Saturday February 11th at 1:00pm PST (televised on Fox Sports Net Prime Ticket) UCLA will take on the Pac-12 leading Cal Bears. This is the second meeting this season between the two teams. The first took place in Berkeley and was won handily by the Golden Bears 85-69 back on December 31st, 2011.
The Bruins hung in close through the first half but fell when the Mike Montgomery coached Golden Bears tightened the screws after halftime and pretty much shut the Bruins down while shooting a blistering 65 percent from the field themselves. Allen Crabbe with 20 points led six California players in double figures.
Of course some things have changed since then, at least on the Bruins' side of the ledger. Joshua Smith has seemingly finally played himself back into some semblance of game condition, the Bruins have become more adept at finding one another on the court, and of course this time the game is in Los Angeles, a major factor in Pac-12 results this season.
California, led by two tough and savvy seniors in Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, should still be favored to win this one. But the combination of factors noted above do give the Bruins some hope this time around.
Any focus on Montgomery's team has to start with senior point guard Gutierrez, who pretty much is California basketball right now. This is his team to lead and no one in the Pac-12 does it better. Gutierrez (6-3, 195) is Cal's second leading scorer at 14.1 points per game. He leads the team in steals with 30 and is second in assists with 99.
Gutierrez shoots 46 percent from the floor and 34 percent from three point range. He is shooting 80.2 percent from the free throw line as well. He is just the tough-nosed, experienced, hard working, talented player that every coach in the conference wishes he could have at point guard.
The other senior, Kamp, is 6-8, 245 pound forward. The only player to start every game for Cal this year, Kamp does everything a successful team asks from its lead forward, averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds a game, with 39 assists and 11 steals on the season. He shoots 54.6 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free throw line. As Bruin fans know from not overly happy experience, Kemp is that player who does all the little things that don't show up on a stat sheet.
With Gutierrez and Kamp leading the way, the rest of Cal's talent has made its presence felt.
Cal's leading scorer is last year's conference freshman of the year, Allen Crabbe, who is a 6-6, 205 pound sophomore wing and as mentioned before, torched the Bruins last time they played.
Crabbe averages 15.9 points and a team second 6.1 rebounds a game. He has 54 assists, 12 steals and 12 blocked shots, shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from beyond the three point line. Crabbe leads the team in free throw shooting making 86.4 percent of his attempts.
Redshirt sophomore Justin Cobbs is third on the team in scoring with 12.7 points a game. The 6-2, 195 pounder is second on the team in steals with 26 and has a team leading 109 assists. Cobbs averages 2.5 rebounds a game and hits 48.4 percent of his shots from the field. Cobbs is shooting a team leading 47.7 percent from beyond the three point line and is making 78.6 percent of his charity shots.
The combination of Gutierrez, Crabbe and Cobbs makes Cal as dangerous a team as there is in the Pac-12 from behind the three point line and Ucla's three point defense is of course one of the suspect areas in the Bruins' defense making this as important an element to keep your eyes on as there will be in this game.
True freshman forward David Kravish (6-9, 210) is averaging 5.8 points, leads the team in blocked shots with 28 and averages 5 rebounds per game. Kravish is another pure hustle player. He shoots 57.7 percent from the field and makes 75 percent of his free throws.
Richard Solomon is a 6-10, 220 pound sophomore who leads his team in rebounding averaging 6.2 per game. Solomon is averaging 6 points a game and has 16 blocked shots. Solomon is hitting 45.6 percent from the field. Where Solomon stands out is beyond the three point line where he is making a remarkable 63.4 percent of his attempts (26-41).
Travis Wear's health and availability - or lack of same - could make Kravish and Solomon key players for California in this one.
Cal goes seven deep in his rotation. The other player to see significant minutes is 5-11, 185 pound junior guard Brandon Smith. Smith will give the Golden Bears' guards needed rest during the game. Smith averages 3.7 points and 1.3 rebounds a game and has 57 assists on the year.
The Golden Bears like to get up and down the court as fast as possible and average 72.1 points per game while giving up 60.4. As a team, California shoots 47.9 percent while holding their opponents to 40.8 percent. California shoots 39 percent from three and 75.6 percent from the free throw line. They are out-boarding opponents by 4.9 a game and dish out 16.3 assists compared to 12 turnovers per game while adding 5 steals on the average.
UCLA does not want to be lured into a running game with Cal. The Bruins need to show patience and make sure they get good shots. Rebounding will be another key with Cal expecting to realize a solid advantage on the boards against the Bruins who usually have to have three guards on the floor to take proper care of the ball. A rebounding edge would allow the Golden Bears to push the ball up court and avoid the sort of half-court game that would boost the Bruins' chances.
Home court really matters and that's never been more true than it has been this season in the Pac-12. Thursday's thrashing of the then conference leading Washington Huskies by Oregon in a game played at Oregon was a clear indication of that.
Don MacLean commented in Thursday's UCLA-Stanford telecast that he sees why playing on the road might affect a team's offense but he doesn't get why it appears to affect teams' defense so much. Defense, he observed, is all about effort. Well, it's a lot about effort but far from all.
Here's another way to look at it. It's not so much that being on the road negatively affects a visiting team's defense as it is that playing at home positively affects a home team's offense. And that in turn affects the confidence and defense of the visitors.
When a visiting team gets on a roll, the arena goes quiet. That's satisfaction for the visitors but doesn't do much to ignite fires in their play. When a home team gets on a roll, the arena goes crazy and home teams have often been known to ride that wave of sound and excited and allow it to take them to new heights and keep them there for a longer length of time.
UCLA coach Ben Howland has observed that basketball is a game of runs. They are going to happen. It is probably best for fans not to get carried away by early large leads built by either their own team or their opponent. For an example, Thursday night, the Bruins' 16 point lead in the first half was mostly reduced by halftime and dwindled to just three points several times in the late stages of the game.
With six games remaining, the Bruins stand at 7-5 in conference, 14-10 overall. With the aid of the kind of home arena, you would expect them to defeat SC and Washington State and certainly have a good shot at beating Washington, too. They should be able to summon enough internal fortitude to take down depleted Arizona State even on the road. Beating Arizona in Tucson isn't going to be easy for them. Taking down Cal Saturday would be a crowning achievement for their season.
Home court is a definite advantage. But overcoming Cal's demonstrated ability this season may be something else again.
The Bruins still have a realistic shot at making the top four in conference and thereby avoiding having to play an extra game in the all-important (for them) conference post-season tournament. The biggest obstacle remaining on their schedule is Cal. They confront that obstacle Saturday.
We'll see if they're good enough to get past it even with the advantage of playing the game in Los Angeles.