This weekend's two games are important because the Bruins have slowly but steadily put themselves in position to start locking down an NCAA Tournament bid. A victory at Arizona would go a long way to securing that bid. However, the Wildcats present the Bruins with some real match-up difficulties, some of which will be the most challenging the Bruins will face this season. On the flip side, the intensity of UCLA's defense the last thirty minutes of the Stanford game, if repeated on Thursday, could lead the Bruins to an unlikely but not impossible victory, as that kind of defense will defuse many of Arizona's match-up advantages. The Bruins, too, have match-up advantages of their own.
The conversation regarding any match-ups with Coach Sean Miller's Wildcats has to start with sophomore forward Derrick Williams (6'8" 241 lbs.). The young post is a nightmare for opposing defenders because of his inside game, which most fans know about, and his outside game, which is a bit of a revelation. Williams is arguably the best player in the Pac-10 and certainly one of the best players in the nation. He is leading the Cats in scoring at 19.7 PPG and in rebounding at 8.1 RPG. He is shooting an unreal 62% from the field and 70% from beyond the arc, and it's not as if he's only taken 5 shots from distance. He is 19-27 from behind the three-point line. He has 15 blocks, although he isn't a huge shot-blocking presence and shoots 76% from the free throw line. His one vulnerability there is, when Williams does miss free throws, he tends to miss them in bunches.
Williams is a physical specimen and quite frankly he's a terrible match-up for the Bruins. He is clearly quicker than Josh Smith (who is cleared to play), he's stronger than Anthony Stover and probably quicker and stronger than Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane. Williams simply dominated Nelson in last year's two regular season contests. Yes, he dominated both even though UCLA played exclusively zone in one of those games. That's how much energy Williams always brings to the court and last year Nelson didn't bring that same energy. Now, this may be the only individual match-up that Arizona has an advantage in against the Bruins, but it is really such an overwhelming advantage that it has a strong chance of deciding the outcome of the game in Arizona's favor. If Howland elects to play Stover big minutes you'd have to figure that Howland would place him on Williams. While Stover has good athleticism, a good motor, effort and is longer than Williams, the fact is Williams could put himself on the low block and simply overpower Stover. If Smith becomes the main defender of Williams then the ‘Zona big man will inevitably pull Smith away from the basket and use superior quickness to beat him. This is where Williams' shooting comes into play; his fantastic three-point shooting is the reason that Smith can't simply hang in the paint when Williams drifts out to the arc. Stover can probably defend Williams better than anyone on the Bruin roster, but he doesn't score, at least not enough to help get Williams in foul trouble. Smith, on the other hand, has the potential for getting Williams in foul trouble. He is bigger and stronger than Williams (which is saying a lot).
The two other players that Miller has been starting up front for the Cats are junior Jesse Perry (6'7" 210 lbs.) and sophomore Solomon Hill (6'6" 226 lbs.). Miller has only recently started Perry and his energy and willingness to do the little things has kept him in the starting line-up for ‘Zona. Hill is the second-leading scorer on the squad at 8.5 PPG and 50% from behind the arc on 11 of 22 attempts. They are virtually identical in rebounding totals with Hill leading Perry 4.4 RPG to 4.2 RPG. More than likely Howland will put Nelson on Perry, since Perry is more on an inside player, and have Tyler Honeycutt guard Hill.
Another of Miller's posts who gets minutes is Ukranian sophomore Kyryl Natyazhko (6'11" 264 lbs.), who is simply not athletic enough to offset Smith's huge size advantage. Smith could theoretically push Natyazhko all over the paint. But Smith must be careful as Pac-10 refs are probably looking at Smith as a result of his comments after the game against USC.
Senior Jamelle Horne (6'7" 224 lbs.) is an interesting player. He was a prized recruit when he arrived in Tucson but has never lived up to his hype. He has started 12 games for the Cats but has been coming off the bench lately, mainly because Miller needs some offensive options off the bench. He is the second biggest three-point threat on the team and gives the Cats an opportunity to have some instant spark of offense. He is a defensive liability, though, and a bit of a head case at times. That doesn't mean he's a bad teammate, but rather that he has had focus issues in the past. He hasn't been one to put the ball on the floor so if Tyler Honeycutt is focused then he should get the better of any match-up with Horne.
Arizona's backcourt has been very inconsistent this season. That's because the point guard spot hasn't been nailed down yet by a calming influence or by someone you could call a team leader. Even though he's started all of Arizona's games at the point, sophomore Lamont Jones (6' 196 lbs.) has won the position essentially because he's had no real competition. He has been the poster child for Arizona's inconsistent backcourt play mainly because you never know what you're going to get out of him. He can shoot lights out for a stretch and then just as easily shoot the Cats out of a game. He is shooting 42% from the floor and a poor 27% from behind the arc. The key for Jones, though, is whether he'll turn the ball over. He has an assist-to-turnover ration of a sliver over 1:1. That's counting the many games that Arizona played earlier in the year against mediocre (or worse) competition. This is a match-up that Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson have to win. If they don't then the Bruins will lose.
The off guard spot is handled primarily by junior Kyle Fogg (6'3" 180 lbs.). For those of you that were not paying attention last season, Fogg killed the Bruins in both regular season games a year ago. Fogg is averaging 7.9 PPG but last year he was averaging middling numbers and still went off from the three-point line. The bottom line: Fogg is capable of putting in 20+ any game because of his ability to get hot from distance. The difference between this year and last, though, is that Fogg will be facing Malcolm Lee, who has been getting better and better on the defensive end. Fogg also has a temperamental streak and could go into a game-long funk if he feels he's not getting the ball enough or if things just aren't going his way.
There is some depth in Zona's backcourt. Both junior Brendon Lavender (6'5" 215 lbs.) and sophomore Kevin Parrom (6'6" 205 lbs.) are primarily outside threats. Their numbers are very similar. They shoot within .001% of each other on threes, with Lavender having made two more total. They both shoot well from the charity stripe and have roughly the same assist-to-turnover ratio. Parrom plays 5 minutes more per game mainly because he's a bit better of a defender.
Freshman Jordin Mayes (6'2" 185 lbs.) spells Jones and plays just under 15 MPG. His statistics are better than Jones' across the board and you have to wonder if Mayes will supplant Jones as the starter by next fall. The challenge for Mayes is that he's nowhere near as athletic as Jones and that hurts him on the defensive end.
In terms of game planning, you would have to assume that Howland is going to stick to his tried and true man-to-man defense. That means Howland will have to decide whether or not to double Williams, which is the same as asking whether or not you let Williams get his points and shut down everyone else or try to force Williams into mistakes with the thought that his teammates can't make up for an off game by their star.
If Howland elects to play Williams straight up then expect to see Stover on him. The Bruin frosh has the length to at least bother Williams inside. If that's the case then the Bruins have got to absolutely ensure that no other Wildcat really hurts them over the course of the game. Williams could realistically go off for 30 and 12 in this game if Howland plays him straight up.
If the Bruins elect to double Williams, and he is susceptible to turnovers, then they have to rotate both from the weak post and, more importantly, down from the weakside wing to the weakside post. The good news is that the Bruins did that for essentially 30 minutes against Stanford. The bad news is that game and the 2nd half of the Oregon game are about the only time this group of Bruins has played that way in two years.
Arizona has looked pretty ragged this year when faced with zone defenses that have length and that's exactly what the Bruins could do with Stover, etc. on the floor. Howland, however, eschews zone defenses unless everything else has failed…three times. Yet Howland did put the Bruins into a zone defense last year. If Howland were to put the Bruins into a zone then this would be the game to do it.
The final piece is UCLA's ability to deny dribble penetration. If they can keep the Cats out of the lane the Bruins stand a good chance of success. The smaller Bruin line-up that Howland played against Stanford and Oregon has the capability of doing that. It must be stated, though, that Howland only played small because Nelson was in foul trouble in Eugene and Smith was hurt against Stanford.
As usual, though, no matter the details of trying to break down the game, the outcome will probably be dictated by UCLA's intensity and focus, especially on the defensive end. Arizona plays a bit loose on the defensive end so the Bruins should be able to score, but there will come a time or two in the game when Arizona will get some stops. The question is whether the Bruins will do the same.
This is a tough game to call. My head tells me that many of the intangibles, including McKale Court, point to an Arizona win. Still, my gut tells me that the Bruins could pull this off. Until the Bruins prove that the defense against Stanford was more the norm rather than the exception, I can't expect them to replicate that performance especially in such a hostile environment. We're going to stay with Tracy's original prediction.