Every other game previous to this was just the pretender.
Today, when UCLA faces #16-ranked Arizona in Tucson, it's the real deal.
This is the game, if UCLA wins, that would give them enough credibility and national recognition to warrant the first top 25 ranking for a UCLA basketball or football team since November of 2002.
Barring a late-season meltdown, it also would almost guarantee an NCAA tournament bid.
No pressure, though.
It would be a huge step for this team, which has surprised most by going 10-3 and 4-1 in the Pac-10 so far this season, which has it tied for the conference lead.
But a loss, by no means, would not diminish the strides this team has already made this season. It wouldn't be the end of the world, or the season. It would not eliminate the opportunity for this team to earn that same recognition and national ranking sometime later this season.
But, not to get the hopes up of too many UCLA fans, this game is winnable. It's realistically the most winnable match-up with an Arizona team in many years, including the actual game that UCLA won in the Pac-10 tournament against then #1-ranked Arizona in 2003.
Arizona just plainly isn't the team it has been in the last several years. They are experiencing some glitches this season. And even with the glitches, Arizona is such a successful program they are still 13-3 and 3-1.
But again, if you look at that record closely, there is more evidence that this game is winnable. The Wildcats barely beat Michigan, 61-60, a team UCLA beat. To Arizona's credit, Michigan was closer to full strength against Arizona and the game was played in Ann Arbor. They were easily beaten by just a decent Virginia team on the road, 78-60.
They did, though, squeak out wins against then-top-25 teams Mississippi State and Marquette. They played the then-#1 team in the country, Wake Forest, close in a loss.
That was, though, in their non-conference schedule, when this Arizona team was playing better and a bit more cohesively.
Recently, they beat Arizona State in Tucson, and split against the Bay Area schools on the road before beating USC at home Thursday. In those Pac-10 wins, the Wildcats struggled to beat each of their opponents. It clearly wasn't the Wildcats of recent years that would put a number of runs on you during the course of the game and build a 15-20 point lead and then cruise. And they were beaten soundly by Stanford, a team that is 7-7 and 1-3 so far this season.
The Stanford game could be the blueprint for UCLA in how to beat Arizona. Stanford, despite being down this year, is still a well-disciplined team that executes on offense and plays smart defense. It's exactly the type of team that we're seeing this year can very readily beat a more talented but less-disciplined run-and-gun team. UCLA is by far closer to Stanford in style, and in playing that same style, with a well-executed offense and disciplined defense, it has beaten three run-and-gun teams in Oregon, Washington and Arizona State.
How it's mostly being done is by good offensive execution. While these run-and-run teams have good individual athletes, who are generally good on-the-ball defenders, they don't tend to play very good team defense. Stanford executed its offense well against Arizona, forcing them to play defense deep into the 35-second clock and push through screens, which they tended not to do well, and Stanford's open shooters took advantage.
It sounds pretty similar to how the games UCLA played against Oregon, Washington and Arizona State worked out. Once UCLA weathered the initial inspired play of its run-and-gun opponent early on, the game settled down. UCLA started executing and playing defense, and their opponents started breaking down, going one-on-one on offense and slacking off in its team defense.
For Arizona, it's been an interesting shift in style over the last few years. Traditionally, Arizona's Hall-of-Fame head coach, Lute Olson, had always built well-disciplined and fundamentally sound Wildcat teams. He did it with under-rated recruits like Luke Walton, Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon, who played smart and hard. In recent years, it seems, as Olson has had great success at Arizona, he's gotten generally more elite recruits, but seemingly those recruits have steered Arizona more toward the wide-open, less-disciplined run-and-gun style.
Now, again, don't under-estimate just how talented Arizona is. On paper, there is truly no way they should lose to UCLA, at home, in the McHale Center. And they still can very easily put one of those quick, dagger-like runs on you in a hurry.
The guy who is most dangerous is 6-1 senior guard Salim Stoudamire. Stoudamire has no limits to his shooting range. He has a quick, left-handed stroke that he'll launch from anywhere and those long, quick bombs off semi-transition when opposing defenses haven't picked him up are what instigate those Arizona runs. He's also pretty good off the bounce, using decent quickness and athleticism to create. He's averaging a team-leading 14 points per game and is shooting an astounding 56% from three.
Hassan Adams can be dagger-like at times himself. The 6-4 junior forward is one of the best athletes in the Pac-10, and he keys runs with his ability to make a big steal and throw down huge, athletic dunks. He's averaging 12 points a game and close to six rebounds.
The third part of the triumverate is 6-11 senior center, Channing Frye. Frye is one of the ten best centers in the country, with great post fundamentals and good quickness for his size. Averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds per game, he's very good laterally and is very effective on offensive rebounds and putbacks. Once he has position in the block he's so fundamentally sound in his post moves he's difficult to stop.
After those big three, Arizona has some question marks. Starting at point guard has been the highly-touted 6-3 sophomore, Mustafa Shakur. Shakur was ranked the #1 point guard in the country coming out of high school and there was quite a bit of hype about him being a two-and-out type of guy, at most. After a good freshman year when he played mostly a suppportive role, he has struggled considerably so far this season as a sophomore, and it has Arizona fans struggling themselves through buyer's remorse.
Make no mistake, though - Shakur is very talented. He has very good quickness, good passing ability, a good outside shot and can play very good defense. He has, though, this season, been somewhat of a mess. He's been shooting poorly, but mostly making poor decisions and committing foolish turnovers. Now it looks like he's lost his confidence, which has made matters worse for him. While he hasn't generally played well lately, and the responsibility for the Stanford loss was dumped on his shoulders because of his poor play, he did have probably his best game of the season against Arizona State just two weeks ago. Shakur is just too talented for an opponent not to recognize that he could put together an excellent game at any time.
While Shakur has struggled, Arizona has looked more to 6-3 junior point guard Chris Rodgers. Talking about talented, Rodgers is very much himself. He's big, muscular and athletic, with very good quickness and some great skills. He's the second best three-point shooter on the team. He's coming off his best game of the season against USC Thursday when he scored 22 points. On defense, when you're flying around trying to find Stoudamire, Rodgers will get an open look and bring the dagger himself.
Arizona's fifth starter is 6-10 sophomore Ivan Radenovic. Radenovic has run hot and cold so far this year, getting 20 in one game and then 0 in the next. More of a finesse type of player who likes to face-up, he hasn't done well against teams that have been particularly physical with him. He is also not a great post defender, not being very strong or assertive. Offensively, though, he can hurt you with good scoring skills.
Olson made a surprise move when he took 6-10 sophomore center Kirk Walter out of his redshirt year against USC Thursday. Walter was looking good in practice, according to Olson, and they needed him since they were getting very little baseline support from 6-9 junior Isaiah Fox, who has been a big disappointment so far this season. Fox began the season as a starter, and has now seen his minutes dwindle. Not greatly athletic, he's had trouble finishing easy shots inside, and has been a slow liability on defense, and Olson has lost confidence in him.
Besides Rodgers, Arizona's biggest bench relief on the perimeter has come from 6-5 freshman shooting guard Jawann McClellan, a McDonald's All-American. McClellan has given the Wildcats good support in spelling Adams and Stoudamire. Athletic, McClellan is a good defender, while his offensive skills are still coming along. Another freshman, Jesus Verdejo, is a nice 6-4 athlete still learning how to play.
To beat Arizona, it's the same theory UCLA used against Oregon and Washington, which started with defense. UCLA, again, will need to pick up Stoudamire and the rest of the Arizona shooters in transition quickly and close out on them in the halfcourt while limiting Frye's inside scoring with waves of good interior defense from Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins and Lorenzo Mata. On the other side of the floor, UCLA beat the other run-and-gunners by executing on offense, which limited turnovers and gave the Bruins more possessions, and eventually made the opposition's defense break down. UCLA also has been taking advantage of the running teams not getting back in transition, picking up some easy baskets themselves in transition.
There are some interesting matchups to watch here. Dijon Thompson, playing the four for UCLA, is going to be a handful defensively for Radenovic, Fox or Walters. Watch for Arizona to go small, playing with four guards essentially, and moving Adams over to guard Thompson. Jordan Farmar again has a test when he'll face two big point guards in Shakur and Adams, two guys who won't hesitate to shoot if left open. Brian Morrison is perhaps a key to the game, and possibly the rest of the season. When his shooting is on, with his quick release, he makes UCLA a completely different offensive team. It will be interesting to see, if Morrison's game is on, if Arizona will do what it takes to get through UCLA's screens and guard him.
We didn't predict a score against Arizona State, and the mojo worked
precisely as we planned, so we're not predicting one for Arizona.
Arizona, with how talented it is, is very difficult to beat at home, but UCLA's
freshmen have shown an unshakeability that will most likely keep them in the
game, at the very least.