Arizona Preview

UCLA's game against the Wildcats will be a big indicator as to UCLA's heart and toughness...

We're going to find out a great deal about the UCLA men's basketball team Thursday night when the Bruins host the Arizona Wildcats at the Honda Center. With the Bruins sitting at 7-7 on the season and 0-2 in the Pac 12 (after the lost weekend in the Bay Area), the Arizona game isn't really about whether the Bruins win or lose but rather about the kind of effort the Bruins give, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

Well, it certainly would make it better regardless if they win.

The effort question is truly a barometer, though, for more than one issue with this year's version of the Bruins. There are so many questions surrounding the UCLA program, not the least of which is whether or not Coach Ben Howland has essentially "lost" his players. Further issues include whether or not the Bruins can avoid a losing record, if they can remain competitive in a weak conference and if they can show some semblance of chemistry.

All of those issues relate directly back to Howland. For all the speculation on BRO and in the UCLA fan base in general as to what goes on behind the scenes with Howland, there is obviously an issue of Howland's relationship with his players and how it translates to the court.

The issues the Bruins have, however, are not speculation and pretty obvious. As Tracy Pierson wrote in his Cal game review, the Bruins aren't very good at defense regardless of the kind of defense they play. They struggle on offense because the Bruin post players have been wildly inconsistent at best, and downright soft at worst. Now they face an Arizona squad that will probably vividly remember the absolute beat-down the Bruins put on them last season in the last game at Pauley Pavilion before the renovation began.

Beyond motivation, Arizona presents some significant problems for the Bruins, not the least of which is the decided advantage that Arizona has in athleticism. However, the Cats have some holes that can be exploited enough for UCLA to win…provided the Bruins play with sustained effort, especially on defense.

Coach Sean Miller has started the same five players for 8 of the Cats' 14 games this season. Those five players are seniors Jesse Perry (6'7" 217 lbs.) and Kyle Fogg (6'3" 188 lbs.), junior Solomon Hill (6'6" 226 lbs.), sophomore Jordin Mayes (6'2" 196 lbs.) at the point, and freshman Nick Johnson (6'2" 198 lbs.). They are the top five leading scorer for the team with Hill, Perry, Fogg and Johnson all averaging in double figures. The primary bench players are junior Kevin Parrom (6'6" 215 lbs.) and freshmen Angelo Chol (6'9" 217 lbs.) and Josiah Turner (6'3" 192 lbs.). Senior Brendon Lavender (6'5" 212 lbs.) and junior Kyryl Natyazhko (6'11" 275 lbs.) get some minutes depending on the situation.

Arizona doesn't do anything that stands out tactically, enough though the Wildcat's offense against man defenses is predicated on spreading the floor. It's a tactic that's been a bugaboo for the Bruins this season, since UCLA has considerable issues keeping opposing players in front of them off the dribble and UCLA's poor defensive help rotations. Defense is all about effort and probably never more so than playing against this version of the Wildcats. They don't set great screens and Perry is really the only player who consistently tries to free up his teammates by doing the little things. But Arizona is lazy in both setting and using screens, and that has allowed defenders to stay with their respective men. Certainly, as I stated, UCLA doesn't match-up with Arizona's collective athleticism, but the Bruins have a chance in their man defense to stay with the Cats' if they give the effort necessary to do so. It will, then, be a real indicator if the Bruin's bad effort against Cal in the second half was more of exception or the rule for the rest of the season. If we had to guess, UCLA really hasn't shown the kind of effort necessary yet this season to slow down much of anyone, much less an even lazy offense like Arizona's.

At this point in the season that means playing Norman Powell as many minutes as possible could be key, even at the expense of Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones. Jones has been a positive force for the Bruins of late, but his defense is really no better than Anderson's. Powell is the only guard on the Bruin roster who can keep an opposing guard in front of him on virtually every possession, and he has the potential to be as productive offensively as any UCLA guard.

Arizona's zone offense isn't all that great either, but that's because they rely on individual Wildcats taking their man one-on-one. Arizona also settles for outside shots because the Wildcats so easily fall in love with the three-point shot on a game-by-game basis. They've taken roughly 40% of their shots from distance. Still, if the Bruins aren't going to sustain effort in man defense then a zone is the way to go. The Cats will hit shots in bunches but also miss shots in bunches, too. The only deadly shooter they have is Fogg, who is at 46% from behind the arc. He's also been a notorious Bruin-killer in the past. If the Bruins continue to get beat on dribble penetration then no amount of help defense is going to keep Fogg from getting open looks from outside and he could single-handedly bury the Bruins. On top of that, Perry and Hill represent real problems for the Bruin posts. Quite simply, Perry and moreso Hill can hit from distance. That would force Josh Smith, Anthony Stover and the Wear brothers away from the basket to guard the ‘Zona duo. That is a two-pronged problem because it pulls UCLA's bigs away from the paint and, other than Stover, the Bruin post players haven't exactly show the ability to stay in front of their men. On the flip side, none of the Arizona forwards have shown a propensity to flash to the high post against a zone and hit that mid-range jumper. Perhaps Miller uses Parrom in that capacity but he hasn't yet to this point in the season.

Okay, so the defensive side of the ledger doesn't look so hot for the Bruins. However, the offensive end could be the exact opposite. The Wildcats have struggled defending bigger rather than more active frontcourts. Even frontcourt players that appear slow and even lazy have found success against the Wildcat interior this season. It's usually at this point that I write about the mismatch that is Josh Smith, but no more. As a BRO poster pointed out, I have written that in every game preview without putting in a qualifying statement. At this point I will only believe that Smith will be a force when I see it. The Wildcats will still drop and double Smith and if he is able to get the ball out of the double-teams then UCLA's perimeter players should find very open looks from outside.

(Perhaps the fact that I don't emphasize UCLA's advantage with an effective Smith in this preview will make it so?)

Statistically Arizona is pretty even with their opposition in terms of rebounding, free-throw attempts, turnovers and total shots (although the ‘Cats have attempted fewer shots than their opposition). The one statistical category where they've been dominant has been in three-point shooting percentage, where the Wildcats sit at 38% as a team while their opponents are at 28%. Arguably the best team that Arizona has defeated this season was a short-handed St. John's squad. That's because Florida, San Diego State, etc., have tended to beat the ‘Cats on the boards. That is an area that UCLA has to win in order to be successful in the game. And wouldn't you know it -- that, too, is an area that should be a barometer of the Bruins' effort.

This is a must-win game for UCLA if it is to have any success this season, but more importantly, it's a must-effort game. UCLA plays a very bad Arizona State team on Saturday, and with all due respect to Herb Sendek's Sun Devils, there is no excuse for the Bruins to not leave everything they have on the proverbial floor against the Wildcats…unless they've simply quit.

You can probably expect UCLA to come out against Arizona with such initial intensity, but they did that against Cal on Saturday. The key will be sustaining that intensity when adversity hits, as it most assuredly will. Win or lose, if the Bruins keep their focus for the majority of the game then at least the world will know they haven't quit, and there'd still be a sliver of hope for the season. However, if the Bruins fold like they did in the second half last Saturday, then the discussion about whether Howland has lost the team and players becomes more relevant. Even if you want to make the players culpable for a lack of heart and mental toughness, you have to still acknowledge that Howland is ultimately responsible since this is the team he put together, the players he recruited and was responsible for developing. Really, no matter how you look at it, the buck stops with Howland.

I am going to go out on a bit of a blue-colored limb and predict that the showing on Saturday was more the result of UCLA not having gotten over the emotional loss last Thursday against Stanford. I predict the Bruins will give the kind of effort the Arizona game deserves. Keep in mind that Arizona is not nearly as good as either Stanford or California and this game will be at the Honda Center, which at least holds the possibility of giving the Bruins some kind of homecourt advantage, unlike the Sports Arena.

It all depends on the effort.

Arizona 65

Bruin Report Online Top Stories