The UCLA Bruins successfully traversed the first step in the three-step rubber match tour that is the Pac-12 Tournament last night at they outlasted the USC Trojans by 2 in the late quarterfinal game in Las Vegas.
Next up for the Bruins are the second-seeded Arizona Wildcats, who defeated Colorado last night in an earlier quarterfinal game. The game will be the later of the two conference semifinal games from the T-Mobile Arena (8:30 PM PST; ESPN).
The winner of this game will face the winner of the California\Oregon game that will tip off at 6 PM PST.
The Bruins and the Wildcats know each other well, having split the regular season series. This should be a hard-fought, close game and really, the winner should be the team that can offset some deficiencies that they showed against each other in the two earlier match-ups, and to a certain extent, last night.
The game could essentially boil down to two questions, one for each team that will determine the outcome of the game. For the Wildcats, the question revolves around their outside shooting and whether they can connect often enough from beyond the arc when the Bruins play their 1-2-2 zone to force UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford to go to a man-to-man defense. For the Bruins, the question is whether they can bring even more intensity to the defensive end of the floor, contesting shots so that Arizona can’t pull the Bruins out of the defense that Alford wants to play. Essentially, the answers to these questions will be mutually exclusive because they will directly butt heads during the game.
Head Coach Sean Miller’s Wildcats should be feeling pretty good about their ability to successfully answer the shooting question based on last night’s display in the win over Colorado. Arizona went 10-19 from behind the three-point line, with freshman wing Rawle Alkins (6’5”, 220 lbs.) having a particularly strong game from beyond the arc. He went 3-4 from distance and all three of his treys were at key times as the Wildcats kept the Buffaloes at arm’s length for much of the second half. Fellow freshman Lauri Markkanen (7’0”, 230 lbs.) also had a strong shooting game, going 4-7 from beyond the arc.
In short, if the Wildcats can connect on their three-point attempts as they did last night, then they will win the game.
The caveat is that Colorado played porous perimeter defense last night, leaving both Alkins and Markkanen wide open for many of their outside shots.
In the game against the Trojans last night, the Bruins actually brought good intensity to their defense. The Trojans certainly had some open looks at times, but for the most part the Bruins were contesting shots. In fact, when the game was close with just a few minutes left, the Bruins were able to get three critical stops in a row at a time when USC could have tied the game.
Arizona will get some open looks, but they should generally face more pressure than they did against the Buffaloes.
The Bruins held USC to 39% shooting for the game, which is not good, and 36% from beyond the arc, which is decent. Actually, the reason USC was able to stay in the game was because of the curious officiating during the game, especially in the first half. At one point in the first half, UCLA had been whistled for 12 fouls, while USC sat on 5. USC shot 25 free throws for the game while the Bruins only attempted 13. It wasn’t as if the Bruins weren’t getting inside, but rather the lack of consistency on the part of the officiating crew that allowed USC to crawl within 3 points at intermission. In the second half there were clearly the proverbial “make-up” calls that favored the Bruins, but the damage had already been done. That’s because Ball had to sit for about 8 minutes of the first half with 2 early fouls. It was unfortunate because it appeared the Bruins were very dialed in and USC looked tired. Honestly, the Bruins should have been up by 12-15 at the break.
The consistency in officiating, of lack thereof, will be a key factor in Friday night’s game.
There was another key factor in the win over USC that allowed the game to be close: UCLA had arguably its worst offensive game of the season. UCLA shot only 41% from the floor and 36% from three-point range, both significantly below its season averages for both.
Chances are that the Bruins won’t shoot that poorly again. Keep in mind that last night was UCLA’s first game in the T-Mobile Arena, so that could have thrown off the Bruins. It was also suggested that UCLA could have been looking ahead to a presumed match-up with the Wildcats tonight. Regardless, it is worth stressing that UCLA’s shooting should improve.
One of the reasons for UCLA’s poor shooting performance was the herky-jerky execution against USC’s zone defense. As was the case earlier this season when USC beat UCLA, the Bruins simply didn’t get the ball to the middle of the floor with any regularity. When they did, they often got uncontested shots off of kick-outs, and the Bruins buried many of those. Arizona probably won’t play much if any zone, but Miller could surprise people by throwing a zone at the Bruins, especially as he watched most of last night’s game.
Another interesting point was that Miller basically eschewed his backcourt depth last night, with freshman guard Kobi Simmons (6’5”, 175 lbs.) only playing 6 minutes. Granted, Miller did go to his bench with junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (5’11”, 170 lbs.) playing 30 minutes and with junior forward Keanu Pinder (6’9”, 220 lbs.) and sophomore post Chance Comanche (6’11”, 215 lbs.), but both players actually were on the court at the same time as Alkins and Markkanen, as well as junior post Dusan Ristic (7’0”, 245 lbs.). In essence those bench forwards took the minutes from Simmons. Because of that decision, Jackson-Cartwright played 30 minutes and sophomore wing Allonzo Trier (6’5”, 205 lbs.) played 34 minutes.
It will be interesting to see if Miller plays the same type of rotation. If Jackson-Cartwright plays a lot of minutes, with senior guard Kadeem Allen (6’3”, 205 lbs.) moving to the shooting guard spot, then UCLA has to defend so as to force Jackson-Cartwright to be the player that beats them. He only took two shots last night but was able to distribute at will, finishing with 7 assists. That type of game plays to Jackson-Cartwright’s strengths. When he is forced to shoot often, Arizona’s offense tends to stagnate.
Based on last night’s attendance, this should be a virtual home game for the Wildcats. The Bruins have already proved, however, that playing the Cats on the road doesn’t mean much. Regardless, it should be an electric atmosphere.
If Arizona shoots well from distance that means UCLA’s defense probably isn’t playing well, specifically causing turnovers (and if there was a complaint with the Bruin defense last night it was that it didn’t force more than the 8 turnovers USC had). If UCLA is closing out on shooters and forcing Arizona to play offense on the perimeter, then Arizona probably won’t be shooting well and UCLA wins.
The question is really which aspect, Arizona’s shooting or UCLA’s defense, people are willing to bet on. It is a bit of a crapshoot. However, there are a couple of things that may point to things going in UCLA’s favor. There is an element of looking ahead that UCLA had last night, and now the Bruins get the game they wanted. That means their intensity on both ends should improve. Further, Arizona probably played offense about as will as it can against the Buffaloes. There is every reason to believe that UCLA’s defense will be better than what Colorado showed last night.
Finally, UCLA’s offense, specifically it’s shooting, cannot be as poor as it was last night. That alone should count for a great deal.
The Bruins won the rebounding battle in Tucson a few weeks ago, and the Bruins killed the Trojans on the glass last night. If the Bruins can stay even on the boards, then that will really hurt Arizona. Further, UCLA has to cut down on the turnovers. The Bruins committed 11 in the first half last night and that helped USC stay in the game.
This is another game where predicting the outcome is a toss-up. BRO’s Blair Angulo thinks that Arizona will be too much for the Bruins. He may have a point, but I’ve found that when in doubt in a game between two pretty evenly-matched teams, go with the team that has the potential best player on the floor. And while he may not be that player, Bryce Alfordisn’t likely to go 2-10 from the field again.
But UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is that player. He didn’t have a good game last night. He doesn’t do that two games in a row.