Arizona Preview

Sometimes it's repeated throughout a season about various games -- but this time the statement will hold up: This is the most important game of the season for the Bruins...

The UCLA men's basketball team faces its most important game of the season on Thursday night when the Bruins host the #1-ranked Arizona Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion (6 PM PST, ESPN).

Coaches often tell their players about how to handle certain game situations, what coaches term time and score. That philosophy basically espouses the idea that game plans need to be flexible and change given the time and situation/score in a particular game. It is the extension of that philosophy that governs why this particular game is arguably UCLA'S biggest of the regular season regardless of what the next two months may hold. Granted, should the Bruins find themselves with a middling record over the next eight weeks, then we could find ourselves writing how those last few Pac-12 Conference games are equally important, but we'll hope that isn't the case. In fact, if the Bruins can win on Thursday then the chances of those later games reaching the salient level of this one are less likely.

Here is the "time and situation" of Thursday's game and why it is important. From UCLA's standpoint, as one BRO poster has already written, this is the last, best chance for the Bruins to make a statement on the national stage. Let's face it: UCLA's non-conference schedule was pretty weak. The only two "statement" games the Bruins played, against Missouri and Duke, were fairly emphatic defeats. The Bruins currently have an RPI in the high 30s, and although their number should improve, the difference between dramatic improvement and middling numbers could greatly be dictated by the outcome of this game.

From a Pac 12 Conference championship standpoint, this game has enormous implications. Because of the Pac 12's unbalanced schedule, this will be the only regular season meeting of these two basketball archrivals (aside: how ridiculous is that? That would be like not scheduling the UCLA-USC football game every year). As a result, the winning team could have a significant leg up on the loser when it comes to Pac-12 Conference Tournament seeding.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, the reality for UCLA Coach Steve Alford is that this game has big implications. The perception, justified or not, that Arizona has overtaken UCLA as the premier basketball destination in the West for recruits is very real. Alford's rocky public relations start to his Westwood tenure has only reinforced that perception. Winning this game would go a long way to at least stemming that perception from becoming more entrenched. Keep in mind that would mean that UCLA would have defeated Arizona four straight times.

That small Bruin winning streak is why this game has significant implications for Arizona Coach Sean Miller and his program. There is no question that he is recruiting well, but having to explain away a four-game losing streak to your biggest rival would certainly make his recruiting pitches to recruits, especially those from the Los Angeles area, that much more difficult, especially during what could be euphemistically described as a "rebuilding period" for UCLA.

Finally, there are the implications from this game on the players. UCLA's players have had to listen as the college basketball world has extolled the virtues of the Arizona program, particularly since the Wildcats have ascended to the nation's top ranking. If there is any pride inside the Bruin players then this game represents an opportunity to essentially "shut ‘em up." For the Arizona players, this represents establishing dominance against your biggest rival, and ridding themselves of the taste of getting swept last season.

Implications galore, indeed.

Unfortunately, the individual match-ups generally don't favor the Bruins. However, UCLA should have a real chance because of the areas the Bruins can exploit.

Arizona has arguably the best starting five in the country. The frontcourt is long and athletic and the backcourt has played within itself. There are big-name players on the Wildcat roster, including at least one sure-fire lottery pick. However, the key member of this Arizona squad, and the one that makes them noticeably better than last year's Wildcats, is junior point guard T.J. McConnell (6'1" 195 lbs.). Forget most of McConnell's statistics, including his 6.4 PPG, his terrible three-point shooting and his mediocre free throw shooting; what stands out is his 93 assists against only 29 turnovers. Unlike last season's point guard, Mark Lyons, McConnell is a true point guard and he recognizes that his value to this team is in getting the ball to his teammates in good positions to score. He isn't overly quick or overly athletic, but he is smart and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. That's because when he first came out of his small Pennsylvania high school with very good statistical numbers he only received scholarship offers from mid-major schools. He chose to attend Duquesne in Pittsburgh for his first two seasons but he has always thought that his talent could translate to the high-major level. He left Duquesne after his sophomore season and made his way to the desert. For UCLA, forcing McConnell out of any comfort zone may be the key to the game. UCLA's Norman Powell has a distinct athleticism advantage on McConnell, but it remains to be seen if Powell will initially guard the Arizona point guard.

The reason that Powell might not be match up on McConnell is because of the presence of junior shooting guard Nick Johnson (6'3" 200 lbs.), who is Arizona's leading scorer at 16 PPG. His statistics are pretty similar to his first two years in the desert: he is shooting 43% from the field and 37% from behind the arc. He is a decent rebounder at 3.6 RPG and he continues to play the point at times, where he is averaging a bit more than one assist for each turnover he commits. Further, as the year has progressed, the Wildcats have come to rely on Johnson's offense less and less as the young frontcourt players have become more comfortable with the collegiate game.

Probably the best defensive match-up that Alford can start with (assuming Alford doesn't put Kyle Anderson on McConnell), is to have Powell on McConnell and Jordan Adams on Johnson. The knock on Johnson has always been that he is nowhere near as good of a shooter when he has to put the ball on the floor as when he can get his feet set. He is also a streaky shooter who has had a habit in the past of hitting big shots, but also of shooting his team out of games. Making life difficult for McConnell is going to be more of a key so it would make more sense to put UCLA's best on-ball defender on him. That would be Powell, who could use his quickness and length to force McConnell to have to move laterally. McConnell isn't a great outside shooter so Powell should have the luxury of going underneath most ball screens in order to cut off any dribble penetration and lessen the chance of screen and rolls.

Where UCLA has a real chance to win the backcourt battle is because of the comparative strengths of both squads' benches. Arizona doesn't have a great deal of depth and the one guard that Miller feels comfortable playing is sophomore Gabe York (6'3" 180 lbs.), who has become Arizona's designated three-point specialist. Almost two-thirds of his field goal attempts have come from distance. When York is in the game, point guard duties shift to Johnson and Arizona is much less efficient when that happens. Miller has essentially lost faith with senior guard Jordin Mayes (6'3" 190 lbs.). Mayes didn't play in Arizona's win over Washington last weekend and is only averaging about 6 MPG.

Conversely, UCLA has both Zach Lavine and Bryce Alford coming off the bench. Both have proved to be capable scorers and are used to seeing big minutes. UCLA's hope is that the combination of Adams, Lavine, Alford and Powell will outplay Arizona's backcourt, and there is a real chance of that happening.

The story in the frontcourt is entirely different as Arizona has a decided advantage in length, athleticism and ability. In fact, there is a real chance that Arizona's forwards will dominate their UCLA counterparts. The headline-grabbers of Arizona's frontcourt contingent are freshman Aaron Gordon (6'9" 225 lbs.) and sophomore Brandon Ashley (6'8" 230 lbs.), and deservedly so, but the key players for Miller, especially in this game may be sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski (7' 235 lbs.) and freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6'7" 215 lbs.). UCLA has certainly struggled with athletic big men this season, but the Bruin forwards seem to have had more trouble with those that play physically and attempt to push around the Bruins posts in the paint. While all four players crash the offensive glass, Gordon and Ashley tend to use their length to get to balls. Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson tend to plow through players. Further, Tarczewski is much more physical on defense than either Gordon or Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson has essentially become Arizona's defensive stopper.

Fans should expect to see Hollis-Jefferson matched-up on UCLA's Kyle Anderson. Anderson has had trouble against physical, lengthy defenders and Hollis-Jefferson fits that description. Even though the backcourt match-ups are critical, if Anderson can't dictate things on offense for long stretches then UCLA will lose.

Gordon and Ashley represent match-up difficulties for the Bruins. They are the second and third-leading scorers respectively on the team at 12.4 and 11.9 PPG respectively. They are also the two leading rebounders on the team at 8 and 6.8 RPG respectively. They are also dangerous because of their ability to hit three-pointers. Gordon is shooting 37% from deep while Ashley is at 40%. That means they will both have the ability to run pick-and-pops off ball screens as well as screen and rolls. They are much more athletic than any player UCLA will realistically put on the floor. The key will be if the Bruin forwards can be physical with the Arizona bigs. Gordon isn't a fan of being pushed around, but someone who can push him around can really put Ashley off his game. The problem with this is that only UCLA's Tony Parker has shown any inclination to play physically. Travis and David Wear will have to show a mean streak not yet seen to give the Bruins a puncher's chance in the paint.

Still, all is not doom-and-gloom for the Bruins. The Wear brothers, particularly Travis, had some very good games against Arizona last season. Tarczewski had particular trouble matching up with the Wears and was in foul trouble all three times the teams met. He seems to be doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble this season, but he hasn't yet had to defend a post player like either of the Wears, if they're on their offensive game.

For all of the preview and punditry, this game should come down to three factors. First, Arizona has been tremendous on the glass this season. They average 40 RPG to its opponents' 28 RPG. Rebounding has been a glaring weakness for this Bruin team. If UCLA can at least stay close on the glass, especially holding Arizona to a lot of one-shot possessions, then the Bruins have a chance. If UCLA gets killed on the boards then UCLA will have to hope to turn over the Cats a great deal. Arizona has 168 turnovers on the season so that idea is not unrealistic.

The second key area will be UCLA's offense. Arizona will be the best defensive team the Bruins have yet faced. They are holding the opposition to 37% shooting from the field and 28% from behind the arc. UCLA's front-running offense hasn't fared well against high-major athletes this season (Missouri, Duke and even Alabama) when those teams have decided to put real effort into defense. Perhaps the fact that UCLA is playing at home will see the Bruins being better on offense when facing this kind of competition.

The last key is depth. If fouls become an issue for the Wildcats then they will be in real trouble. Miller's rotation only goes seven deep and I have a sneaking suspicion that he'll make it essentially a six-man rotation if the game is close, either limiting Tarczewski's minutes or York's. If the Wildcats suffer from early foul trouble, that could be enough to swing the game because there is a huge drop-off if Miller has to go past York and Hollis-Jefferson on the bench.

Then, there are some sub-keys. People haven't really talked about was the impact of Shabazz Muhammad last season. He was the one Bruin who was able to rebound on the offensive glass for the Bruins (in spite of Anderson's put-back late in the Pac 12 Conference Tournament semifinal) and the Bruins simply don't have someone like that on this year's roster. Muhammad had some of his best games last season against the Wildcats.

A key, too, should be Jordan Adams and how he has played against the Wildcats. Adams was good in the first two games against the Wildcats last season, but he was clearly the best player on the floor in the Pac-12 Tournament. We all know what happened at the end of that game. Perhaps, because of the time and situation of this game (against the team that he broke his foot against) both Adams and Anderson can assert themselves and be the dominant players in the game.

Expect to see UCLA mix defenses, and it certainly would behoove the Bruins if Alford did so in a less predictable manner. There is a real worry that UCLA's zone will get dominated on the glass by Arizona's length.

It would be great to see a fantastic, competitive game, but that may not happen. In fact, if there's a blowout, expect the Cats to run the Bruins off the court rather than the other way around. Even if unlikely, there are still too many things that have to go right for the Bruins compared to what has to happen for the Wildcats, to predict a Bruin victory with any confidence.

When in doubt, generally the team that plays the better defense, especially by a wide margin, will almost always be able to slow down if not stop a very good offense.

With a loss, any chance that the Bruins had at a nationally significant and defining victory probably goes out the window, as do their chances at the Pac-12 regular season title. Yes, I know that it's only the second game of the season, but time and situation dictate that this game is truly that important.

Arizona 79

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