Stanford enters the game with a record of 13-5, 3-5 in the Pac-10. While the Cardinal's 10-0 non-conference record may look gaudy, those ten wins were not exactly against any real powerhouses. In fact, Stanford's best win was against Northwestern at home, which is about as good a win as UCLA's best non-conference Win -- Miami (Oh). A more realistic view of Stanford's capability probably comes when looking at its conference record. They beat Cal and Arizona at home but got clobbered at home by Arizona State and on the road at Oregon State.
First year coach and Duke disciple Johnny Dawkins has brought some new elements to the Cardinal and they are admittedly playing much better than most prognosticators felt they would be this season. That's especially true, considering the loss of their twin posts, Brook and Robin Lopez. Dawkins and Stanford play a poor-man's version of Duke's game; they run a spread motion offense with some sets, specifically to get some open looks from beyond the arc, and they play almost exclusively man-to-man defense, although because of Stanford's line-up Dawkins has thrown in the occasional zone in games. The key, though, is, like Duke, Stanford likes an uptempo attack and that could very well be the difference in the game.
Although Stanford was tapped by the Pac-10 writers to finish in 9th place in the conference, they do have a nice trio of players who could play for any team in the conference, starting with senior guard Anthony Goods (6'3" 200 lbs.), who is leading the Cardinal in scoring at 17.1 PPG. He leads the team in shot attempts (221), three point attempts (109) and free throw attempts (110). The offense, for all its spread options and other players, clearly runs through Goods. His weakness is that he is shooting only 40% from the floor and 30% from behind the arc. He is, however, shooting 79% from the free throw line. Goods is strong and will use that strength to offset his relative lack of quickness, especially on the defensive end. In fact, except for James Harden, Goods has won his individual match-up with every ‘2' guard in the Pac-10 games. Jrue Holiday certainly has his work cut out for him. The one thing about Goods is that he has become more of the second option in the past few games for the Cardinal as other teams look to limit his touches and he tends to play worse in bigger games.
Option 1 has recently become senior Lawrence Hill (6'8" 220 lbs). It's not surprising that Hill has begun to assert himself; two seasons ago he was one of the best players in the conference. However, last season Hill regressed in all facets of his game like no college player I have seen in a decade. Although Hill is now stepping up (he is averaging 14.2 PPG), he still has two weaknesses: first, his three point shooting continues to be abysmal (28%), something that started last year; and, more importantly, he only rebounds at a 5.9 RPG clip. That may seem fine, especially in Stanford's "rebound as a team" system (much like UCLA this season), but Hill has shown in the past that he can and should be averaging close to a double-double. In short he still isn't doing the kind of physical dirty work it would take to move his game to the next level. It will be interesting to see if Coach Ben Howland starts Josh Shipp on Hill or goes with Nikola Dragovic.
Whoever doesn't guard Hill will guard junior Landry Fields (6'7" 210 lbs.), who is the leading rebounder for the Cardinal at 6.7 RPG. He is also third on the squad in scoring at 12.1 PPG. Fields has elevated his game considerably. In his first two seasons in Palo Alto he was almost strictly a three-point gunner. This season, less than 1/3 of Fields' shots have come from behind the arc. While he is putting the ball on the floor more this season, he isn't particularly athletic or quick. This really hurts at the defensive end, although it's interesting to note that Stanford has yet to have a player foul out this season.
Starting at the point for the Cardinal is senior Mitch Johnson (6'1" 185 lbs.). Johnson has had some good games for the Cardinal over his four years in Palo Alto, but the reality is that he has never been more than a serviceable point. In fact, if Stanford had a stronger starting point guard last season, they would have been a legitimate Final Four threat. As it is, Johnson is fairly quick and until Darren Collison shows that he can keep opposing guards out of the lane on a consistent basis, quickness will be a concern. Johnson is averaging a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and he is finding the scorers for the Cardinal. Dawkins does have him playing generally under control, which has been one of the knocks on Johnson over the years.
The final starter is undersized, sophomore post Josh Owens (6'8" 215 lbs.). Basically, Owens starts because someone has to. Stanford has no real true low -post option for either offense of defense, so Dawkins has gone with what he learned at Duke -- have a smaller, quicker line-up on the floor and hope that the outside shots are falling.
Stanford does go nine deep, but all four players off the bench (one from each class), don't really present any appreciable threat like, say, UDub's Venoy Overton. Out of senior Kenny Brown (6'2" 200 lbs.), junior Drew Shiller (6'0" 170 lbs.), sophomore Will Paul (6'10" 250 lbs.), and freshman Jeremy Green (6'4" 190 lbs.), only Brown and Shiller play minutes in significant situations, although Green sees the most time. All four of these guys are three-point threats. Paul is the only post man that gets real time off the bench and he is at least serviceable, but it shows that Dawkins often will go with a smaller, quicker line-up. That may lead Howland to having his "motion" offense on the floor as he did against Cal with Roll, Shipp, Collison, Holiday and Aboya.
In many ways the Bruins and the Cardinal are mirror images of each other. They are perimeter-dominated, they play tough defense, although not all the time, and they have rebounding issues. They both like to get up and down the floor and can get hot from the outside. There are, however, two key differences between the two squads. First, UCLA clearly has more talent, especially up front. If UCLA played to its capability and Stanford did the same, UCLA would win by 15-20 points. The other big difference is that UCLA is much deeper than Stanford. For instance, without Mitch Johnson last weekend in Oregon, the Cardinal were buried by OSU.
Dawkins has done a nice job with this squad but it was obvious that the loss to USC on Thursday night (where Hill's game-winning shot attempt barely missed at the buzzer) was hard on them. It could have been a case where Stanford was looking at the USC game as the "winnable" game on the L.A. road trip. Now Stanford has to get up for UCLA less than 40 hours later, which will be tough. Expect a closer game than Thursday against Cal, but the Bruins should win. Don't be surprised if Alfred Aboya and Drew Gordon, and even J'mison Morgan simply overwhelm the Cardinal inside.