Jay Bilas is on the call for Saturday’s matchup between Arizona and UCLA and is looking forward to seeing one of the biggest games in history between the two schools.
“It’s been one of the great rivalries in basketball over the years,” Bilas said. “Rivalries are all the same to the participants. Whether it catches national attention from people outside the rivalry is a different matter.
“Duke-Carolina has somehow done that. I don’t know why, but it resonates beyond the geographic footprint of the rivalry. It is very much the same.
“The Pac-12 championship seems to run through UCLA and Arizona. For years it used to run just through Westwood, but now it runs through Tucson and Westwood.”
It seems that Arizona is guaranteed to see a zone each game, but it may not be for the reason that some assume.
“Arizona is really good,” Bilas said. “They are so balanced. They defend at a really high level. Even though they see so much zone, they have gotten better against the zone.
“They see so much zone for a reason, it’s because teams can’t guard Lauri Markkanen off ball screens, so they would prefer to pack the lane.
“He has shown his versatility in that he can do a lot more than just shoot from the perimeter. He is a really good player.”
When discussing the best players in the country, Markkanen is near the top.
“The easy comparison is to say Dirk Nowitzki just because of his build and all that, but he is a prototype of the new age game,” Bilas said. “He is a big guy that years ago would have been put down in the post and would have been expected to play with his back to the basket.
“Now that the game has evolved into being more of a perimeter oriented drive and kick game, he’s really versatile and can do both. He’s elite. Not just as a freshman, he is elite period. He makes you make choices defensively.
“Do you double him? How do you handle a ball screen? That is why you are seeing so many teams play Arizona zone. It’s not a question of their perimeter shooting, because they can shoot. Markkanen is the big reason.”
The Bruins will enter Saturday’s game with the better offense and the Wildcats do the same with the better defense.
“I do think UCLA is more powerful on the offensive end, but they are not the defensive team that Arizona has proven to be,” Bilas said. “That’s really the one difference between the two teams, is that Arizona consistently defends at a high level and UCLA has not done that throughout the year, but they have done it much better over the last five or six games.
“That’s the difference between really good and great for UCLA and that’s why they can win it all. It’s not just their offense, but if they get three or four more stops per game that what they were getting, that puts them in the top 50 for efficiency and with their offense, that is more than good enough to beat anybody.”
Often times, the point guard position is the one that people question the most as it relates to Arizona.
“I think Arizona is a Final Four caliber team,” Bilas said. “Parker Jackson-Cartwright does a good job. Kadeem Allen can play the point. They have a number of guys that can handle it and initiate. They don’t have a ball dominant guard and that is one of the things I like about Lonzo Ball at UCLA.
“As a point guard, he can control the game without dominating the ball. That’s not easy to do. Just because Parker Jackson-Cartwright or Kadeem Allen are not the player Lonzo Ball is, does not mean that Arizona is not just as good, if not better.
“Having a great point guard is great, but they have good point guards and with all they have surrounding that position, they have plenty.”
Of course, it helps that the Wildcats are led by one of the best coaches in the country.
“This has been one of the best coaching jobs, it’s not surprising given what a great coach Sean is, but this is one of the best coaching jobs anybody has done all year,” Bilas said.
“With all they have had going on, young players, having players out, injuries, to go to this point in the year and be 26-3 and the three losses to the quality of teams they played, it is really remarkable.”