UCLA hoops begins Pac-12 play on January 3 against the California Bears (8-4) after a roller-coaster non-conference schedule which saw the Bruins lose to Cal Poly and beat No. 7 Missouri within the span of a few weeks.
The main goal for the Bruins from here on out will be consistency and dominance over an improved, but still weak, Pac-12 basketball conference.
That goal begins at Pauley Pavilion against a Cal team that was picked to finish third in the conference and received three of 36 votes to win the conference altogether. On the cusp of a preseason ranking, Cal’s successful regular season in 2011-12 made them formidable competitors in the conference.
Of course, that team lost the heart and glue of its foundation in senior Jorge Gutierrez, a player who was second on the team in scoring. The Bears also lost Harper Kamp, yet another senior leader that raked in just under 12 points to go along with five boards per game.
And as a result, this Cal team has begun its season with a worse record than they did last year, when the Bears entered into Pac-12 play with a 10-3 record.
Not much has changed, though. Last year, Cal beat teams they were supposed to beat — squads such as UCSB and San Jose State — and lost to teams they were significant underdogs against — including San Diego State and UNLV. This year, Cal has had but one slip-up against bad teams, their most recent game against the Harvard Crimson, a middling Ivy League school. Other than that, Cal has beaten the likes of Prairie View A&M while losing to top-25 squads like UNLV and Creighton.
Of course, can Cal repeat last year’s performance in conference play, which saw them go 13-5 against Pac-12 teams (including a sweep over UCLA)?
Statistically, Cal has seen a significant drop-off in performance, which should make you skeptical of their ability to maintain superiority over most of the Pac-12 schools. In 2011-12, the Bears scored 1.07 points per possession while allowing just 0.933 points per possession from opponents, a mark that earned them a spot among the nation’s top-35 defenses.
This year, these Bears have gotten a bit less efficient on both ends, at least thus far, earning 1.04 points per possession while holding opponents to 0.95 points per possession, and their RPI ranking is currently 75th in the country, a far cry from their ranking of 46 last year (although the RPIs are nearly identical).
Even then with these drop-offs, though, the Bears are still largely competent on both sides of the floor and have been ultra-competitive with teams like UNLV and Creighton.
Offensively, Cal shoots at a 46 percent clip, good for No. 51 in the country. The more important stat, however, at least as it pertains to UCLA, is their 32 percent shooting from downtown, a mediocre number by any standards.
All season long, the three-pointer has damned UCLA’s defense and Cal does have shooters that can drain the triple. Namely, Cal’s star, Allen Crabbe, could go off against UCLA from the perimeter. Crabbe, who is earning nearly 21 points per game off of 48 percent shooting, is draining 38 percent of his threes, a scary stat for these Bruins who have been hapless on rotating out to shooters all season long.
Of course, Crabbe isn’t the only serious threat in the backcourt for Cal — the Bears have also enjoyed the emergence of point guard Justin Cobbs, a 6’2” point man who’s shooting at a ridiculous 53 percent from the floor in 2012-13. UCLA has struggled mightily with good guard play and will be tested if Cal’s backcourt tandem decides to penetrate aggressively, at which point UCLA’s bigs will be too slow and unathletic to prevent them from wreaking havoc.
Defensively, Cal has held its own thus far. Against the likes of UNLV, the Cal defense held its opponent to 42 percent from the floor, essentially being beat by freshman phenom Anthony Bennett. On the season, Cal has held teams to a dismal mark of 39 percent shooting from the floor and an almost-as-dismal 42 percent from two-point range.
Still, Cal’s defense might not be good enough to hold a UCLA offense which has catapulted itself among the nation’s elite, meaning Cal’s offense will be the focal point in this game.
Cal hasn’t proven itself good enough to put up 90 points in a back-and-forth shoot-out, and though they haven’t been given a legitimate opportunity, they don’t seem able.
That’s not definitive though, and given their backcourt, they could break out offensively against a weak UCLA defense.
Who knows, though? This is why the games are played.