Now it begins: the real work, the real tests.
Ben Howland’s UCLA basketball team did quite well in righting their ship with five straight victories after a 2-5 start, the Bruins playing more cohesively and like a team after Howland threw last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, Reeves Nelson, off the squad.
However, the Pac-12 Conference is not made up of teams like Eastern Washington, UC Davis and UC Irvine, and that’s the challenge that UCLA now faces as they head for the Bay Area to begin conference play against Stanford at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto this coming Thursday and California at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley this coming Saturday, hostile environments to be sure.
If the 7-5 Bruins are going to prove the pre-season prognosticators right and finish high in the conference if not outright win it, they need to, in John Wooden’s words, “Be at their best” right now.
Here’s a look at the Stanford and California teams that UCLA will be facing this weekend:
Season Record: 10-2
This Cardinal has gotten off to a good start this year, with Oklahoma State and North Carolina State among their ten wins and playing Syracuse tough in their loss to them.
Syracuse just happens to be the current top-ranked team in the country.
Coached by former Duke star Johnny Dawkins, Stanford is a young team with Josh Owens, a 6′ 8″ senior forward/center, serving as their anchor. Owens leads the Cardinal with 12.7 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
The Cardinal’s guards, while young, have done well and been a key for the team’s good start. Sophomore Aaron Bright is averaging 11.3 points per contest to go along with his team-leading 38 assists, and true freshman Chasson Randle averages 11.8 points a game.
And to add to this challenge, Maples Pavilion will be rocking as it’s home to the Stanford 6th Man Club, the raucous basketball student fan base who will be looking to make things rather difficult for Joshua Smith, Lazeric Jones and company.
CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
Season Record: 10-3
As tough as Stanford will be, their Golden Bear rivals from across the bay in Berkeley will be even tougher as Mike Montgomery’s team has been in the AP Top 25 this year.
Plus they gave the Bruins all they could handle last season, and their key players, guards Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe, are back.
Crabbe, a 6′ 6″ sophomore, leads Cal with 15.8 points a game, and Gutierrez, a senior who has a knack for constantly hitting clutch shots, provides an excellent one-two punch with his 13.8 points average. Justin Cobbs has provided a good third option at guard as he leads the Bears with 58 assists to go along with his 12.6 points a contest, which leaves the Bruins’ Jones, Tyler Lamb and Jerime Anderson with some challenges.
Harper Kemp is a senior starter at forward who’s averaging nine points and 5.8 rebounds, while fellow forwards Richard Solomon and David Kravish’s skills on the boards provide a potential difficulty for UCLA’s front line, Joshua Smith and the Wear Twins, David and Travis. Solomon’s 6.9 boards a game leads Cal, with Kravish’s 6.3 boards second.
Being that Stanford and Cal are two of the better teams in the Conference, with Cal considered a contender, the Bruins know what’s at stake in starting Pac-12 play.
A slow start like they experienced against Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State their first two games “…can’t happen,” Jerime Anderson said.
If they can continue to play the defense that they’ve been playing, holding opponents to the 30s in percentage as they did the last two contests while continuing to spread the scoring around and have multiple players in double figures, UCLA can go into January with a 2-0 conference record.
They could also go 0-2 if things don’t go right.
Let the testing begin…