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Cal at UCLA: Preview

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NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Kentucky
The odds-on favorite for the Naismith award talks to Lonzo Ball
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

So, fair warning. This isn’t going to be a fun preview. If you’re reading this, you’ve already clicked, so no harm in scaring you off now, SBNation has already received its sweet, sweet ad revenue.

I hate UCLA basketball, in a way that is different from other types of sports hatred. I hate everything about Stanford as a rival, on principle. I hate USC football because they’re really good and they always beat Cal.

I hate UCLA basketball because we have to constantly deal with UCLA media hype while still facing entitled, whiny UCLA fans. UCLA is overrated because they still get mentioned in the same breath as Kansas, UNC, Duke and Kentucky even though they’ve missed the NCAA tournament more times (5) than they have won conference titles (4) in the last 19 years. And because UCLA has underperformed relative to the best programs around the nation, we get to enjoy UCLA fans moaning about how, say, a 2nd place finish in the Pac-12 and a sweet 16 run isn’t good enough. Either way it’s annoying.

Which brings us to the bad news. UCLA is hyped for the nth year in a row. This year, the hype is real, and 100% warranted.

How exactly did UCLA go from missing the NCAA tournament to #4 in the country? Well, when you add two potential lottery picks to a team that was flawed but talented, things can get better in a hurry. T.J. Leaf is a wildly efficient stretch 4. Lonzo Ball is a basketball savant. Adding them to a core of good shooters has created an offensive death star in Westwood.

All credit in the world to Steve Alford, who deserves national coach of the year honors for managing to put together such a spectacular team despite dealing with one of the most notoriously difficult fan bases to win over. Any coach that can overcome the obstacles he has surmounted at UCLA deserves serious credit. #Alford4Naismith!*

UCLA’s defense lags behind their offense enough for teams to entertain thoughts of an upset, but there are few teams prepared to try to outscore this team. Oregon managed to barely pull off the upset at home thanks to an extreme offensive effort (1.24 ppp) and a very friendly home whistle . . . and that’s the consensus pre-season title favorites.

*Was this inserted just to annoy UCLA fans, or is it my actual opinion? YOU BE THE JUDGE! Also, if you could get that hashtag trending I’d be much obliged.

Roster

Starters

PG Lonzo Ball - Visionary passer, extreme range. UCLA fans don’t deserve him.
G Bryce Alford - UCLA fan whipping boy now playing as an overqualified shooting guard freed from the burden of carrying flawed teams.
G Isaac Hamilton - UCLA’s weakest offensive player would be a great 2nd option on most Pac-12 teams
F TJ Leaf - His eFG% is 70%, and if that wasn’t enough he’s a solid shot blocker and rebounder.
F Thomas Welsh - Kinda reminds me of a Jamal Boykin if Jamal had been gifted with a few more inches and a longer wingspan. Bringing the mid-range game back in style.

Bench

PG Aaron Holiday - Back up point guard is a bit turnover prone relative to Ball, but he’s another lights out shooter who can set up his teammates.
F Ike Anigbogu - Back up big used to buy minutes for Leaf/Welsh, but still an above average finisher/rebounder
F Gyorgy Goloman - See Anigbogu above.

UCLA plays a strict 8 player rotation in games of consequence. Most of the time they will have Leaf at the 4 with Welsh/Anigbogu/Goloman at the 5, but they will occasionally play a small ball lineup with Leaf at the 5 with guards surrounding him. I’m not sure if Cal (or anybody, really) has a reasonable defensive counter to that lineup. I guess we’ll find out.

Keys to the Game

1. Can Cal stop UCLA from making shots

UCLA has the best offense in the country (and certainly in the conference). Cal has the best defense in the Pac-12. But it gets more specific than that. UCLA doesn’t turn the ball over, and Cal doesn’t force turnovers. UCLA isn’t a great offensive rebounding team, and Cal doesn’t give up many 2nd chances. UCLA doesn’t draw a ton of fouls, and Cal has cut way down on their fouling.

No, this game comes down to pure strength on strength. UCLA is (at least currently) the best shooting team in the country. Cal has a top 10 eFG% defense. Something’s gotta give.

2. Can Cal run UCLA off the 3 point line?

Consider this a secondary piece of Key 1 above. UCLA’s 8 player rotation has 5 players who are average or better (in some cases MUCH better) 3 point shooters, and all will willingly hoist the deep shot. Meanwhile, Cal hasn’t been quite as good at preventing 3 point attempts this season as they were last year, when they were the best power conference team in the entire country. Now would be a perfect time for Cal to rediscover their 3 point shot attempt preventing mojo.

3. Can Cal control pace, and does it matter?

Cal and UCLA are very different teams, and that manifests itself in a bunch of different ways. One is pace, where UCLA ranks 12th and Cal ranks 12th and Cal 257th. That’s a difference of about 8 possessions a game. Cal would presumably prefer to slow the game down and certainly wants to prevent UCLA from getting out in transition.

It’s worth noting, however, that UCLA has played slow-down teams and slow down games (Michigan, Oregon St.) and lit them up anyway. Slowing the game down is probably necessary, but nowhere near the only ingredient.

4. If all else fails, can Cal score with the Bruins?

You will note that all of the previous keys relate to stopping the UCLA offense. Hey, when you face the best unit in the land, it tends to get lots of focus. To illustrate how extreme these two teams are, here’s a fun fact:

Most points/possession allowed by the Cal defense so far this year: 1.07 vs. SDSU
Fewest points/possession scored by the UCLA offense so far this year: 1.06 vs. Texas A&M

UCLA’s offense is simply too good - even an offnight from them would produce an offensive display about as good as any Cal has allowed this year. That means that to pull the upset, Cal must score points of their own. How, exactly, can Cal do that?

5. #kod5 it up in Pauley

UCLA won’t force turnovers, and they are hyper foul averse. That means that in order to score on them, it comes down to pulling down offensive boards and, of course, shooting the ball well.

UCLA does have solid rim protection from their bigs, but their guards aren’t great point of attack defenders and there will be space for our shooters to get off 3s. Of course we all know that shots and makes aren’t the same thing.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kenpom: UCLA 83, Cal 71 - 16% chance of a Cal win

While I still think that a hypothetically 100% healthy, in-sync Cal is better than their computer profile, I might actually be more pessimistic than the computers in this case. UCLA is a tough, tough match-up for anybody, and particularly Cal. The Bears tend to play slow down, grid-it-out teams tough - your Arizonas and Virginias. But teams that can spread the floor and go up-tempo are more of an unknown. In any case, good offenses typically beat good defenses. This is a tall, tall order, and if the Bears fall, there’s no reason to freak out.

And if they win, then the reveling shall be merry indeed.