The Arizona Wildcats currently stand alone atop the Pac-10 standings, with one less loss than UCLA, USC, Oregon, Stanford and Cal. You don't have many margins for error in this league.
The key player for the Wildcats is 6-8 240 JR SF/PF Luke Walton. While Luke's overall averages for the season are "only" 15.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg (3rd in the Pac-10) and 5.9 apg (1st in the Pac-10), he's been averaging 17.7 ppg in conference games. Indeed, if you eliminate the two games in which Luke's PT and play were severely limited by a serious hamstring injury, he's been averaging 20.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 6.7 apg in conference play.
You'd have to go back 30 years to a guy named Bill to find a post player putting up similar numbers. If Arizona wins the Pac-10, Luke should be Pac-10 POY. He should also be named an All-American this season.
Luke does have weaknesses in his game, of course. He's a mediocre FT shooter (63.5%) and average 3-point shooter. Apart from that, you can only find strengths. He has a sweet J out to 17 feet and has a nice first step and the ability to blow by a defender with a dribble and then pull up for the 12-footer or, more often, draw the defense and kick the ball to an open teammate for an easy score. Indeed, it's Luke's up and under move that seems to set up most of Arizona's offense in the halfcourt, and I've often wondered what would happen if a defender played off of him and overplayed his right hand. I keep wondering that because I've never seen any team defend him that way. Except Florida, when Luke had 8 points. Hmmm…
The problem with playing off of Luke and conceding the outside shot is that you're also giving him too many clear passing lanes into the post. Of course, with a zone, maybe that's not an issue. He's the best passing big man in college bb, period. He's also a very tough rebounder and strong man defender. He's a lot quicker and athletic than he's often given credit for, and what he lacks in dazzling hops and speed he makes up for in fundamentals and sneaky maneuvers.
Jason Gardner, 5-10 180 JR PG (20.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.9 apg, 2.0 spg, 40.4% FGs, 78% FTs, 36.1% 3s), is also very important for the Wildcats, though Arizona has won some big game when Gardner hasn't played very well (like against UCLA in Tucson, when Gardner was 5-17 from the field). Gardner is cat-quick and can easily shake men with a head fake or dribble move and then pop the 3. He's good at coming off screens and hitting the catch and shoot J as well. He looks to push the ball in the open floor, but doesn't penetrate a lot in the halfcourt. He excels at playing the passing lanes and stripping people in the lane or out in the open court on double-teams when Arizona extends its defense, but he can be beaten one-on-one if isolated.
Channing Frye, 6-10 220 FR C (10.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 60.8% FGs, 80.3% FTs), has established himself as the leading candidate for Pac-10 FOY and as the 2nd best center in the conference. In Pac-10 play, Channing is averaging 13.9 ppg and 8.4 rpg while hitting 64.3% of his FGs. He torched UCLA for 19 points on 6-6 shooting from the field and 7-7 shooting from the FT line in Tucson, and how UCLA contains him in the rematch will be a key to the game. Channing is stronger than his slender body might suggest, and very athletic and agile, with good footwork and a gorgeous shooting touch inside of 15 feet. He can shoot both facing the basket and on a nice turnaround that he likes to launch from the left side of the basket much more so than the right.
Channing plays excellent help d, especially for a FR, but he can be muscled out of position and will commit cheap fouls trying to hold his ground against a bully under the boards. If you don't deny him the ball, you have to beat him up. I'm not being mean, I'm just following the Bill Walton Manual On Post Play in this regard…
Salim Stoudamire, 6-1 175 FR SG (12.5 ppg, 42.7% FGs, 94% FTs, 44.1% 3s), has been more consistent than Channing over the course of the entire season, though that might be more a function of PT than anything else. Still, I'm glad Salim is having such a good year, since he is one of the few guys where I made a lot of grandiose statements about him that most recruiting gurus didn't agree with and in this case I turned out to be right. Salim has been good for my ego…
Salim is a terrific stand-alone shooter who can shred opposing defenses when he spots up and waits for Luke or Jason to hit him with a pass after drawing defenders into them. He's probably a 50% shooter from 3 when he spots up. He's shooting 44% because he takes his share of wild 3s off the dribble as well, some of which miss the rim completely, so he can look very inconsistent when in fact he just makes a couple of bad decisions a game (he made more earlier in the season; now he's grown up and makes less mistakes, as is appropriate). He's a pretty solid straight up defender (better than Gardner) and also gets after people in the extended d. Sometimes he commits silly fouls, as befits a FR. This is one guy you don't want to put on the FT line.
Ricky Anderson, 6-9 215 JR SF/PF (12.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 51.4% FGs, 70.9% FTs, 38.5% 3s) has struggled a bit in Pac-10 play, more because of the emergence of Channing than for any other reason. Ricky is a versatile, active inside out forward whose long arms enable him to play like a 6-11 player. He has a very good J out to NBA range and can beat people with a first step or score off the jump hook inside. He's a good shotblocker and help defender who plays solid positional defense as well.
On the other hand, Ricky can go on foul streaks like Dan Gadzuric, picking up 2 transgressions in less than a minute. So, he often takes himself out of games for long stretches in one half or another. UCLA would like to help him help them in this regard. Ricky has had a very good season as a 4th or 5th option all year; it would be interesting to see what would happen if, say, Matt Barnes, were to slough off him to help out on Luke up top and Channing down low. Could Ricky beat UCLA (or anyone) all by himself? No…
Will Bynum, 5-10 185 FR PG/SG (6.9 ppg, 33.1% FGs, 64% FTs, 24.7% 3s), Isaiah Fox, 6-9 265 FR C (4.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 51.4% FGs, 56.4% FTs) and Dennis Latimore, 6-8 255 FR PF/C (1.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 36.2% FGs, 30% FTs) constitute the Wildcat bench (Andrew Zahn, 6-9 255 FR C, is more like a mascot at this point).
Bynum is a quick, strong player whose value outweighs his stats. He doesn't seem to do anything very well, except in spurts: He'll brick it for a whole game, then hit a key 3 right when the Wildcats are trying to make a comeback or bury an opponent at the end of a run. He'll be invisible on defense until he emerges from traffic with a key steal and then he'll convert it at the other end with the afterburners on his shoes. You don't do anything special with a player like this, you just hope his team isn't in a position for him to make a key play in the first place.
Isaiah is a big bruiser with soft hands, a great touch in the paint and the widest booty this side of the Mississippi. He and Latimore join Channing to give the Wildcats 15 fouls and plenty of rebounds under the basket. Latimore, the most highly-touted of the Arizona FR, has been the least productive and impressive by far. That tells you how much stock to put in recruiting experts like Tracy or me. Actually, I'm not a recruiting expert anymore, so blame Tracy and Greg for everything. But then again, if I remember correctly, Tracy and Greg actually were touting Isaiah Fox quite a bit last season. So maybe not in this case, but you can blame them for everything else...(UCLA does)...
Arizona made the incredibly stupid mistake (there's really no other way to describe it) of zoning the Bruins for nearly the entire first half at Tucson. Lute Olson might be a future Hall of Fame coach, but that was the single most obviously stupid game plan I've ever seen in my entire life. My guess is, if you asked Olson, he would either agree with me, or suggest that since the zone worked so well against USC, Florida, Maryland and Illinois, among others, why should he change it until he was forced to?
Not surprisingly, UCLA scored 58 points in the first half and led by 15. I don't recall the exact stats, but I assume UCLA hit more than 60% of its 3s in the first half and went 17-33 from 3 for the game.
With 13 minutes to go in the game and UCLA leading 73-53, Olson went with 3 guards, extended his defense and trapped, pressured and chased the slower Bruins all over the court, turning the UCLA team into a bunch of gibbering, panicked individuals without a clue. The Wildcats outscored the Bruins 43-13 in those final 13 minutes to close out a 96-86 win that might've been the turning point to both team's seasons. If UCLA had held that lead, they'd be in first right now with the most advantageous schedule left in the conference.
At Media Day on Tuesday, someone asked UCLA Head Coach Steve Lavin which UCLA team was the "real" team that night: The one that was up by 20, or the one that got outscored by 30 points in 13 minutes. The answer, of course, is neither. The first team was placed in a once in a lifetime situation by the once in a lifetime complete bungling displayed by a future Hall of Fame coach. The second team was a team with limited ballhandling skills and quickness playing without its emotional leader, Rico Hines, relying heavily on a FR PG making only his 2nd start after returning from knee surgery, and playing on the home floor of a team famous for going on 25-2 runs in its own gym (5 times this season).
What's going to happen in this game?
Well, I expect that Arizona will try to pressure the Bruins as much as possible. Every team in the conference, and even Villanova, has done the same ever since those last 13 minutes of the Tucson game. It's now SOP when you play the Bruins: Extend your defense, force them to lose 8-12 seconds before they can even initiate their 1-4 offense, force them to initiate their 1-4 offense farther from the basket, widening passing angles and making cuts and spacing less effective, and then wait for the Bruins to start turning it over as Matt Barnes loses the ball driving into the lane or Jason or Billy lose the ball by trying to dribble past their defenders one on one, or watch the Bruins force up bad shots as their efforts to break the pressure one on one only lead to efforts to score one on one as well.
How will the Bruins counter the pressure?
First, Ced Bozeman will be the primary ballhandler. In case no one's noticed, he has 20 assist and 5 turnovers in the last 4 games. When he's not handling it, Ryan Walcott will be. And Dijon Thompson will play more guard.
Second, Dan Gadzuric, Matt Barnes, TJ Cummings, Rico Hines and Andre Patterson are coming up high and going headhunting. It's going to be open season on any Wildcats trying to pressure the Bruins. The Bruin post players will move up high, towards the ballhandlers as they cross halfcourt, to flatten the defense and make picks more effective to enable dribble moves by Ced, Ryan and Dijon to become effective pressure releases. And then the Bruins are going to set some picks on people. The Bruins are going with motion sets in a speed game to beat the extended pressure.
And then Ced, Ryan and Dijon are going to take it to the rack and finish. That's how you beat pressure.
At least, that's the only way you can beat pressure like Arizona has. UCLA has been bringing their big men up higher for entry passes to initiate their sets, but that didn't even work well against Villanova. It's obvious that the coaches have to try something new. At least, it's obvious to us. If we can see it, the coaches can see it. We expect them to react accordingly.
On defense, UCLA will play its 1-2-2 matchup and hope that Salim and J Gardner don't beat them with NBA bombs. If someone is really hot, UCLA might tag them and play a box and one, but we expect to mainly see zone from the Bruins, just as Arizona can't possibly be stupid enough to do anything except fall back into a man once its pressure fails. The Bruins will try to do something to prevent Channing from getting the ball inside, and they will try to make Luke shoot more than he drives and passes.
I've received numerous requests that I pick Arizona to win, because I've done so badly in my prognosticating this season that some sort of reverse jinx must be working.
Prediction: UCLA 85, Arizona 78.