Game 18: January 21, 2007
Arena: Pauley Pavillion
The biggest story out of Westwood in the last 24 hours is the status of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute who is expected to sit out the Arizona game due to a sprained knee. The Los Angeles Times ran an article this morning that seems to have confirmed newswires last night that ran on Scout.com. If Mbah a Moute indeed does not play, that will seem to sway the advantage toward Arizona despite the Wildcats' recent struggles.
Last season UCLA beat Arizona three times and on all occasions, Mbah a Moute was a difference maker on the boards as well as on defense. Of course, so was the deft shooting touch of UCLA's outstanding guard Arron Afflalo. Afflalo had two of his four best games against Arizona last year and will look to carry the Bruins to their fourth straight victory over the Wildcats today when the teams tip at 1 PM, Pacific Time.
For Arizona, a one time 12-game winning streak seems like it occurred ages ago. The Wildcats' fledgling defense now has a new friend and for Arizona the bad new is it's their offense. The high powered Arizona offense has now been held to less than 80 points in their last three losses, which have all come in the past two weeks. Today Arizona will look to end a two game losing streak and prevent their first three game losing streak since last season's mid year stretch against, strangely enough, North Carolina, USC and UCLA.
The Wildcats face the Tar Heels next Saturday, but first things first.
So, without further ado, let's take a look at how Arizona's match up with UCLA should break down:
Arizona was held to 38 percent shooting from the field against the Trojans. In my preview of that game I said that the Wildcats must be the team that exercises patience in order to win in the Galen Center and they did the exact opposite. During a 10-2 second half run by the Trojans, Arizona took three quick and very questionable outside shots (two by Radenovic from behind the arc) that gave USC all the momentum they needed to build a lead that would prove to be insurmountable. Down the stretch, Arizona also failed to consistently run their offense and allowed a raucous crowd and a feisty Trojan squad to gain confidence against the more talented Wildcats. The end result was another disappointing loss to a team that is good, but certainly not better than Arizona. Don't listen to any ridiculous rumors that are now surfacing about team chemistry problems, poor attitudes or what not. Word around the real campfire is that Arizona is having excellent practices where players are running the offense, moving well without the ball, knocking down shots, etcetera. Unfortunately, their play is not carrying over into the games which is baffling the coaching staff because teams (as is the cliché of all sports clichés) play they way they practice. Arizona is in an offensive funk no doubt and it's been affecting their effort on defense, but all they need is to see a few shots fall and all could turn around quickly.
UCLA is shooting 49 percent from the field, but only 65 percent from the foul line. This tells me that while UCLA is a team of scorers, they don't necessarily have many shooters with good, consistent form. For UCLA, they rely heavily on their defense to frustrate opponents into bad shots. This gives the Bruins an opportunity to score some easy baskets in transition. When their early offense fails, they'll be patient for the most part unless someone gets a hot hand. Three likely candidates for some streaky shooting are Afflalo, Josh Shipp and Michael Roll. Howland does what all great coaches do and that's give the green light to a player who's hot. He'll run specific plays for them, he'll burn a timeout to keep their legs fresh – he'll do just about anything to keep them on the floor and with the ball in their hands. UCLA has struggled mightily against zone defenses and that is a concern. Again, this supports my notion that UCLA is not a great scoring team but they do score because of their transition game and their ability to rebound effectively on the offensive boards.
OFFENSIVE EDGE: EVEN
This facet of the game should be a tremendous edge for Arizona and if they come out hot it just might prove to be. For me though, I've seen Arizona struggle so much in recent games that even without Mbah a Moute the Bruins play with so much heart on defense that I'm not too confident that this will be the game that the Wildcats break out of their shooting slump. Still, even on a bad night, Arizona has plenty of what I refer to as "scorers" (guys who will somehow find a way to put the ball in the basket) such as Williams, Budinger and Shakur that they should be able to keep up with the Bruins. The one worry for Arizona is if UCLA gets hot like they did against Washington when they beat the Huskies 96-74. The main worry for UCLA should be if Jawann McClellan breaks out of his shooting slump. McClellan sat out most of the second half against the Trojans and should be well rested.
Arizona played man defense for almost all of the 40 minutes against USC. There's no reason to do the same against the Bruins who have not faired well against zones all season. ASU gained an early 17-6 advantage over UCLA on Thursday by playing zone so expect Arizona to do the same. If they don't then it'll simply be a case of Arizona outthinking themselves to their own detriment. That said, Arizona has looked a bit flat footed at times during this recent losing streak so do expect to see the Wildcats incorporate man defense a bit to get themselves going.
UCLA thrives on defense. It's that simple. They have an opportunity to really step on the throats of an Arizona team who is struggling on offense right now. If they do go for the juggler and are successful, then Arizona may be in for a day to truly forget. The loss of Mbah a Moute is a real setback though so it'll be interesting to see who will rise up in his place. UCLA has plenty of talent to go around so don't be surprised if someone like Lorenzo Mata or Alfred Aboya have the defensive game of their life.
DEFENSIVE EDGE: UCLA
On paper this isn't even close. UCLA's man-to-man pressure has been really impressive since Howland came to Westwood. From their famous 2-2-1 full court press to their willingness to trap opponents every time the ball goes into the corners, UCLA just makes things tougher than they should be. Collison is an outstanding perimeter defender and will look to disrupt Arizona's motion offense by disrupting Shakur's entry lanes. Afflalo is a very physical player and will look to do what USC's Lodrick Stewart did to McClellan and that's get in his face early and often to keep Arizona's only pure outside shooter off his game. Down low, Radenovic could present problems for Mata as Mata is purely a banging, bruising low post defender and not much else. If Radenovic is knocking down 15-footers, UCLA's usually stifling defense may be softened a bit.
Arizona continues to rebound well, one phase of their game that is getting overshadowed by their scoring woes. The man defense is helping in this category in that it's much easier to box out when you're assigned to a specific body. How well Arizona can keep UCLA off the offensive boards while in their zone defense today will be a very determining factor in today's outcome. Arizona will have to board well in order to win unless they catch fire from the field.
Like all defensive-minded teams UCLA also rebounds well. For the season, Arizona is averaging 38 rebounds per game to UCLA's 33. While this may look like an advantage for Arizona it really isn't because the difference in numbers is merely a product of how many possessions are occurring in the games played by each team. Arizona likes to play at a quick pace, which leads to more possessions and consequently more rebounding opportunities. UCLA plays slower and well, you get the point.
REBOUNDING EDGE: EVEN
I'm tempted to give Arizona the edge here because of the absence of Mbah a Moute. I won't though because like Arizona, rebounding is a total team effort for UCLA. Both teams do a good job of maintaining balance on the floor which puts players in good rebounding positions. I expect a truly great battle on the boards tonight that should be very even when the final buzzer sounds.
Like all Pac-10 games this season, the loser of today's game will be able to look back at a few key possessions to figure out why they lost.
The key word for today is execution.
Wide open play will only get one of these teams blown out. The team that executes their offense, remains disciplined on defense, and attacks the boards will win.
I know it doesn't take a genius to figure that out so let me get more detailed.
For Arizona to win, they need to go back to what helped them win 12 straight games against, at the time, the toughest strength of schedule in the county. They need to curl tightly off screens on offense and get themselves going to basket. In the last three games everyone is moving away from the basket. They need to attack this UCLA team who is used to being the aggressor and having teams back away from them. It's just like dealing with the school bully. If they push you, push back and you'll be surprised at what happens.
For UCLA, the Bruins need to get in the faces of the Arizona players and look them dead in the eye. There's a possibility that what they'll see is fear, or doubt. Arizona has not been their usual selves of late and their coaching staff is on them. They're close, but still far enough away from carrying that usual Arizona swagger that UCLA may be able to jump on them early and end this thing before halftime.
UCLA will need Afflalo and Shipp to play well today and may need Roll to knock down a few threes to pull Arizona out of their zone defense. Arizona, conversely, must be willing to stretch their zone defense to contest shots out to about 22 feet because Roll and Afflalo will pull the trigger from their. They'll be no baiting the other team into taking bad shots because as mentioned earlier, there are scorers all over the floor for both teams and the ball will find its way into the hole at times when natural physics should prove otherwise.
Today's game will be a great one. I think Arizona will come out with some fire because their recent play has backed them into a bit of a corner. I also think UCLA will come out strong and rally as a team to make up for Mbah a Moute's absence. Their collective efforts should make for some exciting television and a rowdy Pauley Pavillion. And like I said before, it'll come down to who makes the most of a few key possessions.
So, who's going to win?
Since Arizona's been playing the role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lately so will I.
If McClellan can give Arizona anything today and if Radenovic is hitting from 15-feet then Arizona will win and the score will be:
ARIZONA 72 UCLA 65
UCLA 68 ARIZONA 61
My gut tells me that Dillon may get the start, or at least play very early, McClellan will get fired up, play well, and help Arizona pull out the much needed victory.