Arizona is coming off its own second-straight blowout victory, a 20-point win last night over Colorado.
The game represents, yet again, an opportunity for the Bruins to make a national statement. UCLA has been in this position before during the season, including the only time these teams met back in early January in Los Angeles. Every time that Steve Alford's Bruins have reached this point, they've failed to grasp the opportunity and turn it into reality. This will be the last shot the Bruins have to change some national perceptions and it comes one day before Selection Sunday. The breakdown of this game is pretty simple: if UCLA shows up in the manner the Bruins have the past two days of the Pac-12 Tournament, especially on offense, then they will win, regardless of what Arizona does. The question remains, as it will for the rest of the season, will the Bruins bring the requisite intensity and focus to the floor against the Wildcats?
It would be prudent to explore just how the outcome of this game will affect both teams. For Arizona, its simple: regardless of Saturday's outcome, the Wildcats have locked up one of the #1-seeds for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. There probably isn't even a question of where the Cats will be placed -- bet the mortgage that Arizona will be the West Region's top seed .
The outcome of the game is far more influential on UCLA's postseason prospects. With all of the upsets happening to probable top-4 NCAA seeds in the various conference tournaments, the door has probably opened for UCLA to actually grab a coveted 4 seed. That would more than likely mean a protected pod location for the first weekend of the NCAA (San Diego, anyone?) and possibly even placement in the West Region because of the new NCAA bracketing guidelines that allow teams from the same conference to face each other as early as the Sweet Sixteen if they only played once during the regular season. Arizona and UCLA having only played once would certainly qualify. However, if the Bruins lose to Arizona, where does that leave the Bruins? UCLA probably locked up no worse than a 7 seed with the Stanford win. Why so low? UCLA's out of conference wins were dreadful. The Bruins did not defeat a single team outside of the Pac-12 with a top-100 RPI (thanks, Santa Barbara). The Bruins do have 7 top-50 RPI wins, including 3 on the road, but no top-20 RPI wins. That's why the Arizona game could be a massive boost for the Bruins' seed prospects. It would be a win over the #1 RPI team in the nation and on a neutral court. Most likely, though, if UCLA wins, the Bruins will be a 5 seed, while if they lose, they'll most likely be a 6-seed -- just like last year. However, with the prospect of a possible 4 seed hanging in the balance, the Bruins truly have something to play for. Outside of saying they won the Pac-12 Tournament title, the Wildcats do not.
The game presents an interesting dichotomy in that arguably the best offensive team in the Pac-12, UCLA, will be playing the best defensive team in Arizona. Typically the better defensive team wins most of those match-ups. This one, however, is a little different. If UCLA focuses on the kind of execution offensive execution the Bruins showed the past 1 ½ halves of basketball, then Arizona will not slow them enough to win the game. The question is: will the Bruins execute?
Arizona is a mediocre offensive team, but the Wildcats do know how to score in critical situations. Junior guard Nick Johnson (6'3" 200 lbs.) has been very good at that this year, including hitting what was the critical basket in Los Angeles to defeat the Bruins late. However, the Cats have some holes. They are a decent, not-great shooting team, especially from distance, and they alarmingly struggle from the free throw line at 66% as a team, although much of that is because freshman Aaron Gordon (6'9" 225 lbs.) has been so lousy at the charity stripe (44%). Certainly the Bruins don't want to foul Johnson, who hits 78% of his free throws and the number seems to rise as the situation becomes more critical.
However, the Wildcats are very stout on defense. They have held opponents to less than 40% shooting from the field for the year and barely 30% on threes. They held the Utes to 26% shooting and the Buffaloes to 29% shooting from the field. They have given up a remarkable 82 points in their two Pac-12 Tournament games. The most daunting element of Arizona's game, though, is rebounding. The Cats average almost 9 RPG more than their opponents, and this has been a weak spot for the Bruins all season, although, to UCLA's credit, the Bruins did outrebound the Cardinal on Friday. Arizona outrebounded Utah by 15 and Colorado by 16 the past two days. Sean Miller's Wildcats are definitely reminiscent of Ben Howland's first two Final Four squads in that they can be methodical on offense but an irresistible defensive and rebounding force. Arizona's defense has been more efficient the past two days than even UCLA's offense.
There are some things that could cause Arizona to lose that efficiency. The first is foul trouble. Arizona is not deep, only really playing six players, with senior guard Jordin Mayes (6'3" 190 lbs.) only getting spot minutes for Johnson and junior point guard T.J. McConnell (6'1" 195 lbs.). Any real foul trouble, especially to the forwards, would be devastating to the Wildcats.
The second issue could be fatigue. If a thin roster is going to feel tired, it would be in the third game of a three-day stretch. McConnell, Johnson and Gordon all played well over 30 minutes last night, and even though the Wildcats won by 20, the game was still competitive coming out of halftime. That bit of mental stress, knowing the game is still a toss-up, tends to cause fatigue, too. Stanford looked tired last night and UCLA was able to take advantage of that. The Bruins, being a deeper team, could do the same to Arizona.
If UCLA plays with any intensity on defense then this could be a Bruin victory. Arizona really suffers bouts of scoring difficulty almost every game. Additionally, the Bruins seem to be maturing quickly. Jordan Adams, for instance, only scored 9 points, but he carried himself as if he understood the concept of not forcing his offense. That kind of maturity seems to be permeating the entire Bruin squad.
Still, I wrote in the Oregon preview that UCLA was prone to laziness and lack of focus, and I wrote that I wouldn't predict they'd perform otherwise until they proved it. Then, in the Stanford preview, I doubted UCLA's ability to focus and be intense two days in a row. Now, I have real doubts about UCLA's ability to be efficient on offense against the kind of defense Arizona will throw at them, and there's the rebounding issue. This doesn't even take into account UCLA's seeming inability to be focused for three games in a row.
The Bruins can win if they are efficient on offense, battle on the glass and force Arizona into turnovers. That's where Norman Powell becomes critical. If he plays McConnell tough, then UCLA could really force Arizona's offense to look out of synch.
Still, these three things are probably too much to ask of the Bruins. However, if they do put all three together and win, and, in the process, continue what Tracy Pierson wrote possibly is a discovery of identity, then the rest of March could become a lot more interesting and meaningful for Bruin fans.