PG Lonzo Ball (USA Today)

Preview: UCLA v. Arizona

Feb. 25 -- It's the big game in college basketball, pitting the No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the country. Since their last meeting, which Arizona won handily, UCLA has been surging and the Wildcats have been tentative, but the McKale Center is a very tough place to play...

With the appetizer of Arizona State successfully and relatively easily digested, the No.5 UCLA Bruins return to the court on Saturday night for the full meal when they head to Tucson to take on the No.4-ranked Arizona Wildcats (5:15 PM PST; ESPN).

The game is massive for both squads and the fact the ESPN Gameday is going to be at McKale Center on Saturday morning only underscores how this game is viewed nationally.  While the regular season championship is probably out of the question for the Bruins, the game represents an opportunity for them to re-establish themselves at a national level as a potential top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.  More importantly, it appears that only one of the Pac-12’s triumvirate of UCLA, Arizona and Oregon will be able to stay in the West region because of NCAA Tournament seeding and placement rules, so for both the Bruins and the Cats, winning this game, and any other they may play in two weeks in the Pac-12 Tournament, will have huge implications on who stays home and who gets shipped east.

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Arizona has only one conference loss but the Cats’ perch at the top is rather precarious.  They have no room for error because of the Pac-12’s unbalanced scheduling.  Oregon and Arizona only play once this season and Oregon ran the Cats off the court.  Oregon has only two Pac-12 losses and the Ducks don’t look like they’re going to lose another game before the conference tournament.  Oregon owns the tiebreaker over the Wildcats so a loss to the Bruins probably condemns the Cats to the second seed in Las Vegas in two weeks.  UCLA already has its collective head around the fact that the Bruins will have to beat both Oregon and Arizona in order to claim the Pac-12 title.  Arizona and Oregon are fighting in order to avoid that.  One or both could suffer a mental letdown should they find themselves in the unenviable position of having to beat two Final Four contenders on back-to-back nights.

Part of the reason that Arizona is in first place in the conference is because the Wildcats went into Pauley Pavilion a few weeks ago and handed the Bruins a fairly one-sided loss.  That’s because UCLA played poor defense and Arizona head coach Sean Miller had a game plan that kept him one step ahead of UCLA head coach Steve Alford throughout the game.  UCLA lost its next game to USC, but has looked much better on the defensive end since those two losses, while Arizona hasn’t looked nearly as good since that Saturday in Pauley Pavilion.  The question is whether enough has changed between the two teams for there to be a different outcome in the desert.

There are three overarching match-ups that will help decide this game and they are intertwined.  There is the coaching match-up, the personnel match-up and the tactical match-up.  However, before getting into those, let’s state the obvious: the Bruins are going to have to win at least two, if not all of those match-ups, in order to offset the massive homecourt advantage enjoyed by the Wildcats.  The win would be a first for the Bruins in Tucson in which the Pac-12 title is probably not on the line for UCLA.  Obviously the crowd is an enormous factor.  It is one of the loudest arenas in the college game.  But let’s not forget that Arizona also tends to be the recipient of some liberal officiating on its home court.

Miller and Alford have now coached against each other enough times to recognize that both have gotten the best of the other at various times.  It was Miller’s turn to look like a genius in January in Los Angeles, but on further inspection he really was merely competent.  If you remember, Arizona showed some new offensive wrinkles in the first half of that game that clearly surprised the Bruins.  There were some weakside re-screens that the Bruins weren’t prepared to defend.  In the second half, the Cats used screens off the ball, particularly on the help side, against UCLA’s zone, that freed up Arizona shooters for open looks.  Still, the Bruins made a run and had the ball down by only 2 points with about a quarter of the game remaining.  From roughly that point of the game until the end, Miller simply told his team to spread the floor and have whomever Bryce Alford was guarding attack the basket.  That’s not genius but rather competency.  Coach Alford didn’t help the Bruin cause, not being able to conjure anything that could defensively help his team.

Since that game, the Wildcats have appeared a bit tight on offense, almost like the players are scared to make a mistake.  Miller is an emotional coach prone to some outbursts and that kind of personality can wear on many college kids as a season wears on.  To be blunt, the apparent look Arizona has had the last few games of being “off” a bit is actually something almost all of Miller’s teams have shown as seasons have progressed in Tucson.  That doesn’t mean that Arizona won’t run UCLA off the court on Saturday, but it does mean that his management style could be an issue.

Also since that game, Alford has shown his own flashes of brilliance as a game coach.  First, he clearly has gotten the Bruins to defensively buy-in over the past few weeks.  Had the Bruins played with the kind of defensive intensity they’ve shown since the USC game the first time they played the Wildcats, the Bruins would have won.  Second, he has gotten the players to re-engage with the idea of the unselfish offense.  Alford has some good chemistry on this team, but not to acknowledge his influence on this group as it has bettered its play would be a disservice to the coach.  Finally, he has thrown in some defensive wrinkles that have thrown off opponents, including a 1-2-2 trapping defense with Lonzo Ball on the top.

This game appears to be pretty straightforward in that there probably isn’t much that either coach can do to really surprise the other.  Miller probably showed all his cards in the game at Pauley and Alford has shown his hand over the past five or six games.  Perhaps the coach that gets the upper hand in this match-up on Saturday is the one that can keep his players calm in what will be an intense atmosphere.

In terms of personnel, Miller has changed up the starting lineup quite a bit since the first time these teams met, and, to be quite blunt, the changes should help UCLA.  Miller has moved freshmen Rawle Alkins (6’5”, 220 lbs.) and Kobi Simmons (6’5”, 175 lbs.), who have both started for almost the entire season, to the bench.  In their places Miller has started junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (5’11”, 170 lbs.) and sophomore Allonzo Trier (6’5”, 205 lbs.).  Because of his injury, junior center Dusan Ristic (7’0”, 245 lbs.) is also now coming off the bench in favor of sophomore Chance Comanche (6’11”, 215 lbs.).

Lauri Markkanen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright

Jackson-Cartwright has had some huge games against the Bruins, including hitting some really big shots earlier this year at Pauley, but if the Bruins actually commit to defense, he will be easier to match up with than either Alkins or Simmons, whose size and athleticism clearly hurt the Bruins.  Further, both Cat freshmen are better defenders than Jackson-Cartwright.  If the Bruins start fast and jump out to a lead, the guess is that Miller will move senior Kadeem Allen (6’3”, 205 lbs) back to the point and put either Alkins or Simmons in for Jackson-Cartwright.  Either player gives Arizona a better chance of guarding UCLA’s backcourt players, especially Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton.

Ristic and Comanche will make up the low-post duo that will go against UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Ike Anigbogu.  In short, if Welsh continues to hit his mid-range jumpers at the same clip he’s been lately and if Anigbogu can continue to play physically on both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive glass, then the Bruins should have the upper hand in this match-up.

However, the key match-up may be at the other forward spot, where UCLA’s T.J. Leaf will go up against Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen (7’0”, 230 lbs.).  Leaf has a better basketball IQ but Markkanen is stronger and probably a bit better in the low post.  He has certainly been making a point of spending more time on the offensive low block recently. Both can hit three-pointers at a solid clip.  Markkanen, though, wasn’t a huge factor in the game in Los Angeles, at least not in the first half when Arizona finished with a double-digit lead, and Arizona still won the game.  Leaf needs to make this match-up at least a push in order for UCLA to have a legitimate chance to win.

Miller will be bringing Alkins, Simmons and Ristic off the bench while Alford will counter with Anigbogu, Gyorgy Goloman and Aaron Holiday.  Holiday may be the key because he is the only depth the Bruins have in the backcourt and because he has the ability to instantly and significantly alter the game at both ends of the floor.  If Hamilton continues in his slump and the Bruins are struggling on defense, then expect to see a lot of Holiday and less of Hamilton in the game.

The tactical match-up should be a known quantity going into the game.  For the first match-up, Miller clearly coached his players to not help on Lonzo Ball but rather prevent Hamilton and Bryce Alford from getting clean looks.  That will probably be the case again, and Miller may even double down on that strategy if it appears Ball is suffering any after-effects from the sprained ankle he suffered against Arizona State.  It will be up to Hamilton and Alford to use the off-the-ball screens well, and for the Bruins to be patient on the offensive end.  When Arizona was blasted by Oregon a few weekends ago, the Ducks sped up the Wildcats and were able to get clean looks from beyond the arc.  Oregon also had as much athleticism as Arizona did, which made the Ducks much more able to go right at the Cats.

The Bruins also tried to force things the first time around, both in shooting and passing.  There were too many one- and two-pass possessions where the Bruins reverted to the kind of offense they showed last season.  They also tried to force too many passes and while these didn’t lead to turnovers (there were only 13 combined turnovers in the entire first game between these two teams), there were many passes that didn’t find players in the right spots on the floor.

Miller’s man offense should again focus on going right at Bryce Alford.  Assuming Ball ends up guarding Trier, that means Hamilton and Alford will be left to guard Allen and Jackson-Cartwright.  Allen torched Alford on a couple of key possessions in the second half so perhaps putting Alford on Jackson-Cartwright is the way to go. Whoever is guarding Allen needs to play off him in order to prevent drives.  Allen is a solid outside shooter, at 41% from three-point range, but he is much more devastating as a penetrator, both in terms of scoring and passing.

Guarding Jackson-Cartwright is another matter.  The Bruins must play up on him as he is tough from beyond the arc (46%).  However, even though he is quick, he is a much worse shooter from inside the arc than outside.  Also, Coach Alford could take a page from the Miller playbook and tell the rest of the Bruins perimeter players to stay home and not give help, thus challenging Jackson-Cartwright to be the one that beats the Bruins.

There are three other statistical areas to keep an eye on.  First are turnovers.  The Bruins have to limit turnovers. Keep in mind that UCLA only had 6 turnovers in Los Angeles and still lost by 11.  If UCLA can force Arizona into some turnovers, as Oregon did, then that would be icing on the cake, but the first key is to limit their own turnovers.

The second area is rebounding, where Arizona has always been good during Miller’s tenure.  The Cats killed the Bruins on the boards in Los Angeles, outrebounding the Bruins by 9.  UCLA is not a great rebounding team, but the Bruins haven’t really had to be one because of their offense.  However, the Cats were able to take away some of what UCLA wanted to do in the first half of the first game so rebounding becomes more of a key.  Certainly the Bruins need to be effective on the defensive glass to have any chance at the win.

The final area is free throws.  Arizona’s offense is clearly designed to get the Cats to the free throw line more than their opponents.  That’s a given, but what isn’t a given is how bad the disparity will be in this game.  Arizona only got to the line 21 times compared to UCLA’s 14 in Los Angeles, but things become exponentially more difficult at McKale Center for opposing teams.  The Bruins simply cannot allow Arizona to get to the charity stripe 30 times on Saturday.

How this game is going to unfold is anyone’s guess.  On one hand the Bruins have the look of a team on a mission, and the impact of the improved defensive effort, if it’s present on Saturday, can’t be overstated.  UCLA also had a pretty poor shooting day from the floor in the first meeting, hitting only 45% from the field and 32% from behind the arc, both much lower than UCLA’s average.  Chances are UCLA won’t shoot that poorly again, but that’s a guess.

Arizona reached its zenith in Pauley Pavilion and hasn’t looked the same team since.  However, this is one of those games that the Cats should clearly be amped to play.  Expect the Wildcats to give a superior effort.

Ball is the one player on the court who can singlehandedly take over the game in a variety of ways.  Of course, that’s assuming that Ball’s ankle is fine.  If so, he could take the game by the scruff of the neck and will the team to victory.

Most prognosticators believe this is going to be a very close game, and they’ll get no argument here. However, with so many variables in key areas that could impact the game’s outcome, I tend to go with the one thing that is a constant, and that is the homecourt advantage.  Will I be surprised if UCLA wins on Saturday?  No, but it’s one of those Yogi Berra-esque adages: you can’t predict it until it actually happens.  This Arizona team is simly very good at home.

Arizona          88
UCLA             84


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