UCLA (19-7, 10-3) comes to town having won 10 out of their last 11 games and faces a struggling Golden Bear team (13-13, 6-8) that has been on the wrong end of their last three contests. For the Bears to reverse that trend, they are going to have to prevail in some key aspects of the game tonight.
1. Battle of the Paint
In their last matchup at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA sophomore power forward Reeves Nelson killed the Bears with 24 points and 10 rebounds, but none was more important than his buzzer beating tip-in as the clock expired to propel the Bruins to an 86-84 victory. Moreover, UCLA’s McDonald’s All-American Freshman center Joshua Smith has been on a tear recently averaging close to a double-double and becoming one of the premier offensive rebounders in the nation since these two teams met the first time. In that game, Smith was neutralized, only scoring 4 points in 6 minutes of action. But Smith has since come alive and Cal bigs Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison, both who had big games on Thursday against USC, will need to keep their men in check. A key will be to get both Smith and Nelson in foul trouble and make UCLA rely on their other bigs, namely Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane. Richard Solomon will also need to be effective again for Cal, having scored 12 points off the bench, keying a comeback against the Bruins earlier in the year.
2. Jorge Gutierrez vs. Malcolm Lee
A main reason while UCLA has been surging as of late is because of the outstanding team defense they have been playing. No one is more responsible for that than Bruins’ shooting guard Malcolm Lee, who undertakes the role of locking up the other team’s best offensive player night-in-night-out. Allen Crabbe was shut down for 37 minutes last game before Lee fouled out. If Crabbe is again unable to go, then Lee will probably guard Gutierrez (Cal’s 2nd leading scorer at 13.8ppg). Gutierrez, a good defender in his own right, will also be matched up against Lee defensively. Lee is UCLA’s 2nd leading scorer (13.4ppg), but has been on the upswing, averaging 16ppg since the their last matchup. If Gutierrez can get to the rim on Lee and be effective on both the offensive and defensive ends, Cal will have a great shot to win.
Reeves Nelson may be UCLA’s leading scorer, but the unquestioned leader of the Bruins in junior-transfer point guard Lazeric Jones (10.3ppg, 3.5apg). His leadership has been key to the success of the senior-less UCLA team this season. After Crabbe went down, Cal has sometimes looked lost without their leading scorer. The trio of Kamp, Sanders-Frison, and Gutierrez will have to step up and fill that leadership role and put the team on their back tonight if the Bears are going to upset UCLA tonight.
Prediction: UCLA is too deep and dominates defensively, despite the hostile Haas Pavilion environment, wins 70-64.