Preview of Arizona

UCLA, again, gets an opportunity to break through its credibility gap when it faces Arizona today at Pauley Pavilion. The problem is those pesky #12-ranked Wildcats have been playing their best ball of the season lately...

UCLA has been presented with a few opportunities this year to really break out of the credibility purgatory it's been in for most of the season.

It had the opportunity when it went on the road against Michigan State, when it played Arizona in Tucson, and then Washington in Seattle.

It probably now gets another opportunity Saturday when Arizona comes to town for a 5:00 p.m. showdown in Pauley Pavilion.

The Wildcats are 20-4 and ranked 12th in the country, the kind of ideal prey for getting national recognition when you beat them.

The problem is – those pesky Wildcats have been playing some good ball lately. In fact, easily the best ball they've played all season.

They cruised to an easy victory over USC Thursday. Last weekend they routed both Bay Area schools in Tucson (remember, those two schools that came to Los Angeles and swept the Bruins?). They pounded Cal, 97-76, then turned around two days later and played exceptionally well in beating Stanford handily, 90-72.

This Arizona team, despite being 20-4 and tied for first in the Pac-10 at 10-2, showed some shaky moments at times in the first half of the season. What has gotten them back on track mainly is defense. On January 29th, Arizona lost to Washington State at home, in a huge upset. It was the first time Washington State had beaten Arizona since 1986. At the time, it look liked Arizona would continue to have big lapses for the rest of the season and it was possibly one of those Arizona teams that was a candidate to be an early flameout in the NCAA tournament.

But voila! – in the last three games the Wildcats have dedicated themselves to playing defense and they've been dominating.

After allowing Washington State to shoot 46%, they've kept Cal, Stanford and USC to just 43% from the field. Instead of long lapses of lethargic defense, in its last three games Arizona has generally maintained its defensive energy. And when you have the athletes that Arizona has, it's been very effective.

They've also been using a 1-3-1 zone, which has befuddled offenses. They'll go from man-to-man to the 1-3-1 just long enough to get opponents out of their offensive rhythm.

Since UCLA has shown a weakness against a zone all season, you can probably expect to see the 1-3-1 for long stretches of this game.

Offensively, the Wildcats have been getting more consistent performances from its big guns. Senior shooting guard Salim Stoudamire has been out of his mind. He averages about 18 points per game, but has recently strung together games of 27, 25 and 26, and of course, the season-high 32 points he got against UCLA in Tucson. He used to make fairly bad decisions, but he's limited them this year. Now, just about every time he puts the ball on the floor and turns to the basket, good things happen. And with the way he shoots, with his quick release, just about any shot he wants to take is a high percentage. He is, in fact, shooting an astounding 55% from three. And this isn't some guy who has taken just 20 threes on the season. Stoudamire is easily an all Pac-10 player, and is playing himself into All-American status.

The other all-Pac-10-caliber player has been 6-11 center Channing Frye, who has also taken his game to another level as of late. Frye started out a little tentative this season, but has steadily gotten more aggressive. Against the Bay Area schools he was exceptional, really being the difference in the post in his matchups against the big men from Cal and Stanford. He's far more confident in his offensive abilities now, not hesitating to shoot the 15-footer, and far more physically aggressive around the basket. And defensively, he's probably the best big man in the conference, with his long arms and quickness being tough to get around or over.

6-4 wing Hassan Adams has been providing his same services – fairly inconsistent offense but great athleticism, which has defensively limited many good opposing wings. He's also good for that big inspirational dunk sometime during each game.

Where Arizona has gotten an extra lift from lately has been guard Chris Rodgers. Rodgers has come off the bench to get 20+ minutes in Arizona's last three games. He's the guy that, while you're trying to keep track of the other three, will really hurt you. His outside shot is deadly and he's one of the quickest off the bounce in the league.

Sophomore point guard Mustafa Shakur, who had a poor first half of the season, has steadied himself, making less bad decisions, playing better defense and shooting the ball better.

Arizona has narrowed its rotation down to eight players, the five mentioned, along with starting forward Ivan Radenovic, freshman wing Jawann McClellan and sophomore center Kirk Walters. Lute Olson experimented for the first half of the season with various personnel, trying to find the guys who were ready to play and the best mix, and he seems to have settled in with these eight.

UCLA, to win, will have to do what it's been doing recently on defense. It's been playing well in the half-court, with Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins combining to play good post defense and UCLA's perimeter players showing more focus. It will also not be able to slack off in its transition defense, which has been critical in recent games, really helping the Bruins win in double digits against ASU and keep them in the game against Washington in Seattle.

Offensively, it's going to be a matter of handling that 1-3-1. Again, it's not as if UCLA doesn't get good looks when facing a zone, it just, for some reason, hasn't been able to hit its open shots against zones. Dijon Thompson has certainly been the biggest indicator as to how UCLA will play offensively. If he has a big night, and comes out shooting well, UCLA's offense gets on track for the game. In the Bay Area Breakdown weekend, Thompson disappeared, scoring just six points in each game. It's critical that UCLA gets Thompson a good touch on the ball during every offensive possession. Instead of early on when UCLA was insisting on getting its post player a touch, UCLA needs to make sure it gets Thompson a touch.

The Arizona of December and January you'd say UCLA would have a pretty good chance of beating Saturday. After all, the Bruins came within four points of beating them in Tucson, in a game where they led much of the way, and had a chance to win with a minute left, if not for a 25-foot game-winner by Stoudamire.

But the Arizona of the last three games has been particularly formidable. For UCLA to win, it would take a relapse for Arizona, to go back to playing its sloppy style with sporadic defense. And it would take UCLA's best game of the season.

A big, raucous crowd at Pauley Pavilion would certainly help also.

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