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UCLA at Cal: Streaking Through The Bay?

As even Coach Howland had to acknowledge after Thursday night's victory at Stanford, the Bruins have made a habit of making their games a bit more interesting at the finish than we would like to see. While the housecat routine has made for a bonanza for the folks making blood pressure medication, as Howland also pointed out the Bruins have yet to lose a game in which they have held a lead of at least 10 points, and added yesterday.

At the end of the day, its about did you win or did you lose. Last night, we were up 13 when Brown hit the shot from the corner, but everything had to go just right for them to make all those thress and put the game in doubt. As I joked about, we're great for sponsors. If we keep winning - getting big leads, relinqisoghing them and hanging on - I'll be happy.

Of course, as all this has been going on, the Bruins have been riding a hot streak - and a greatly improved defensive performance - through much of the conference schedule, winning 10 of 11 games since their embarrassing loss at Galen Center (including the non-conference victory against St Johns), and 16 of the 19 games since an early December loss to Montana. In the midst of that hot streak, the team finds themselves entering arguably the trickiest group of games, starting with tonight's game with Cal.

Cal enters this game on a bit of a down note, falling to USC in a home loss that like our game on The Farm, was not as close as the 3-point margin would indicate. The Bears have lost their last 4 games, the pre-SC 3 also comprising what will be the final 3 games of UCLA's regular season (Arizona, @ Washington, @ Washington St). Despite the losing streak, the Bears were competitive in two of the three, losing in double OT to the Wildcats, and losing a 4-point game in Pulman. The one blowout loss was in Seattle, in a game that saw their standout freshman Allen Crabbe leave early after suffering a concussion. Crabbe has not played since, and his availability is one of the impactful questions heading into tonight.

Even if Crabbe does return, there is no guarantee that he will be an effective force in the game. As discussed in BRO's Cal preview (not firewalled as of this writing), Josh Smith also missed time due to a concussion suffered in the first Cal game. Even after returning to action a week later, his game appeared to suffer through the following week.

Coming back from a concussion is no easy thing. The Bruins faced the same prospect when Josh Smith suffered a concussion against Cal early in the first meeting. Smith missed virtually all of that game and sat out the next game against Stanford. When Smith returned to the line-up following Stanford, he was nowhere near his level best as the Bruins lost at Arizona. In fact, Smith still looked a bit “foggy” against Arizona State game two days after the loss in Tucson. The point is that even if Crabbe returns there is an even chance that he, too, like Smith was for the Bruins, will not be at 100%.

While Crabbe has sat out longer than Smith did before returning, even if he is cleared to return tonight, that is not indicative of an ability to play at his full ability.

For those who recall last month's game at Pauley, Crabbe at full ability is a dangerous thing. He was the reason that Cal was nearly able to come back for the win after Malcolm Lee's departure in the final 5 minutes. He is questionable for tonight's game, but in yesterday's Q&A with CGB, the folks there were not too confident in his availability. If unavailable, Monty and the Bears will have to rely on fellow freshman guard Jeff Powers to help fill in the scoring gap - he has scored double figures in each of the three games since Crabbe has been injured, after playing only 13 minutes in 5 games since the University of Denver transfer became eligible in December. Leading scorer Harper Kamp will also need to have a big game - a couple of thoughts, also from the Q&A:

He's a smart player, and a left hander, but clever around the basket with using angles and fakes and step-throughs, step-backs and spins. I would say either bring an athletic shot blocker and shade his left would be the best strategy I could think of.

Kamp is tough, strong, has good footwork, and has a diverse game.  However, he's not an explosive leaper and doesn't have great size.  He has trouble scoring over guys who are really tall/long if they're disciplined enough not to leave their feet. (like UW's frontline)  If you don't have someone that can shut him down one on one, I'd use a quick double team and force him to give the ball up.

While simply the absence of Crabbe's production is a major loss for Cal, the resulting hit to the team's depth is an additional hit. The Q&A also hit upon the lack of quality depth; the unenviable choice of running their remaining starters into the ground or playing a group of inexperienced subs contributing to the Bears Pac-10 worst scoring defense (8th in defensive efficency).

The Bruins will attempt to take advantage of Cal's defensive issues with a balanced attack that as both the Daily News and LA Times have written today, sees all five starters (counting starter-off-the-bench Joshua Smith) averaging double-digit scoring. Additionally, as DCBruins wrote last weekend, four of the five have led the team in scoring in multiple games this season, with the exception - Tyler Honeycutt - having set the season high in Bruin scoring. As Howland told Jon Gold:

"It's huge - you can't just plan to stop one or two guys," UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. "Any night, any one of our players can go off and have a big game. It's critical to have that balance."

And as Honeycutt put it in the same article, the balance eases the pressure on the starters individually, not forcing one or two players to feel that they need to carry the load even on a cold night.

"That's good for us; any of us is having the hot hand and we're going to look to him to keep shooting," Honeycutt said. "I'm not going to shoot myself out of the game or shoot it to where it's hurting us, but I'm going to stay aggressive. If I'm having a good night, I'm going to look to shoot."

With the extra day off due to the Sunday night TV accommodation, the team enjoyed a little down time by the bay yesterday.

With two days between games — a rarity in Pacific 10 Conference play — the Bruins ventured to San Francisco on Saturday and devoured hot fudge sundaes in Ghirardelli Square.

One player who skipped the extra calories, Howland said, was Smith, who at 305 pounds continues to monitor his waistline. Howland seemed particularly delighted by the whipped cream on his sundae.

"It's real," he said. "It's not out of the can. It's outstanding."

Speaking of the Sunday night timing of this contest, as Coach Howland acknowledged, it is a television network consideration, one that he is willing to accept due to the beneficial and additional exposure.

"We get the most exposure and most people watching on Sunday night games, so that's why we do it," Howland said. "It's important for our program and important for our league."

Gametime tonight is at 7pm, with the game televised nationally on Fox Sports/Prime Ticket.