After a deflating, but not truly surprising loss to Arizona State on Wednesday night, the Bruins now have their backs up against the proverbial wall on Saturday as they travel to Tucson to face the #7 Arizona Wildcats (ESPN, 6 PM).
Win, and UCLA can probably punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, barring a slip-up in the remaining home contests. Lose, and UCLA will likely have to hope for a Pac-12 Tournament victory to go dancing.
Unfortunately there are so many things that will be going against the Bruins that a chance at an upset is remote at best. In fact, the Bruins may be facing another shellacking of the type they got when they played Kentucky and Utah. From what we’ve seen, though, the Bruins may in fact have a puncher’s chance, but that chance can only come to fruition if the Bruins change a few things strategically, at least for this game.
ESPN has conveniently chosen Tucson to be the site of this week’s Game Day broadcast, so if the Bruins were hoping to catch an unfocused Arizona squad, that’s probably wishful thinking. The last thing that the Cats and head coach Sean Miller want is to lose on national television.
Tucson hasn’t been kind to the Bruins, who have a 6-14 record in the desert since the 1995 national title season. Take away the Ben Howland years and UCLA is 1-9 in Tucson since ‘95. More to the point, generally UCLA gets blown out when playing in Tucson. Over the last 20 years, in years when UCLA has not ended up the conference champion, the Bruins have won just once in Tucson. Again, most of those losses have been by big margins.
Keep in mind that UCLA typically goes into Tucson with some real talent and still loses by upwards of 20 points. This season the Bruins don’t have the overall talent to hang with Arizona, at least not like they have in the past. Certainly Kevon Looney, Tony Parker and Norman Powell can play with anyone on Arizona’s roster, but that’s where it ends, and the talent drop-off for UCLA after those three is pretty significant.
Then there’s the issue of last season’s Pac 12 Tournament Championship game. Sean Miller was devastated by that loss. There is no doubt from those that know Miller that he will be exhorting his charges to embarrass the Bruins tomorrow, largely due to his own ego and desire to keep UCLA (historically Arizona’s main challenger for Pac-12 dominance) down. Additionally, those who know feel that Miller simply hates UCLA in the same manner that Bruin fans hate anything related to USC. This goes back to when Miller’s Xavier team was dismantled by Howland’s last Final Four team in the regional final in 2008. Miller was exposed as a poor tactical coach in that game and, according to some, he has had a chip on his shoulder for UCLA ever since.
The point is that there is virtually no chance Arizona mentally takes this game off.
Even if Arizona is focused, though, this isn’t like UCLA is facing Kentucky again. In fact, if this game were at Pauley, UCLA would probably have a reasonable chance at the upset. Unfortunately, the Bruins just showed again on Wednesday night that they are simply too immature to be successful on the road.
From a tactical perspective, though, there is some hope for UCLA. Coach Alford showed in last season’s conference tournament that he is capable of tactically beating Arizona’s Miller. In fact, Miller’s relative inability to scheme offensively is usually Arizona’s downfall late in the season.
Miller now has to be considered one of the best recruiters in the country and certainly the best in the West, but his very talented teams have consistently fallen short on the big stages. When that happens once or twice, it can be chalked up to chance or bad luck. When it happens almost every year Miller has been in Tucson then it’s the start of a pattern. In many ways Miller is reminiscent of UCLA’s Jim Harrick. Harrick finally was able to win that natty with some good fortune and being a very good motivator that season. Harrick also knew the technical aspects of the game, though he was not a great tactician. Much the same can be said for Miller. The point is, the coaching match-up from a tactical standpoint should at worst be a wash, and could even favor UCLA. That alone may keep UCLA in the game.
The personnel match-ups are a tale of two different floor areas. UCLA may have the best two low-post players in the conference right now, while Arizona’s guards and wings drastically outclass UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton.
Junior posts Kaleb Tarczewski (7’0” 245 lbs.) and Brandon Ashley (6’9” 230 lbs.) have been, quite simply, a disappointment this season. It’s been a hallmark of Miller’s time at Arizona that post players either don’t progress or sometimes even regress in their time in Tucson. As a freshman, Tarczewski was viewed as a possible lottery pick, whereas now he isn’t even mentioned as a second-rounder. He has simply not improved. Contrast that with Tony Parker, who has obviously become a force for the Bruins and has improved mightily since his freshman year.
Kevon Looney is what many people thought Ashley could or would be when the big man signed with Miller. The fact that Looney is already considered a better prospect than Ashley, especially when they are similar athletically, is almost an indictment on the post training going on in the desert.
Both Tarczewski and Ashley will rebound and they will score some points, but if UCLA makes its low post players the focus of their offensive attack then the Bruins will have a real chance to win. There is real doubt that will happen, though, as UCLA has clearly focused its offense on running through the guards and that is even more of an issue on the road, particularly against this opponent.
Sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6’7” 220 lbs.) is going to be a handful for the Bruins simply because UCLA really doesn’t have a player to guard him. If UCLA decides to play man then Alford is going to be forced to play either Thomas Welsh or Gyorgy Golomon at the same time as Parker and Looney so that Looney can move over to guard Hollis-Jefferson. The key with Hollis-Jefferson is to force him to shoot outside, where he has been really poor (25% from behind the arc). If UCLA lets him get inside, he’s going to be a handful because he is an exceptional athlete. He really is one of the "X" factors in the game because of the difficulty in guarding him.
If the frontcourt gives UCLA some hope, then the backcourt match-up is a bucket of cold water on that flickering flame. The Bruins might have a chance if they could quickly clone Norman Powell and have him guard all of Arizona’s wings, but alas, genetic science has not yet reached that level (that we know of). Chances are that if UCLA plays man defense, Powell will guard freshman Stanley Johnson (6’7” 245 lbs.). Johnson would enjoy a massive size advantage over Powell, but because Johnson prefers to play on the perimeter and face the basket while Hollis-Jefferson likes to work inside, the Powell-on-Johnson match-up makes sense. Johnson has been good this season but not great. The pundits, especially on ESPN and Fox Sports speak as if Johnson is the second coming of Sean Elliott, and he’s not. However, for UCLA to have any shot at winning then Johnson has to be off his game somewhat.
If Powell is on Johnson, that leaves Bryce Alford to guard senior point guard T.J. McConnell (6’1” 195 lbs.). McConnell has been very steady this season and he will use his guile and decent quickness to beat Alford time and again. Bryce actually has the ability to guard McConnell, as the difference in athleticism isn’t great, but Alford rarely gives any effort on defense and clearly isn’t being coached to do so.
McConnell is good but may not be good enough to get the Cats to a national title, but UCLA fans right now would fall over themselves to have a point guard as good as McConnell. He is far better at decision-making, shooting in the flow of the offense and just giving effort than Bryce is, and his superiority in those areas could make this a devastating matchup for UCLA.
If Coach Alford has to go big, then Isaac Hamilton will likely end up sitting, but we’d have to imagine he’ll end up going with his usual three-guard backcourt. That means Hamilton will have to guard either Johnson or Hollis-Jefferson. The ramifications of that, coupled with Bryce having to guard McConnell, are simply staggering. Those two match-ups alone could cause UCLA to lose this game by 30.
On top of all this, UCLA doesn’t play well on the road, will now be entering one of the toughest environments in the country, and the Bruins tend to have their worst game of the weekend in game two of a road trip. Those things don’t bode well for UCLA.
Do the Bruins have a chance? Certainly, but only if they start doing some things very differently from before, like post entries on every offensive half-court possession, giving effort on defense, and taking good care of the ball. That means no early shots in possessions. By reducing the total possessions in a game, the less-talented opponent has a better chance of winning. However, it seems that when things start going poorly for the Bruins, especially on the road, that they tend to speed up. It’s almost as if the players, especially a couple, are mentally telling themselves that if the game is trending downward, that they need to “get theirs."
This is a pivotal game for UCLA, and Alford, in terms of making the NCAA Tournament this year. If the Bruins pull off the seemingly impossible, then they are pretty much in the Big Dance, and the view of the season as a whole might change drastically.
But given what we’ve seen of this team this year, that just doesn’t seem likely.
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