Obviously, this game is huge. The Bruins certainly could use another win over a top-20 RPI team to help solidify their NCCA Tournament resume. The Wildcats could use the win to help their NCAA Tournament seeding. However, with UCLA's win over Arizona State on Thursday night and Arizona's loss at USC, the biggest thing about this game is that it is now for first place in the Pac-10 Conference. If the Bruins win then it will mean a first place tie between UCLA and Arizona, but UCLA still has to travel to the Washington schools while Arizona gets to host the Oregons next week. In fact, even with a win over Arizona, it is highly unlikely that UCLA will get the top seed in the conference tournament. Virtually every tie-breaker goes to the Wildcats, courtesy of the Bruin loss to California last Sunday. Still, to at least stay in the conversation, the Bruins need to win on Saturday. The outcome of this game will truly depend on which UCLA shows up to play, or rather, more specifically, when the Bruins decide to kick into gear. The last game in which the Bruins looked relatively flat throughout was the game against Arizona in Tucson, which the Wildcats won by 11. You'd assume with so much riding on the game, UCLA will play well on both ends of the floor on Saturday, but the question is: When? Will the Bruins come out flat as they did against Arizona State or will they be ready to go from the opening tip? It is the same question that has seemed to dog the Bruins throughout the season: Will they have enough intensity and focus to win the game?
Arizona is coming off the aforementioned loss to USC on Thursday. The key to that defeat was USC's defense really forcing the Wildcats off their game on offense. It certainly helped that every time one of the Wildcat guards got into the paint they tended to have blinders on and not kick out the ball. While the Trojans only had three blocks against the Wildcats, the Trojan posts altered a great many shots. Also, when the ball was kicked out to open shooters, the Wildcats tended to miss the jumper. They were only 6-19 from behind the arc and shot only 38% from the field. USC also split the battle of the boards with the cats at 35 apiece and committed only 8 turnovers to Arizona's 11. Finally, the USC offense shortened the game by using the majority of the shot clock on many possessions and the Trojan defense was very physical with Arizona.
UCLA is coming off a relatively easy 18-point win over Arizona State that saw the Bruins start very slowly on both ends of the floor. In fact, with just under 10 minutes to go in the first half, the Bruins found themselves down by 12, 21-9. Coach Ben Howland then introduced Tyler Lamb into the line-up and suddenly the Bruins went on a 14-0 run and closed out the first half on a 30-8 run. The Bruins were clearly flat and uninspired and it took them getting focused on defense to kick-start their offense. They started getting more touches into the post, especially for Josh Smith, and they generally moved the ball better and much more crisply against ASU's match-up zone defense. The second half, with a few notable exceptions, was more like the last nine minutes of the first half. If the Bruins play like they did after the first 10-11 minutes of the first half on Thursday then they stand a good chance at a win. If it's more like the first 10 or 11 minutes of the ASU game, things won't look good.
Arizona's star player is obviously sophomore forward Derrick Williams (6'8" 241 lbs). He leads Arizona in virtually every major statistical category except assists. He stat line reads like the possible National Player of the Year candidate that he is: 19.8 PPG; 8.2 RPG; 76% from the foul line on 250 attempts, which is almost as many as the next four Wildcats combined; 62% shooting from the field and 63% from behind the arc (27-43); 26 steals; 20 blocks. Although he does lead the team with 74 turnovers, Williams should be in the same discussion at this point along with UConn's Kemba Walker and BYU's Jimmer Fredette as the best player in the nation. It really is the outside shooting that makes Williams so tough to defend. A player his size typically doesn't have the touch from distance that he has. This makes Williams too big for players quick enough to stay with him and too quick for players big enough to guard him. He is an absolute dilemma to plan around defensively. Howland tried Josh Smith on Williams in Tucson and Smith got in early foul trouble. Reeves Nelson just isn't quick enough to stay with him. In all honesty, the best plan of action, other than going to a zone, would be to put Tyler Honeycutt on him and give him a great deal of help. USC was successful switching players on Williams, with Alex Stepheson and Marcus Simmons doing most of the work. That may have given Howland a bit of a blue print on how to slow down the Arizona star. It probably helped USC that Williams played with fingers bandaged/taped together on his shooting hand to protect his injured pinky. That should still be the case on Saturday.
Arizona's rise to the top of the Pac-10 over the past several weeks has coincided with the improved play of sophomore point guard Lamont Jones (6', 196 lbs.). He isn't the greatest decision-maker, nor is he the best shooter. In fact, other than hitting his free throws he doesn't really do anything well enough to stand out. However, he is quick enough to penetrate and gave the Bruins fits trying to guard him in Tucson. He scored 17 points in that contest and seemingly got in the paint at will. He did so using ball screens and the Bruins proved last weekend in Berkeley with Jorge Gutierrez that they still have trouble with ball screens. Jones was able to get into the land against USC on Thursday but made some poor decisions on when to shoot and when to pass. He didn't turn the ball over but he struggled to get the ball in the hands of the right person on many possessions. He certainly didn't help things by going 3-12 from the field. The Bruins have to rotate over with help and rotate down to stop Jones from dumping the ball to Williams when they do move to help on Jones. That requires a team effort and the Bruins did show that somewhat in the second half against ASU. If they can force Jones into having as poor a game as he had on Thursday then the Bruins will be in a good spot even if they fail to slow down Williams.
The three other probable starters for Coach Sean Miller are juniors Jesse Perry (6'7" 210 lbs.) and Kyle Fogg (6'3" 180 lbs.), along with sophomore Solomon Hill (6'6" 226 lbs.), and all have talent but are wildly inconsistent. There have been moments this season when Hill or Fogg have offensively carried the Wildcats but they have been few and far between.
Hill is going to be another match-up issue for the Bruins. He is quick enough to bother whichever big is on him, from Tyler Honeycutt to Josh Smith and any of those types in between. About the only Bruins quick enough to stay with him are Malcolm Lee and Tyler Lamb, but they both give up size and strength to Hill. Hill is solid enough from behind the arc (44%) to warrant having to close out on him fairly hard defensively and that will cause an issue if Howland opts to try Honeycutt on Williams and have Malcolm Lee take Jones. That would mean Reeves Nelson has to guard Hill and Hill is just too quick for him. However, Hill tends to become easily enamored with jump shots and that could play right into UCLA's hands.
Fogg is almost strictly an outside shooter and has buried the Bruins in the past, especially last season, but this year his shooting has suffered. He's shooting less than 34% from behind the arc (34-101) and his shooting from inside the arc is only slightly above 40%. He can disappear in games but, even if he doesn't in this one, his one dimensional style should allow Howland to use either Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson to guard him.
Perry isn't supposed to be a scorer. He's the kind of "glue guy" that Miller was searching for since last year. He does much of the dirty work and little things that have helped make Arizona successful. He is the second-leading rebounder on the squad at 4.4 RPG and is tied for second in blocks with 13. Even though he isn't bulky his offense tends to come from inside the arc. He has attempted 20 threes on the year but he really does most of his work around the basket. He doesn't have a great handle so the threat of his driving while facing up to the hoop is lessened because he plays within himself. That's why the idea of having Josh Smith guard him just might work.
While Miller will play as many as 10 players, his bench is really confined to three players, senior Jamelle Horne (6'7" 224 lbs.), sophomore Kevin Parrom (6'6" 205 lbs.) and freshman Jordin Mayes (6'2" 185 lbs.). Sophomore Kyryl Natyazhko (6'11" 264 lbs.) has only been playing to spell Williams, and then only sometimes.
While all three of the Wildcat bench players have similar strengths (they all shoot around 43% from beyond the arc) they obviously have some significant differences. Horne has been used to spell both Perry and Williams and has been asked to play inside the past few weeks a bit more than he's used to. However, if Perry is ineffective and UCLA does indeed go with the aforementioned match-ups, then look for Miller to insert Horne into Perry's place in order to stretch the UCLA defense.
Parrom's numbers indicate that he should play more but he simply isn't physical enough against some teams to garner many minutes. When he plays on Saturday look for him to spell both Hill and Fogg and look for Miller to put Arizona in a zone when he's in the game.
Mayes is the back-up point guard and has some pretty good numbers. He plays with confidence and shoots well enough to warrant that confidence. He would have much better scoring stats if he could hit more than 41% of his free throws, but that's the true weakness in his game.
All in all, the Arizona bench is the best in the conference (although one could argue its UCLA's bench because Smith doesn't start). The Bruins will have to hope that at least two of the three bench players are off in their outside shooting.
Tactically speaking, when the Bruins are on offense they will have to be crisper then they have been at the beginning of the past two games. Arizona is much better than ASU and Cal, and if Arizona gets an early double-digit lead it may be lights out for the Bruins. They are bound to face a mix of zone and man defense. The common denominator is getting the ball inside to the big dog, Smith. As much as UCLA doesn't have an answer for Williams, the Cats don't have an answer for Smith if he's focused and stays out of foul trouble. By making post touches the focus of the offense, the Bruins can be successful against virtually any team in the country offensively.
Defensively is where this game is going to be won and lost, though. The Bruins should mix in some zone in this game as Arizona struggles against it. If the Bruins can't stop dribble penetration they may very well try it. In fact, the only way that UCLA absolutely won't try it is if the man defense is successful and then it becomes a moot point. But fans shouldn't be surprised if they see some zone against the Cats. They shouldn't be surprised if Howland stays exclusively in man defense, either. Assuming that Howland doesn't in fact change his habits, and assuming he'll eschew my suggestions of defensive match-ups mentioned above, the key for the Bruins will be their rotational defense, both in help and then the secondary rotation on the weakside. The Bruins have been getting better at this, especially at blocking and altering shots and they should get their chances with the dribble penetration at the Cats should attempt to bring.
The final piece to this puzzle is the weight of emotion that both teams will bring to the game. Arizona is going to be angry at having played a poor game against USC, and that should intensify their efforts.
The Bruins, meanwhile, will be playing their last game at Pauley Pavilion for the next 21 months or so. Many of the current Bruins will no longer be in Westwood by then. Pauley Pavilion will also be sold out and UCLA is calling for a "Blue Out." Finally, the Bruins will be wearing the ‘throwback' uniforms, vintage 1964.
There will, of course, also be the electricity generated by the magnitude of this game.
Go with the home team.
UCLA 72 Arizona 70