As Tracy Pierson wrote in his ASU game review, the Bruins have reached point where fans and experts alike have to ask whether the Bruins have started to "pack it in" with regard to this season. The game on Saturday will surely be a definitive answer to that question.
Think about it: the Bruins do have a chance to make a run through the Pac 12 Conference Tournament, and doing so would be easier if the Bruins can secure a top-four seed (thus having to play one less game than if they finish fifth or worse). To accomplish this, the Bruins would essentially have to win their remaining games. That should be a motivator. The game is against the Wildcats, who are arguably UCLA's biggest basketball rival in the conference the past few decades. Again, that should be a motivator. If the Bruins come out flat in spite of what's at stake (regardless of how little that may be in the whole scheme of things) then the answer will be readily apparent. Conversely, if the Bruins play with effort, regardless of the outcome, then the answer will be just as plain.
Arizona presents some match-up issues for the Bruins and some match-ups the Bruins can exploit, sort of like the majority of the conference games this season. Arizona is clearly more athletic than the Bruins, but UCLA enjoys a significant size advantage in the post, even if Josh Smith doesn't play much. The athleticism differential is a bit scary except for the fact that Arizona simply isn't a terribly smart basketball team. They do play with effort, though, and the Bruins will have to match that effort, as they did when these teams first met in Los Angeles and UCLA came away with the victory.
In many ways, Arizona is very similar to St. John's, a team that defeated the Bruins last weekend in New York City. Like the Johnnies, The Cats are athletic at most positions on the floor. Like the Red Storm, the Wildcats aren't a great outside shooting team (although they are better than St. John's), and like St. John's, Arizona has a pretty good perimeter player and a pretty good forward who can play inside and out and rebounds well.
The outside threat is Arizona's leading scorer, senior Kyle Fogg (6'3" 188 lbs.). Saying he's the leading scorer is a bit of a misnomer, as Arizona has three players averaging within 1.2 PPG of each other, but Fogg does average 12.9 PPG and is coming off a 16-point performance against the Trojans on Thursday night. Fogg has been feast or famine throughout his career against the Bruins. When he's been able to hit multiple outside shots, the Cats have generally torched the Bruins. When he's been off or the Bruins have played good defense then UCLA has usually come out on top. Case in point: in UCLA's seven-point win in January, the Bruins held Fogg to seven points. UCLA actually matches up well against Fogg because Coach Ben Howland can throw either Tyler Lamb or Norman Powell at him and they can be very effective at stopping Fogg.
The point guard will be freshman Nick Johnson (6'2" 198 lbs.) to start, but expect to see a lot of fellow freshman Josiah Turner (6'3" 192 lbs.), too. Johnson is a decent but not great athlete but he can jump out of the gym. Many people confuse his leaping ability for quickness when the reality is that, if Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson show up on Saturday ready to play defense, they can both effectively guard Johnson. Johnson averages 9.6 PPG and has more assists than any guard on the roster, but has the most turnovers among Arizona's guards, and he is only a decent shooter. While Johnson may not be as good as some of his press clippings, he does work hard.
The scary player in the UA backcourt is Turner. If the proverbial light bulb ever fully goes off for him, even in a single game, he has the kind of talent to be scary-good. He had 15 points in one of his best efforts of the season on Thursday against USC. Granted, the Trojans are horrible and don't have a single player who can even remotely guard him, but Turner does seem to be getting comfortable in his role of #1 substitute who plays starter's minutes. When Turner is on, only Norman Powell has the athleticism capable of staying with him.
The other starting guard is three-point specialist, senior Brendon Lavender (6'5" 212 lbs.). 85 of his 100 shot attempts this season have been from beyond the arc. He has the least amount of athleticism of any of Coach Sean Miller's guards and Anderson can probably easily hang with him.
That's pretty much it for Arizona's backcourt depth. Miller has lost Kevin Parrom for the season and lost sophomore Jordin Mayes (6'2" 196 lbs.) for several games with a stress reaction in his left foot. Mayes played 2 minutes against the Trojans and should be available for the game Saturday but his effectiveness is questionable.
In the frontcourt the Cats are much more athletic than UCLA but they aren't nearly as big and that size really bothered them against the Bruins in January. Senior Jesse Perry (6'7" 217 lbs.) and junior Solomon Hill (6'6" 226 lbs.) are the starters and get the bulk of the minutes in the frontcourt. They are the second and third-leading scorers and the team's leading rebounders. If they are allowed to face the basket they can both drive and finish and are much quicker than anyone UCLA has in the post outside of Anthony Stover, although with Stover it's probably more a matter of his length and not his quickness that really bothered the Cats in L.A. Hill has even developed into a serviceable three-point shooter, so he'll be especially dangerous. Meanwhile, Perry plays with the kind of hustle and energy that UCLA fans surely wish the Bruins had more of during this season. He is the kind of player that has gotten the most out of what limited ability he has in his two years in Tucson.
The lone forward off the bench the past several games has been freshman Angelo Chol (6'9" 217 lbs.). He is very athletic and could be a real force one day but he is very raw right now, especially on offense. He shoots pretty well but he only shoots what amounts to lay-ups and put-backs and doesn't shoot enough to really impact a game. Defensively he picks up unnecessary fouls, which he is apt to do as a learning freshman, but he does lead the team with 24 blocks.
That's it for the post area. Miller had been playing junior Kyryl Natyazhko (6' 11" 275 lbs.) for some minutes almost every game but he hasn't gotten on the court the past couple of games for the Cats and was suspended for the USC game.
Are the Bruins ready to fight? You know that the Wear twins will give as much as they have left in the tank, and they were much better than Arizona's frontcourt the first time these teams met. The Arizona forwards don't have enough physical strength to overpower them (although we should really be able to tell just how run down the Wears are based on this games performance and their ability or inability to muscle Hill and Perry), even though they are more athletic.
Josh Smith will hopefully bring one of his better efforts. He missed the first game in L.A. because of concussive symptoms. If he is focused he is a huge (no pun intended) mismatch advantage for the Bruins. He could single-handedly foul out the entire Wildcat frontcourt if he put his mind to it. However, the Bruins beat the Cats in L.A. without Smith. Somehow I think they're going to need him in this one if they want to walk out of McKale Center with the win.
If UCLA can limit the runs that Arizona makes, especially on three-pointers, then they will have a real chance at the victory. The Bruins will have to be patient against the zone defense they will inevitably see, although Arizona's zone defenses (they've tried two over the course of the season) are very soft.
This is the final home game for the Wildcats and they are having a "red out" for the contest. McKale will be packed and loud and UCLA hasn't done well in those types of environments this season. It's a shame, because Arizona is actually a really good match-up for the Bruins.
This is a tough one to call because I just don't know if the Bruins have packed it in mentally. Let's go with two scores -- one for if they packed it in and one if they haven't.
COMPETING (AND SMITH PLAYING WITH FOCUS)
Yes, I know this not exactly going out on a limb, but if UCLA does indeed bring intensity and focus, it's a completely different game with UCLA a bad match-up for the Cats, even with the home crowd.