In what may be arguably the game with the largest ramifications in the Pac-10 this season, Pac-10 leader Arizona takes on UCLA, the team that trails the Wildcats by just one game in the standings with three games left on the schedule.
After losing an overtime game against California last weekend in Berkeley, the Bruins' chances at the Pac-10 title seemed to be going away. Fast forward to this weekend and an Arizona loss, coupled with a 71-53 UCLA victory over Arizona State on Thursday, and the Bruins find themselves right back in the thick of things.
The victory over the Sun Devils was Ben Howland's team's 20th of the season and 11th in conference play. After dropping two of their first three games in the Pac-10, the Bruins have since rebounded to win 10 of its 12 conference contests and have a chance to force a tie in the standings with a road trip to the Washington schools left to close out the season.
Howland has to feel good about the recent play of Malcom Lee, who in his past five games is averaging 16.8 points. The 6-foot-5 junior has used the recent hot streak to become UCLA's leading scorer at 13.7 points in 33 minutes per outing. He's been an effective shooter from the field, hitting on 44.8 percent of his attempts.
Widely considered to be one of the most talented players in the conference, Lee is finally living up to that billing, and it's no coincidence that the Bruins have made a late push for the conference title during his hot streak.
He hit a big three-pointer as time expired against Cal last weekend to send the game to overtime, and it's obvious that Lee has stepped up to the team's go-to guy. The junior did everything in his power offensively in the January 27th meeting at UA, scoring 16 points in 36 minutes.
Much of UCLA's success or struggles fall onto Lee's shoulders, and it will need him to continue to put up big numbers against the Wildcats Saturday.
It certainly helps Lee that his teammate Lazeric Jones has been able to get him the ball in openings in the defensive. The former teammate of Jesse Perry at John A. Logan College last season is the team's leading assist man at 3.7 per game. The 6-foot junior is also one of five Bruins averaging double-digits at 10.2 points per contest.
He's coming off one of his best games against ASU on Thursday, when he registered 10 points to go along with 10 assists. It was the second time this year he'd put together a double-digit assist performance, and his strong play could not come at a better time for the Bruins.
Jones will certainly be looking for a more effective outing against UA this go-around, as he was absolutely smothered in the January game. He scored 0 points, shot 0-7 from the field and was limited to just 23 minutes due to foul trouble. Odds are Jones will have more success shooting, as he's the team's leading three-point shooter at 39.5 percent.
The backcourt duo of Jones and Lee is rounding into form just in time for the Bruins, and whether or not they can keep it rolling will loom large in the outcome of the game.
Senior Jerime Anderson has cracked the starting lineup recently and is a steady presence at the third guard position. He's averaging just five points per outing, but he's third on the team with 2.8 assists per game. The 6-foot-2 senior posted 11 points last time out against UA and he may get another start as a result of that strong performance.
In the frontcourt, UCLA has a pair of players that may pose big time problems for its opponents.
After leading the team in scoring for the majority of the season, sophomore Tyler Honeycutt has seen his 12.7 points per game fall to third on the team. There isn't much on the court that the 6-foot-8 sophomore can't do, as he's the Pac-10's blocks leader at 1.9 swats per contest.
The uber-athletic Honeycutt is second on the team in both rebounding and assists, averaging 7.4 boards and 2.9 assists per outing. Add to that his team-leading 34.3 minutes per game and you have a player who is responding in a major way to a freshman year that earned him All-Pac-10 Freshman Team honors.
Last but certainly not least in the starting lineup is Reeves Nelson, who has been a handful for the Wildcats in the past. In his three career appearances against UA, the 6-foot-8 sophomore is averaging 17.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, including a 24-point, 10-rebound performance January 27th at McKale Center.
For the season, Nelson is averaging 13.5 points per game, ranking only behind Lee for the Bruins. Like Honeycutt, Nelson also earned All-Pac-10 Freshman Team accolades and is the third leading rebounder in the conference as a sophomore with 8.8 boards per game.
As his career numbers against UA indicate, he's been a force offensively and on the glass, and he'll surely be at a high level confidence wise for this game, which bodes well for UCLA.
There isn't too much off the bench for the Bruins aside from Josh Smith. Smith, a 6-foot-10, 305 pound freshman, is the team's fourth leading scorer at 10.6 points per outing despite just 21.1 minutes off the bench. He also grabs 6.3 rebounds per contest, ranking third on the team.
Smith picked up four fouls in only 19 minutes in his first career game against UA, but he was able to put in 13 points in that time. If he can stay on the floor for more minutes in the game Saturday, he may be able to provide UCLA will quality minutes in the paint and give it a big boost.
It's likely Anthony Stover will appear in the game, but not for very long as the 6-foot-10 redshirt-freshman averages just 7.8 minutes per game. Another big body off the bench is 6-foot-9 sophomore Brendan Lane, who averages 3.3 points in 17.1 minutes per outing.
It would only be fitting that the final game in Pauley Pavilion before it undergoes major renovations would be between these two schools with so much on the line. With the rivalry played out so many times in the past, both of these squads have their own chance to leave their unique mark on the rivalry.
If UA is to win this one, Derrick Williams has to show up defensively. Nelson has done very well against him in the past, and after the performance Nikola Vucevic had Thursday, it is likely UCLA will look to him early and often to attack the rim.
After its first loss in five weeks, the toughness and ability to respond to adversity that Sean Miller has instilled in his team, will be on full display. How the Wildcats bounce back from Thursday's loss will most likely play a pivotal role in answering the following question:
Will Arizona return to Tucson with a two-game lead with two to play? Or, on a road trip which the Wildcats were looking for the sweep, will it be the Wildcats who get swept and see the two game lead it enjoyed entering the weekend disappear in just a three day stretch?
The answer to that last question, is why they play the game. This installment of Arizona vs. UCLA promises to be an exciting one, as there hasn't been this much on the line between these traditional West Coast powers in quite some time.
Arizona headed to Pauley
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