After a dramatic last-second victory over California on Thursday night the UCLA Bruins return to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon to host the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford, coached by former Duke great Johnny Dawkins, is coming off a shellacking at the hands of USC on Thursday. In many ways the Cardinal present the same sort of match-up for the Bruins that Cal did, but there are some significant differences, too. However, regardless of the match-ups that UCLA's players have against the Cardinal, and regardless of the question of UCLA's defensive intensity, the real question of this game is going to be whether or not UCLA's freshman center Josh Smith plays.
Like Cal, Stanford runs a three-guard line-up. Unlike the Bears, though, Stanford's strength is clearly in the backcourt. There is no Harper Kamp or Markhuri Sanders-Frison on Stanford. There isn't even an equivalent of Richard Solomon on Stanford's roster. Dawkins, however, has his team focused on what they do well, and that's attack from the wings. When Stanford's guards are running on all cylinders the Cardinal are tough to beat. That's how they beat Cal earlier this season at Maples Pavilion. However, when the backcourt of Stanford has trouble scoring then the Cardinal lose and lose big, like they did on Thursday at USC.
Stanford's best player and the one man who lit up the Bruins last year in both games against the Bruins is junior guard Jeremy Green (6'4" 198 lbs.). Green is Stanford's leading scorer at 14.9 PPG and by far the best three-point shooter on the team at 41%. In fact, he's made almost as many three-pointers as any other Cardinal has attempted. He really is the cog that makes Stanford's offense run. Anyone that watches this game can bet his or her mortgage or rent that Coach Ben Howland will put UCLA's best defender, junior guard Malcolm Lee, on Green. It can't be overstated how important it is for the Bruins to shut down Green. USC did it Thursday night and steamrolled Stanford, who couldn't score with Green held in check (5 points). Even though Stanford has issues scoring when any of its guards are shut down, Green is the key. Even if Joshua Smith doesn't play the Bruins can win this game by shutting down Green and although, as Tracy Pierson pointed out in his Cal game review that UCLA is a mess defensively, the one player who isn't, the one Bruin who has consistently played good defense and shut down opposing team's best players, is Malcolm Lee.
The other two guards who should start for the Cardinal are junior point guard Jarrett Mann (6'4" 190 lbs.) and sophomore Gabriel Harris (6'2" 190 lbs.). Mann is a horrible outside shooter, averaging just over 30% from the field and being only 1-8 on three-pointers on the season. He is strong and does take relatively good care of the ball, but if the Bruins prevent him from getting into the lane then he is effectively neutralized offensively. Mann, however, is an adequate defender. The bottom line, though, is that Mann plays so much because Dawkins simply doesn't have anyone better to run the team.
Harris may start, but he doesn't play much. He is more of a defensive presence who does a nice job on opposing guards but rarely sees the floor if Dawkins goes to a zone.
If Harris is off the floor its usually so Dawkins can insert freshman Anthony Brown (6'6" 200 lbs.) a very talented wing player from Huntington Beach. He hasn't lit it up scoring-wise for the Cardinal yet this season but the potential for being very good is there. The biggest difficulty for Brown is that the system he's playing in (a variation on Duke's offensive philosophy of spreading the floor) requires some experience to run in terms of screens and situations if you don't have a lot of talent around you, and outside of Green, Brown doesn't. Still, it is a homecoming game of sorts for Brown and that could amp up his game.
Freshman Aaron Bright (5'11" 175 lbs.) has been getting some time at the point and is a quicker, better shooting option for Dawkins than is Mann. Bright, however, struggles with the defensive side of things and that's why he doesn't really bite into Mann's minutes.
Up front the Cardinal go with three players for two spots in juniors Josh Owens (6'8" 230 lbs.) and Jack Trotter (6'9" 230 lbs.) as well as freshman Dwight Powell (6'9" 227 lbs.). Owens is the unquestioned best player of the three, averaging 11.7 PPG and averaging a team-leading 6.6 RPG. He is strictly an inside player and this is where the availability of Smith becomes huge for the Bruins. While Owens makes the most of his talent and limited athleticism, he will simply be overwhelmed by Smith, if he does in fact play. If Smith is out then Owens should be much more effective against Anthony Stover, Brendan Lane, et al.
Trotter actually had a very good game last season against the Bruins in the game up on the Farm and certainly outplayed Reeves Nelson. He has one or two decent post-up moves but is also limited athletically. The one thing Dawkins knows he'll get with both Owens and Trotter is that they will always play hard and this fact alone could neutralize some of UCLA's frontcourt advantage.
Powell is actually scoring and rebounding at a better pace than Trotter and is now getting more minutes than his junior teammate. Powell didn't play much against USC but that may be because Dawkins recognized early on that Thursday wasn't Stanford's night so he rested Powell a bit knowing he'd need him for Saturday. He averages 8.6 PPG and is second on the team with 4.7 RPG, but what makes Powell dangerous is that he is athletic and springy. He is long and is the type of player that has given Nelson fits on both ends of the floor over the UCLA sophomore's career.
I said in the Cal preview that Stanford is better than Cal and that's probably true if for no other reason than Stanford has a game-changer in Green. It also helps that Stanford has more experience and this could spell trouble for UCLA. Again, as Tracy Pierson pointed out in his Cal review, the Bruins need to outscore opponents in order to win games, (although I don't think it's as bad as he makes out…the personnel that Howland was forced to put on the floor because of officiating and the injury to Smith, in my opinion, magnified UCLA's defensive issues for that game) and Stanford plays solid defense. Even though they got blown out by the Trojans they still only gave up 65 points. They are holding opponents to 60 PPG and 41% shooing from the floor. Imagine if you combined UCLA offense and Stanford's commitment to defense; you wouldn't only have the conference champ but a contender for national honors. The one hole for Stanford's defense this season has been when they've faced teams with two solid offensive post players, and if Smith plays the Bruins will have that with Smith and Nelson on the offensive end.
Dawkins is trying to get the Cardinal to play Duke-style defense that is heavy on ball pressure and ball denial out to midcourt. The Cardinal have been effective at doing this throughout the season. To beat this defense there either needs to be consistent penetration from the wings or a lot of backdoor cuts and back screens. It also requires some patience and aggression against the defense and the Bruins have not been consistent in either category this season. Still, the ability to dump the ball into Smith should cause havoc to the Cardinal's plans because it forces the defense to help while the secondary rotation is still a few too many feet away to rotate down to wither triple team Smith or take away the interior pass. USC did this with Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic on Thursday night.
Stanford's offense looks to dribble penetrate and kick out to open shooters, namely Green. Once the shots start falling for them the Cardinal then pound the ball in to Owens and let him score in the low post. USC defeated this Thursday because they basically played heavy ball pressure and denial on the wings and allowed their bigs to take Stanford's bigs without much help, almost saying "beat us if you can". This really threw the Cardinal off and they ended up shooting 22% from the floor…as a team…for the game.
UCLA will need to be especially alert on the backside and with their help if the Bruins want to come close to shutting down Stanford's offense. Still, with Stanford so reliant on Green, if I were the coach I might tell Lee to stick to Green as if UCLA were playing a box-and-1 and basically tell the Cardinal that I didn't think any of their other players could beat the Bruins.
This all comes down to Smith, though. If he plays, because the Bruins match-up better with the Cardinal than they do with Cal, expect the Bruins to win comfortably. If he doesn't play...let's just say I hedge my best because it'll be about as close as Thursday's win was over Cal.