The UCLA men’s basketball season is teetering on the brink of irrelevance after last weekend’s disastrous visit to the Pacific Northwest.
Sitting at 9-6 overall and 0-2 to start the Pac 12 Conference schedule, the Bruins do have time to set some things right, but now they must do it against much better competition than what they faced in Seattle and Pullman. The Arizona schools come calling to Westwood this weekend, with the Bruins hosting the 13-1 Wildcats on Thursday night (6 PM PST, ESPN2).
Let’s be blunt: the Bruins really need a sweep this weekend, with the victories over Gonzaga and Kentucky looking less elite by the day. Arizona and, to a lesser extent, ASU, are known quantities. The real question is whether the Bruins will find the motivation to put forth the necessary effort to defeat the two desert schools. The evidence is growing steadily that the Bruin effort levels against Kentucky and Gonzaga were the aberrations and the effort UCLA showed against the Washington schools is much more the norm. If the Bruins don’t find some intensity and focus then they could get swept, and if that happens, the Bruins will essentially need to win the Pac 12 Conference postseason tournament in order to play in the NCAA Tournament. Theoretically UCLA could get swept this weekend and then, at 9-8 overall, go on a huge run of victories that assures its place in the Big Dance. That’s unlikely, though. That’s why this weekend is so very important to UCLA’s postseason hopes.
There is a silver lining in all of this, though, and it may make all the difference: the Bruins are playing at Pauley Pavilion.
This will be an interesting tactical game. The Bruins should have an advantage up front as senior post Kaleb Tarczewski (7’ 250 lbs.) slowly works his way back into the Coach Sean Miller’s rotation after injury. In Tarczewski’s absence, Miller has chosen to start sophomore Dusan Ristic (7’ 255 lbs.), who has Tarczewski’s size but is not nearly as talented. Tony Parker had a horrible weekend in Washington and, quite frankly, was one of the biggest culprits for UCLA’s dismal performance. However, he certainly has the capability to be dominant in the paint.
Thomas Welsh is going to give the Arizona posts an offensive look that they have yet to see, a post with the ability to very consistently hit the mid-range jumper. That will force the Wildcat posts to play a very different style of defense, one which will require them to move more outside the paint than probably at any time before.
The one wild card is Tarczewski. He still isn’t at full strength but the guess is that he will play more than the 15 minutes he received against ASU. In fact, don’t be surprised if he starts over Ristic.
The other starter is senior transfer Ryan Anderson (6’9” 235 lbs.) who left Boston College after the 2013-2014 season. Anderson leads the Wildcats in scoring at 15.1 PPG as well as rebounding at more than 10 RPG. However, and this is going to be controversial, Anderson may be a bit overrated. He’s a nice player with a high energy level, but it’s clear he excels when teams have focused on Arizona’s backcourt. This spaces the floor better for him and he takes advantage of that spacing. However, he has struggled a bit when he’s been the focus of an opposing team’s defense. Further, he’ll probably be matched up on Welsh and it will be the first time he’ll be asked to guard a player truly bigger than himself.
The other forward providing depth for Miller is senior Mark Tollefsen (6’9” 205 lbs.), who is a solid inside-out threat but who can struggle against bigger post players. He is someone that other coaches apparently don’t think much about on offense, but he averages roughly 9 PPG and even leads the team in blocks, although that’s as much an indictment of Arizona’s lack of a true shot-blocker as anything else.
The backcourt has three good starters with two players providing significant positive bench minutes.
The point guard is junior Kadeem Allen (6’3” 200 lbs.) and he has done a nice job of stepping in and taking over for the departed TJ McConnell. He isn’t a great shooter, but he is a good distributor with a very good assist-to-turnover ratio, and, most importantly, he is probably the best perimeter defender on the team. In order to disrupt Arizona’s halfcourt offense a team needs to make Allen uncomfortable, and that’s been tough to do this season.
The two scorers in the backcourt are freshman slasher Allonzo Trier (6’6” 210 lbs.) and senior Gabe York (6’3” 190 lbs.). Trier has arguably been the best offensive threat on the squad this season, averaging 14.1 PPG and shooting well over 50% from the floor. If there are areas he struggles, they would be occasional shot selection, which is normal for a freshman, and shooting from distance, where he’s 34% from behind the arc. He’s been an offensive handful and UCLA really doesn’t have any one player who can stay with him. Isaac Hamilton isn’t athletic enough, or strong enough. Prince Ali is plenty athletic but gives up 3 inches and about 20 pounds. Noah Allen has the size but would be at a major athletic disadvantage. That leaves Jonah Bolden, but he’s not a cure-all. Even were he to play, the idea that both Welsh and Parker should stay on the floor at the expense of either Bryce Alford or Hamilton will not happen with the current staff. That means pulling Aaron Holiday off the floor. Or, it could mean playing a zone, but that didn’t work well in Seattle.
York is the ‘gunner’ on the team, who is averaging 13.7 PPG but has attempted 30 more shots than Trier. At 44%, York is one of the better three-point shooters in the country. If the Bruins were ever going to fight through screens and force an opponent to have to curl rather than fade/pop off screens, then this is the time. York is much less dangerous shooting off the dribble. At least York has a solid assist-to-turnover number for a shooting guard, unlike Trier, who turns the ball over much more than he sets up his teammates.
The two backcourt subs are sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright (5’11” 170 lbs.) and junior Elliott Pitts (6’5” 185 lbs.). Jackson-Cartwright was supposed to be the point guard of the future for the Wildcats when he signed more than one year ago, but the fact that Miller actively went out and recruited Allen speaks volumes about Jackson-Cartwright’s future as a potential starter on the squad. Further, his listed height is 5’11” but most people who see the point guard in person say he’s no bigger than 5’9”.
Jackson-Cartwright is about a solid as Allen when it comes to initiating the Arizona offense. However, he’s been pretty poor as a shooter this season, averaging 34% overall from the floor and 23% from behind the arc. He’s only a 57% free throw shooter. Finally, his diminutive status causes him and the team issues on the defensive end.
Pitts is strictly a ‘glue guy’ who has been a horrendous shooter but probably leads the team in floor burns.
Arizona’s identity is the same as it’s been since Miller took over for Lute Olson, very good defense with an offense that struggles at times. This team is no different, although the 13-1 record has masked some things.
First, about that record: Arizona has really only played two teams of note, Providence on a neutral floor and at Gonzaga. The Friars handed the Wildcats their only loss, while Arizona beat Gonzaga by roughly the same margin that UCLA did when the Bruins beat them one week after the Cats. The point is that Arizona’s non-conference schedule is weak compared to UCLA’s. That doesn’t mean UCLA will win, but rather that Arizona may not be as good as its record.
Offensively, Arizona doesn’t shoot the ball well outside the paint with the exception of York. That means UCLA should employ a box-and-1 but that’s not going to happen. The best thing to do knowing Steve Alford’s coaching tendencies is to have the Bruins perimeter defenders actually going under screens, except in the case of whoever is guarding York. That player should literally scratch and claw to work over the top of picks. That’s why it’s important to UCLA’s chances at success that Aaron Holiday be put on York. He takes the most shots and while this may leave Bryce Alford on Allen, that is far better than watching York go off for 28 points because Bryce refuses to work on defense. Even if Bryce does work hard, which he has proven he can do (Kentucky), he still isn’t adept at fighting through screens.
The other problem Arizona faces is that the Cats turn the ball over at a rate above what they cause. This could be a sloppy game if the worst of both teams shows up. The key will be for UCLA to take advantage of individual Wildcat tendencies to be “black holes” when it comes to getting the ball and making the extra pass. Further, and this is probably key to the game, UCLA has to limit the turnovers that killed them in Seattle.
Let’s face it, though, no matter how much anyone wants to talk about rebounding, turnovers, shooting percentage, etc., the reality is this game, as will the rest of the season most likely, will come down to the effort that UCLA puts out on the floor on a given night. UCLA has as much basketball skill, if not more, than Arizona, regardless of whether Arizona has better athletes. Fans know what Arizona is going to bring to the game as the Cats have been pretty consistent with their effort. Say what you want about Miller, he’s always been able to get his kids to buy into effort and defense. The same cannot be said for Alford’s Bruins.
Many BRO members have been posting over the pasts several days about the eerie similarities to Alford’s teams and former ‘coach’ Steve Lavin’s squads. The idea is that UCLA is inconsistent in its effort, getting up for and beating the good teams and then suffering unexplainable losses to the likes of Washington State.
That’s probably what’s going to happen on Thursday night. The Bruins, buoyed by a boisterous home crowd, play closer to the way they did when they beat Kentucky and Gonzaga and not when they lost the weekend in Washington. For its part, Arizona will finally be playing a team on the road that has a full complement of players. Keep in mind that while Arizona did a great job turning around a 10-point halftime deficit in Spokane, it was Gonzaga’s first game without Przemek Karnowski so there was a steep learning curve for the Zags.
The combination of UCLA generally playing much better at home, with more energy and focus, and Arizona’s facing a hostile crowd for only the second time this season, leads me to lean to predicting a UCLA victory. Still, if the Bruins don’t show the necessary fire, then the assumption is that the remainder of UCLA’s season will go into the tank, and this will be another in a long list of losses.