But after losing to USC on Thursday, the Wildcats are going to be near feral. They're just 2-2 in conference play, and if they lost another conference game this early it could very well dig them a hole too deep to climb out for the remainder of the Pac-10 season. #7-ranked Arizona is a tough enough team to begin with, but now they have their backs up against the wall.
Arizona, if you're looking for an easy comparison, is very similar to Oregon this season, but with more talent. They like to get out and run, feed off emotion, go on runs, and play very poor defense, and they do so all with a collection of great athletes.
The issue is even though they have nice collection of talent, one that's among the top five teams in the country easily, can that talent mesh well together? So far, the jury's still out on them for the season.
They've had one very good quality win, against Texas. They've blown out California and Arizona State. But they've lost to Florida, and got smacked by Stanford. Their results are very consistent with their game personality – very inconsistent. It's mostly because this team loves to feed off emotion and momentum to fuel it, and that makes for some inconsistent play.
Its biggest warrior is former Los Angeles Westchester star, Hassan Adams, the 6-3 sophomore wing. Adams leads the team in scoring, averaging 16 points a game, and is second on the team in rebounding, bringing down 7 boards a game. When have you ever remembered a 6-3 guard averaging 7 rebounds a game? It's a testament to Adams' ferocious desire and will to win. He gets a great deal of his points in transition, or in and around the basket, relishing going inside to challenge opposing frontcourt players. His outside shot is still a little shaky, but he can get hot at times. Adams not only plays hard, but is a great athlete, with great foot quickness and strength that allows him to both out-quick and overpower defenders.
Led by Adams, Arizona is an offensive onslaught, with four other players averaging double-figured scoring. The two other frontcourt players are 6-6 sophomore Andre Iguodala and 6-11 junior Channing Frye, who are averaging 12.6 and 14.9 points a game, respectively. Iguodala is another tough, strong athlete. He loves transition, and loves to crash the boards, leading the team in rebounding with a 9.2 average, which is second in the Pac-10. He's particularly tough on the defensive boards, not allowing opponents very many second chances. Iguodala is similar to Adams, maybe just a 6-6 version of him; he gets many of his points in transition and garbage, can handle the ball well on the perimeter, but has an iffy outside jumper.
Frye is perhaps the best true center in the Pac-10. While he lacks strength, and can be somewhat passive at times, he's very skilled, able to post up as well as knock down the face-up jumper out to 15 feet. UCLA's big men, Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey, have been playing good post defense this season, but this will be their first matchup against a true center who is close to their height with these kind of skills. Being physical against Frye is the key, bumping him and trying to keep him from catching the ball comfortably in the post. UCLA can't readily employ the same defensive philosophy it did against Arizona State's Ike Diogu, which was collapse guards on him as soon as he catches the ball, since Arizona has some shooters that will then burn you.
The primary guy who will singe opponents from the outside is starting shooting guard, 6-1 junior Salim Stoudamire. A lefty, he is one of the top two or three best outside shooters in the conference, averaging 13 points a game and close to three three-pointers a game. Stoudamire is Arizona's true designated shooter, floating on the perimeter and waiting for a kick-out or a look in transition. He doesn't do much beyond that, and isn't great at putting the ball on the floor. But Stoudamire can kill you with his jumper.
Arizona's starting five is rounded out by their freshman point guard, 6-3 Mustafa Shakur. Shakur is having a very good freshman season to date, averaging 9 points a game in 27 minutes. He is very quick for his size, has great point guard instincts and passing ability, and loves to get out quickly on a break. He also has nice scoring skills, despite not being overly explosive off the floor.
Perhaps one of the best non-starters in the conference is combo guard Chris Rodgers, the 6-3 sophomore. Rodgers was one of the best guards in the west coming out of high school a couple of years ago, and while he struggled a bit as a freshman, he's starting to mature this season. He averages nine points a game off the bench, and is able to take defenders off the dribble and with his outside shot having improved.
Amazingly, when 6-8 big man Isaiah Fox went down early this season with an injury after just two games, Arizona went out and got a ringer, 6-10 freshman forward Ivan Radenovic, who is from Serbia-Montenegro. He joined the team December 20th and became eligible December 28th, and since then has been a big contributing force, playing 21 minutes a game and averaging 11 points and five rebounds. He's a very talented frontcourt player – and in the mold of most Europeans, loves to face the basket and shoot, which he does well. Uncharacteristic of Europeans, he's shown some aggressiveness around the basket and has served Arizona very well in shoring up its interior since he joined the team. It will be interesting to see what happens once the rest of college basketball realizes it can go out and pick up free agents like the NBA halfway through the season like Arizona did with Radenovic.
After those very talented top seven, the drop-off in productivity on Arizona's roster is pronounced. No other player contributes more than 7 minutes a game, with 6-10 freshman center Kirk Walters contributing the most, albeit very limited, minutes off the bench. Arizona, to state the obvious, isn't very deep and foul trouble can present problems for them, especially on their particularly thin front line.
Arizona is a great combination of athletes, with some skilled perimeter guys, that loves transition, where it can get its athletes in more open-court situations and give them the chance to create. They're scoring 86 points a game, and getting probably half of those, on average, in transition. They score in spurts, and play on emotion. If a fast-break results in a big dunk from Adams or Iguodala, they ride the energy for a while and make runs. But on the other hand, they can go flat sometimes. They play pretty lousy defense, when they play defense at all. It really is the element that has been lacking from this team all season, and truly the aspect of the team that has led them to some losses, such as against Stanford, and kept them from lingering in the top two or three spots in the polls. It's a curious thing. A team made up of such great athletes who play hard such as this you would think would be good defensively. Individually, players like Adams, Rodgers and Iguodala can play great defense. But collectively, their team defense has been particularly slack, with very little emphasis or effort given to help and post defense.
UCLA, on the other hand, has crafted a 9-3 record based primarily on good defense this season. It will be what keeps them in the game against the more talented Wildcats. If UCLA can stop Arizona in their transition, keep them from getting hyped and going on runs, they'll have a very good chance of beating Arizona. USC did it with some good athletes of their own, but UCLA will have to do it with a smart, hustling defense. If UCLA can do that – limit Arizona's transition – it will be even easier to exploit Arizona's slack defense, which could be lulled to sleep by UCLA's slowdown tempo.
It's actually a good matchup for UCLA – similar to that of Oregon. UCLA's defense, in that game, did well in shutting down Oregon's transition, and then, facing Oregon's poor defense, executed its offense well. But also similarly, expect Arizona to pressure and trap in the last seven minutes of this game, as every team since Oregon has done. The Wildcats have the athletes to really harrass UCLA's ballhandlers. It's key that Cedric Bozeman stays out of foul trouble and is rested for the home stretch.
Playing at home, in Pauley, that was enough to predict UCLA to beat Arizona. But now, again, having lost to USC and being highly motivated, you can expect Arizona to be fired up. We expect UCLA to show its mettle today, because even though Arizona is motivated after losing two conference games in a row, UCLA has some motivation of its own, trying to put last year's disastrous season (and huge blow out at Pauley Pavilion against Arizona) behind it and get some national respect for the first time in a while.
While you can say that just about every game is huge, this one is particularly. If UCLA wins, it will go a long way in getting it into the NCAA tournament. It gets it a big win over a ranked opponent. Its RPI will improve dramatically. It would put it at 6-0 in conference, when it's believed that probably 12 wins in conference would be a shoe-in for an NCAA berth (which would mean UCLA would only have to go 6-6 the rest of the way in conference). It would get UCLA a 10-3 record overall, and probably its first national ranking in either its football or basketball team in 14 months.