UCLA vs. Arizona Preview

Feb. 12 -- UCLA takes on Arizona tonight, and it's pretty close to a must-win game for the Bruins...

UCLA travels to Tucson tonight to take on Arizona (6PM PST, ESPN) in a game that, depending on your perspective, has arguably become a must-win game for the Bruins. Obviously, the Bruins have some confidence that they can beat the Wildcats because UCLA did just that in January at Pauley Pavilion. Playing at McKale Center, though, is a whole different animal. In order for the Bruins to have any chance in this game they probably need to bring their most intense and focused effort of the season. The question we asked before the USC game remains, though: will that be enough?

Unlike USC, which is simply a bad match-up for the Bruins, Arizona is actually a pretty good match-up. While the Wildcats are technically a better collection of athletes, the Bruins are arguably a better collection of basketball players, and Arizona’s athleticism advantage isn’t quite as pronounced as USC’s advantage over the Bruins. However, Arizona coach Sean Miller has shown the ability to get his teams to play hard and focused every game. As the first matchup between the Bruins and Wildcats showed, even when the Cats are being dominated, their intensity and effort can get them back in any game.

Miller welcomed freshman Allonzo Trier (6’6” 210 lbs.) back to the floor last weekend and although he didn’t have much of an impact on the game at Washington, some would argue that was more a product of foul trouble (he fouled out in 16 minutes of play) than any rust in his game. When Trier is out of the game, his replacement, senior Mark Tollefsen (6’9” 205 lbs.), is a much different player than Trier and will require different defensive nuances. Trier is a very good slasher and does his damage on his way to the basket. Tollefsen is almost strictly a spot-up shooter regardless of where he is on the floor. They both rebound at the same rate, with Tollefsen being a bit better defending the interior and Trier better on the perimeter. UCLA’s Jonah Bolden will be a key here because he has the ability to guard both players. He’ll need to be focused, as each player requires a different technique — against Trier, Bolden should go under screens and not allow him to drive, but against Tollefsen, he’ll want to fight through all screens since Tollefsen is so deadly from deep. As an upside, even if Bolden can’t fight through all the screens, he has the length to still bother Tollefsen. It’s worth remembering that Bolden had a very solid game when these teams met in Los Angeles.

Seniors Kaleb Tarczewski (7’0” 250 lbs.) and Ryan Anderson (6’9” 235 lbs.) start up front for the Wildcats and they have been quite good since the game at Pauley. That is especially true of Anderson, who has become arguably the best player in the conference and a double-double machine. Because Anderson and Tarczewski are true low-post players, UCLA Coach Steve Alford might want to play Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh and Bolden at the same time. That’s part of what makes Arizona a better matchup for UCLA than USC — the Wildcats almost certainly wouldn’t make the Bruins go small and risk losing the contributions of Anderson or Tarczewski for any length of time. The only real substitute for the Wildcat forwards is sophomore Dusan Ristic (7’0” 255 lbs.). Ristic, Tarczewski and Anderson combined for 33 points and 30 boards in the loss to the Bruins in L.A.

The Bruin backcourt had one of its best 35 minutes of basketball this season against Arizona. Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali very much got the best of senior Gabe York (6’3” 190 lbs.), junior Kadeem Allen (6’3” 200 lbs.), sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright (5’11” 170 lbs.) and freshman Justin Simon (6’5” 200 lbs.). The Bruin quartet outscored the Wildcat backcourt 60-43 (if you count Trier in Arizona’s backcourt) and 60-30 if you don’t count Trier. Jackson-Cartwright actually had a pretty good shooting game, but the other three shot very poorly. While the Wildcats shoot 38% from the three-point line as a team, the reality is that the number is skewed by the sheer volume of shots York has taken from behind the arc. His attempts are almost as many as the next four Wildcats combined. The fact that he shoots at a 43% clip from behind the arc certainly helps.

Chances are that the Bruin backcourt won’t dominate in the manner it did at Pauley Pavilion, but the Bruin frontcourt theoretically can play better against the Cats’ big trio.

The first thing Alford will have to do in this game is figure out which Wildcat to take out of his game. The Wildcats haven’t been hard to figure out this season: as York goes, so goes Arizona. Taking York out of his comfort zone should be a primary goal. The good news for the Bruins is that Aaron Holiday, despite the general lack of defense he has seen around him, continues to play like a warrior, especially on defense. Holiday should be matched up on York with strict instructions not to let him breathe all game.

And this is probably a game where UCLA should play its two centers and Bolden at the same time. Miller has essentially played with similar size at times this season. In that sense, he plays his personnel to the strengths of the Bruins, at least more so than the other top teams in the conference. By adding some size to the lineup, Alford will help to make sure the Bruins don’t get out-rebounded badly, which is what happened in Los Angeles. Rebounding should be a big factor in this game, whether it ensures an Arizona victory because the Bruins can’t keep the Cats off the boards, or gives the Bruins a big upset because they neutralized the Wildcat ability to win the boards.

Turnovers have been an issue for Arizona this year. Outside of the two point guards (Allen and Parker-Cartwright) the Wildcats have dreadful turnover numbers. Oddly, the Bruins (who have also been known to cough up the ball quite a bit) and the Wildcats combined for only 17 turnovers in what was a very clean game in Los Angeles.

There is no overstating how important this game is to the Bruins’ NCAA chances. Should UCLA win, the Bruins would very likely find themselves, once again, squarely on the right side of the proverbial NCAA Tournament “bubble”, which is good, since UCLA has been close to sliding well off the bubble for weeks now. Remember, UCLA’s resume can’t be viewed in a vacuum. The other schools on the bubble have to be taken into account as well and this is the first year in a while where the bubble won’t be very “soft”. The teams that UCLA needs to lose just keep winning. By beating Arizona in the desert, the Bruins would get a huge bump in their resume, one that would probably get them into much safer territory.

A loss, though, presents the Bruins with a very steep climb in order to make the Big Dance. If UCLA falls to 13-11 after tonight, then the Bruins would likely have to go 6-1 to close out the season, with one of those wins being Oregon, in order to secure an at-large bid based on regular season performance. Even if the Bruins are 19-12 but the 12th loss is to the Ducks, it could prove difficult to make the NCAA Tournament unless UCLA makes noise in the Pac-12 Tournament, or other teams on the bubble start sliding considerably.

Of course, the Bruins haven’t shown the necessary consistent effort and intensity to go 6-1 over their final 7 games, but they have shown the intensity and focus necessary to beat a good team on its own floor, at least earlier this year. This game could be a critical data point for those trying to gauge the remainder of the season — does this team have the ability to muster a really great effort again, with the season seemingly sliding away? Perhaps that is the biggest thing to look for in this game, whether Alford can get the Bruins up for this game.

When Oregon stopped Arizona’s home winning streak earlier this year, it was largely because Oregon’s athleticism killed the Wildcats. The Bruins don’t have that advantage. If the Bruins are to win, then they’ll have to play better basketball in one of the most hostile environments in the country.

The Bruins don’t play well on the road and they struggle with consistent effort. Arizona is the opposite. So, while I fully expect the Bruins to play close to their ‘A’ game tonight, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough to offset the game being in Tucson.

Arizona 79
UCLA 75

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