9th ranked UCLA (13-3, 5-1) takes on 15th ranked Arizona (12-4, 3-2) in Tucson at 11:00 a.m. (the game will be televised on CBS).
Arizona is one of the country's most fearsome teams. After all, they've beaten Florida, Maryland, Illinois and USC.
It must be their brilliant shooting. With a FG% of 44.8%, Arizona just overwhelms opponents with its… oh, 44.8% isn't very good…
Okay, it's the Wildcats' devastating 3-point attack. Knocking down 36% from behind the arc, they just take the defense totally out of… er, well okay, they're not all that from 3…
Okay, let's talk about their dominating rebounding. When it comes to the boards, Arizona is… uh, 6th in the Pac-10. Worse than UCLA…
Let's move onto defense! Boy, can these Wildcats play d! What's that? You're telling me they're 8th in the Pac-10 in FG% and 6th in turnover margin? You mean, they're worse than UCLA? Again!?
So, how did Arizona beat all those good teams? Well, they beat 3 of them in the first 2 weeks of the season, when weird things like Ball State and Pepperdine beating UCLA were happening. USC, they beat at home on Thursday. Big deal. It's just SC…
Head Coach Lute Olson has been doing his Hall of Fame thang and has gotten some big time performances from a squad that features 3 JRs and 5 FR. Whenever the Wildcats face a tough game, like USC, or a not so tough game, like OSU, somebody seems to step up and have a career day. But the law of averages has also been creeping in, and the Wildcats have begun to lose. This Arizona team has talent, but not fully developed talent, and not surprisingly they're much more prone to inconsistency and mistakes than some of Olson's past squads. In short, UCLA can beat them at Tucson.
Arizona has employed a high-low post motion offense for most of the season. A lot of the Wildcats' scoring plays are generated and completed above the arc or from midrange. Using 3 post players at a time, they will often play with two high and one low. The two high posts set picks for each other and for the guards, who excel at the catch and shoot skills which the motion exploits better than any other kind of offense. Arizona likes to nail the 3 or the 12 to 15-footer early in the shot clock; their offense gives them two guys going to the glass and 3 guys ready to initiate a fullcourt pressure d designed to control tempo more than force turnovers. Arizona is also the 2nd best FT shooting team in the Pac-10, a factor that cannot be ignored, in either a close game or a blowout.
On d, Arizona will sometimes trap fullcourt and halfcourt as well as man press if they think they are facing an opponent with a primary ballhandler (e.g., Brandon Granville) or no ballhandler. Halfcourt, Arizona likes to settle into a zone of some sort. What sort depends on the competition. Olson prefers the 1-2-2 matchup zone. He used a 3-2 matchup zone against USC to keep the Trojans' pesky guards out of the lane and David Bluthenthal off the glass. The Wildcats will also employ a man d. Whatever works. Again, Arizona would prefer that opponents rush their shots and get into a running game, hoping that its overall quickness and ability to pass and finish will ultimately give them the advantage in valuable possessions. Against an inconsistent shooting team like USC, that strategy worked great. It worked against Florida and Maryland the first weekend of the season, when both of those squads shot about 30%. Against a good-shooting running team like Oregon, it didn't work. Against halfcourt teams, the results are decidedly mixed.
Luke Walton, 6-8 240 JR SF/PF is the guy who makes the offense work. Luke, son of you know who, is averaging 12.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 5.9 apg (A/TO ratio of 1.8/1), and 1.5 spg. He's the only 6-8 player in the country who leads his tam in assists, and his A/TO ratio surpasses that of most PGs. He also leads this team in steals and rebounds. He's a clever ballhandler with a good first step, and an underrated defender. He has been a mediocre shooter for most of the season.
Jason Gardner, 5-10 180 JR PG/SG (21.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 42.3% FGs, 79.2% FTs, 38.8% 3s), is the Wildcats' go-to man as a scorer. He's a streaky player in the sense that he'll score 15 points in a half no matter how well you defend him. With all of those high picks for him to dance around, Gardner presents one of the most unique defensive challenges in the country. He's not known for driving into the lane, but one assumes he can do it. Basically, anyone who wants to contain Gardner needs to switch on him the whole game, and that usually requires a man d.
Ricky Anderson, 6-9 215 JR PF/SF (13.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 51.6%, 74.5%, 35.1%), is another versatile post player. Out of Long Beach Poly, he redshirted last year and wasn't much of a factor his first 2 seasons with the Wildcats. Ricky has long arms and a high release point for his shot and seems to play at about 6-11, rather than his 6-9 height. He can nail the 3, the midrange J or the jump hook in the lane with equal facility. He's also solid in setting picks and can put the ball on the floor as well as Luke. Ricky has been plagued with foul trouble this season and can be exploited defensively in isolation, though he does a good job of help d.
Salim Stoudamire, 6-1 175 FR SG (12.1 ppg, 41%, 97.8%, 39.7%) and Channing Frye, 6-10 220 FR C (9.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 60.9%, 80.4%) have emerged as 2 of the top FR in the Pac-10. Salim, from Lake Oswego, Oregon, is a cousin of former Arizona All-American Damon Stoudamire. He's a deadly outside shooter (and foul shooter) whose shot selection and defense have improved considerably since the start of the season. He's also outstanding at getting out on the break and finishing, as are the 3 JRs. Channing has really exploded in conference play, averaging 14.8 ppg in the Pac-10. He's an athletic, agile, strong big man with a nice touch inside 10 feet, a physical mentality and the NBA in his future.
Will Bynum, 6-0 185 FR PG/SG (7.7 ppg), Isaiah Fox, 6-9 285 FR C (5.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Dennis Latimore, 6-8 255 FR PF/C (2.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) form the rest of Arizona's excellent recruiting class. Will, who looks a lot shorter than his listed 6-0, is a quick, strong player from Chicago who brings tough defense and streaky shooting (29.2% from 3) to the table. Isaiah, from Crossroads High in Santa Monica, is a large young man with soft hands. He gets great position down low, but has trouble finishing. He's now #3 on the C list behind the more mobile and athletic Dennis, a Kansas native with family ties in Arizona. The Wildcats have gotten a lot of mileage out of Channing, Isaiah and Dennis this season as the trio of FR pivots have done all the dirty work inside. And now Channing is doing some beautiful things inside as well…
This game will present a stark contrast in styles, as will most of the games that UCLA plays this season. Unlike the Wildcats, or Stanford, Oregon or Cal, UCLA is really a slow-down, grinding team. Basically, the way to think about UCLA is as a Butler with more talent. The Bruins will break opportunistically, but their best offensive move is to pass the ball around for 33 seconds until they spread the defense enough through their 1-4 sets to create a one-on-one matchup that can be exploited off the dribble, or a wide open 3 or layup off a series of cuts and passes. This seems to drive most teams to distraction, as the Bruins seem to get an awful lot of open shots against just about everyone.
The Bruins lack great speed, but they present difficult defensive matchups for every team in the conference not called USC. Dan Gadzuric is too big and mobile for anyone in the Pac-10 to guard; opponents just have to hope he goes brain dead or gets in foul trouble (the two usually go together). Matt Barnes presents his own set of challenges for the traditional 4 men of the world, with his 3-point shooting, ballhandling skills and slick post moves. Jason, at 6-7, is often taller than the guys guarding him, and the UCLA offense usually forces a guard to switch onto him, further exploiting the height advantage. Billy and Ced are also almost always taller than their counterparts. The same is true for the Bruins' bench players.
It will be interesting to see what kind of defense Olson throws at the Bruins. No doubt, he will try to get them into a running game, but unless he can turn them over, and that's something that his team just doesn't do very well, it's unlikely that he'll succeed. For the last 2 years prior to this season, most people have defended the Bruins by concentrating on Jason Kapono. But the Bruins are far less dependent on Jason now then they've ever been since his arrival in Westwood. If UCLA takes care of the ball and runs their offense (and Dan stays out of foul trouble), they will probably hit over 50% of their shots against the Wildcats and make it hard for Arizona to win the game.
The Wildcats present their own defensive matchup problems for the Bruins. Even if UCLA slows Arizona down and limits their breaks, it's hard to see a 1-2-2 matchup working against such a high motion offense. One solution would be to say, "Turnabout is fair play," and hit the Wildcats with a version of the 3-2 matchup zone they used against the Trojans. When Matt plays high in the zone, it often resembles a 3-2 anyway, so this might not much of a switch. The Bruins have one advantage when both Dan and Matt are in the game together: These guys are actually pretty big, and they cover an awful lot of ground in the zone. Teams often work a play to force Dan to switch out on a little guard on the perimeter, only to find that Dan can often keep up with little guards on the perimeter.
When you have 2 teams that ought to have trouble defending one another, at least on paper, you ignore the paper and assume a defensive struggle. I think this will be a low scoring game, with the Bruins controlling the tempo just enough…
Prediction: UCLA 74, Arizona 72.