Is UCLA more or less hateable when their team is more highly esteemed by opposing fans and the media than they are by their own fanbase?
I don't really know the answer to that question. What I do know is that UCLA has a pretty darn good team this year, a team that is fully worthy of carrying the UCLA banner in a world that recognizes that the John Wooden era ended 39 years ago.
UCLA boasts perhaps the single best player in the entire conference and the most potent offensive attack on the west coast. They have an outside shot at the conference championship and should be a very tough out in March.
Unfortunately, they also hired a slimeball as a head coach. I actually think that Steve Alford, if judged purely based on the on-court achievement of his teams, is a perfectly decent head coach. Maybe not up to the standards set by UCLA basketball fans, but perfectly decent. In any case, Alford's off-the-court failings have (perhaps rightly) soured UCLA fans on what is otherwise a really good, really entertaining team. Their loss, I suppose.
UCLA enters tonight's game with a 9-3 conference record, good for 2nd place by themselves in the Pac-12. Each of their three losses have been narrow defeats, while 8 of their 9 conference wins have been by double digits. I think it's fair to argue that, with Brandon Ashley out for the season, UCLA is currently the best team in the conference.
It is worth noting that UCLA's conference schedule has been heavy with home games, and the Bruins are only 3-2 on the road, with only one of those wins coming against a team in the top nine teams in the Pac-12. With only one true road game on the non-conference schedule (a nine point loss to Missouri) the Bruins are not particularly road tested, and Cal is a better team that most of the teams UCLA has already faced away from Pauley.
If the season ended today, I would vote for Kyle Anderson for Pac-12 player of the year. He's the single most unstoppable force in the conference, and the only player who is a legitimate threat to record a triple double on any night. The 17 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists he put up against Cal earlier this year was actually a pretty pedestrian performance for him. I'm curious if Monty will throw Kreklow at him, although I'm not sure if Ricky has the pure athleticism to make that defensive assignment work.
Adams is the other big time player for UCLA. He won't impact the game in as many ways as Anderson, but he's a better pure scorer. That also means that he's not as valuable a player when he's not scoring or when the other team can frustrate him as a shooter.
The Wear twins will make their final trip to Berkeley still nominally starters, but they actually play the 5th and 7th most minutes on the team, while taking significantly fewer shots than anybody else in the rotation other than Bryce Alford. That's been a good thing for UCLA, because the Wears are excellent role players who were miscast as go-to-guys at times in Westwood.
Norman Powell has quietly had an excellent year as UCLA's 3rd option on offense after two mostly invisible seasons under Ben Howland. He's still not a great jump shooter, but he's using his athleticism to get to the basket and he has made a major cut in his turnovers.
Since a weak 3 point showing against Cal a few weeks ago, Zach LaVine has been virtually invisible, averaging just 4.3 points/game and more turnovers than assists. He has pretty clearly been outplayed by fellow ball-handler Bryce Alford in that time, justifying the elder Alford's faith in his freshman son, at least temporarily. LaVine certainly has a higher upside, but he seems to have had trouble adapting to the tougher Pac-12 schedule.
Tony Park will sub in for either Wear, and provides a more traditional post presence with his heavier size inside. He's a solid offensive rebounder, but his playing time has significantly diminished of late, as Alford prefers to go 'small' (the better phrase would be that he's going fast) with Anderson at the 4 and one of the Wears at the 5.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Kenpom: UCLA 77, Cal 76. Cal wins 47% of the time
Basically a coin flip. Cal is a bit healthier than earlier in the season, but UCLA has been playing pretty great basketball for a solid month, so I'm inclined to say that our computer overlords are about right. This one could go either way.
Keys to the game
1. Get off to a not-awful start - In the category of 'obvious but it has to be said.' Cal has faced an early deficit in 10 of their 12 conference games. When Cal is the better, more talented team, they have been (mostly) able to overcome poor starts. But when Cal hasn't had a clear advantage (UCLA, ASU) the slow starts helped contribute to painful defeats. UCLA is, obviously, too good of a team to spot 10 points.
2. Move the ball with purpose - Cal's loss in L.A. was caused in large part because the Bears struggled to break down an aggressive UCLA zone. Too many offensive sets devolved into aimless perimeter passing and a bad 3 point look, particularly in the first half. Hopefully the Bears learned from their first experience and are prepared to attack the zone either through drives or from the high post with David Kravish.
Moving the ball with purpose also means avoiding turnovers if UCLA decides to try sideline traps. It's been an effective strategy for the Bruins that allows for easy baskets in transition. Cal didn't have too much trouble with it in game 1 (12 turnovers), but that doesn't mean it isn't a threat this time around, or that the Bears can't do better this time around..
3. Slow down UCLA's secondary scorers - Anderson and Adams are probably going to get their points. But the reason UCLA's offense has been so potent is because although none of their other six rotation players are elite, they are all at least capable offensive players. Cal lost the first time around because Normal Powell, David Wear and Bryce Alford combined for 42 points.
Some of UCLA's secondary players will score, but Richard Solomon and David Kravish have to take what David Wear did to them earlier this year as a personal insult. Justin Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace need to have the same attitude towards Bryce Alford. Keep those types of players in the single digits and maybe we'll escape tied for 2nd place in the conference.