UCLA vs. Cal Basketball: A Reason For Optimism [Updated]

Pauley reconstruction issues, football coaching chaos, the events of an early December weekend, have all made it  tough to be a UCLA sports fan for a while.  But things may be looking up.  If our basketball team can win these next two games, we will be in second place in the Pac-10 and  on the way to the goal of making the tournament. 

The Bruins are pumped as well.  As is often the case, Reeves is the symbol of the team.  Even after he fouled out against Oregon, Reeves Nelson was the leading cheerleader on the bench and professed to any who would listen that he could care less about 0 points and was so happy we got the win.   Now, CBH is going to frats to pump up attendance because he believes in this team and wants the students to feel his passion.  Anyone think either of these things would have happen last season?

And while these Bruins are at times frustrating to watch, they could be turning things around.  So while I wholeheartedly agree with Tydides when he speaks of UCLA consistently being able to only play 20 good minutes out of 40: today is going to be a positive post.  I think we will beat Cal tonight.  I am going to focus on some positive aspects and how that could apply tonight against California.

1.  Lazeric Jones is becoming a leader.  He is willing to take the big shot, play through the pain of the broken finger, and sounds like a leader.  Tonight he will be against a quick but terrible shooting PG in Brandon Smith.   He should be favored in this match-up.

2.  Malcolm Lee has proven he is a good defender but what is interesting in the last 4 games he has not had a tough defense assignment, he is 27-45 from the field with 18,20,18 and 15 points.  Malcolm will likely matchup with Jorge Gutierrez Cal's eccentric and experienced all out effort 1, 2,3 position player .  Gutierrez is not the leading scorer as ML has often covered but he is a hard worker.  It will be interesting to see what Lee can do on both ends.

[UPDATE.  The LA Times in a story recognizing what we all know reporting on ML's stellar defense says he will be guarding Crabbe:

Lee has become a defensive stopper, frustrating such prolific scorers as Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette, Washington State's Klay Thompson and Oregon State's Jared Cunningham.

"Every time Coach [Ben Howland] tells us who he's guarding," UCLA guard Lazeric Jones said of Lee, "we have faith that he's going to if not neutralize him, just basically stop him, period."

Lee's assignment Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion could be one of his toughest: California's Allen Crabbe. The freshman guard is the Golden Bears' top scorer in Pacific 10 Conference play, averaging 17.4 points.

. . .

Lee called the task of defending the 6-foot-6 Crabbe "just another challenge," something the 6-5 Lee has mostly excelled at this season.

 

3.  Cal's leading scorer and hot player right now is Allen Crabbe.  

KEY MATCHUP

Tyler Honeycutt vs. Allen Crabbe -- Maybe Gary Franklin's transfer was for the better of Cal basketball. With local product Allen Crabbe (Los Angeles, Calif./Price) leading the charge, it sure looks that way. Crabbe, last year's Gatorade State Player of the Year, has averaged 17.4 points in five Pac-10 games, highlighted by a breakout, 30-point performance against Washington State last week. He has netted an average of 20 points since Franklin (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) departed Jan. 5.

Part of me wishes CBH goes small and puts ML on Crabbe.  ML stopped a similarly hot Jared Cunningham.  

There is reason to be concerned about Tyler and to cut Tyler some slack.  He has been playing through some considerable pain from the elbow he hurt in that incredible Kansas game and for the second year in a row at UCLA is not a 100%:

"I've been playing through it," Honeycutt said. "It's been really weak as far as squeezing stuff and pushing stuff."

Honeycutt said he has been taking pain killers to help deal with it, but the injury has clearly affected his play.

. . .

"Some weeks it will really hurt a lot," he said. "Lately it's been like, when I go out to shoot, if it's not warmed up, I can barely get the ball to the rim."

. . . "It's just a nagging injury so I want to make sure everything is good with it," he said. "It's been kind of an issue the whole time."

The x-rays were negative but Honeycutt's numbers post-Kansas show it has really effected his play except for his rebounding.  Tyler deserves a lot of credit for getting out there and not really complaining about it (It was in the injury report after the Kansas game only once).  If he is playing Crabbe, we will need him to give his all on the defensive end but regardless it is great that he has played through the pain for the team. 

4.  Reeves Nelson.  When Reeves walks down the court after arguing with the SPTRs on a bad call or no call, it is easy to forget that he has been named Pac-10 player of the week twice this year.  Or that last year he got a concussion in a questionable collision with Cal's resident brute  Markhuri Sanders-Frison but kept quiet and kept playing despite headaches and double vision.  Nelson is working on growing up and needs to learn how to play smart and hard all the time:

Nelson complained of physical play after the Oregon game and Howland acknowledged that a couple of Nelson's fouls were a result of retaliating.

"He got bothered by some of the physical play and that’s not something that’s new for him," Howland said. "It bothers him...He’s got to be able to control that better. It’s just part of taking the hit for the team and not retaliating because it was just so easy."

This team needs Nelson.  Nelson will match up with Harper Kamp a 4th year junior who is Cal's leading scorer.  This may be a tough match up at times for Nelson and this may be a key to the game.  Kamp is a good FT shooter hitting 83%.  Here's hoping we get more of the good Nelson tonight who last year in his first game against Cal scored 15 points and went to the line 14 times. 

5.  Joshua Smith v. Sanders-Frison is a matchup that could be fun to watch.  Sanders relies on running over and out muscling his opponent with his bulk and width.  This may be the first time that Sanders-Frison has played someone bigger, and wider.  Unlike Sanders-Frison, Smith looks like a very good but still learning basketball player.  As was pointed out, Smith is the number 1 offense rebounder in the country:

Here's hoping the "bully" gets his comeuppance. These next two games can hopefully erase any lingering memories of last year and tonight UCLA may be led by the two new players Smith and Jones.

If UCLA can win tonight and Saturday, there will be reason for the most cynical UCLA fan to at least crack a smile. 

I think it will happen, Go Bruins!

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