. Josh Shipp will be a difficult matchup for freshman Patrick Christopher.
Which brings us to our third key to the game - improved rebounding out of the zone. Cal must keep Aboya, Mata and the rest of the Bruins off the offensive glass to win this game. This is the area where losing M'bah a Moute hurts UCLA the most - he is so difficult to check inside that he creates lots of second-chance points. Even without him, the Bears have a formidable task here - Aboya (right) had six offensive boards against Arizona.
One last thing - UCLA is not a particularly good free-throw shooting team at 65.2%.
Now the fourth key to the game - getting out to a fast start on both ends. This has been a strong suit for the Bears in the last month, as they opened up big leads against Stanford and Oregon. They need a similar performance against the Bruins, who have been a bit vulnerable to slow starts. UCLA is a deep team - throwing very good reserves like Roll, Bryant Westbrook and James Keefe onto the court to eat minutes and wear down opponents. The second half will likely be a struggle for California, so it's very important to get off to a quick start.
Prediction to follow tomorrow. GO BEARS!