Arizona head coach Lute Olson is in his 23rd season at Arizona. In his previous 22 years, he has won the Pac-10 12 times and made the NCAA Tournament 20 consecutive seasons. He has been to the Final Four three times and has a National Championship to go with his 754 career victories in a long career that will surely catapult Olson into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
UCLA fans may not be aware of this, but Olson took over at Arizona following a couple of disastrous seasons under two different coaches. The Wildcats went 9-18 under Fred "The Fox" Snowden and 4-24 for a season under Ben Lindsey, who was fired after just that one season. Olson began to turn the program around almost immediately, but basically it was a 3-year process. His first year, Arizona went 8-10 in the Pac-10. The next year saw the team win 21 games and make the NIT. In his 3rd year, Olson's Wildcats won the Pac-10 and went to the NCAA Tournament (Apparently, Ben Howland isn't the only coach who builds programs on 3-year timetables). What Olson has done at Arizona, a place where you wouldn't assume there are natural factors that would overwhelmingly contribute to you building a national powerhouse in college basketball, is truly phenomenal.
But this season has been a struggle for both Coach Olson and his team. Wracked by selfish play from key seniors Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers, and lacking a consistent go-to guy in the paint, the Wildcats are in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years. A loss to the Bruins will effectively eliminate the Wildcats from the Pac-10 title race. With a tough road trip still ahead at Cal and Stanford and a not always easy road trip to the Oregon schools as well, it's easy to project Arizona finishing out 10-8 in conference and 17-12 overall.
Ben Howland is just in his 3rd year at UCLA, and like Coach Olson two decades ago, Howland is a man in a hurry. Without waiting to for his recruits to mature and become upperclassmen, he seems to be in a rush to win a Pac-10 title and make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament with a team ruled by sophomores and freshmen. But if UCLA is going to win its first Pac-10 crown in 9 years and signal a changing of the guard, it will have to start by beating the Wildcats at Pauley on Saturday.
The Bruins defeated Arizona 85-79 in Tucson, in a contest which will not go down in the history books for either team as a monument to defense or sharp play. The Arizona guards overplayed their men and passing lanes, trying to go for steals, and did force the Bruins into making 23 turnovers, which resulted in some easy baskets for the Wildcats at the other end of the floor. But UCLA's patient offensive scheme where everyone passes the ball to their teammates for a better shot (unlike Arizona, where virtually no one passes the ball to their teammates for a better shot) repeatedly burned Arizona for its gambling ways, and the Wildcats made 18 turnovers of their own. UCLA shot 68% from the floor as a team in the first half and 60.8% for the game. Arizona made 52.5% of its own shots, a figure that was somewhat inflated by the transition buckets scored off steals, but the Bruins didn't do much to slow down Arizona, the Wildcats did that themselves with all of the selfish play coming from Adams and Rodgers.
Chris Rodgers is no longer a member of the Arizona team, although one could argue that was the case all season. Coach Olson has often looked alternately bewildered and enraged on the sidelines watching his team play with Rodgers often dominating the ball in the set offense despite the fact that almost every shot he took was an NBA-range 3. In his absence, Arizona has gone 3-2, with home wins against tough Stanford and Cal teams, a road win at flailing ASU, a road loss to a young, but improving, USC team in which Arizona made 22 turnovers, and a road loss to a resurgent, freshmen-dominated North Carolina squad. Hyper-athlete Hassan Adams, 6-4 SR SF, has continued to lead the team in scoring (19.0 ppg), but his shot selection has improved now that he no longer seems to be playing a contest of one-upmanship with Rodgers. He scores mostly off drives, offensive put-backs and in transition. Look for UCLA to back off of him with Arron Afflalo and try to convince Adams to gun it from the outside. When Adams goes to the rack without the ball, looking for the lob or to post up for an offensive board, Arron will body him up. How the refs call that physical match up could be the key element to the game.
Mustafa Shakur, 6-3 JR PG, has been liberated to finally play the PG position fulltime for the first time in his career and his scoring (13.6 AR[After Rodgers]) and assist (5.8) averages have jumped dramatically, as has his A/TO ratio (1.5/1). Jordan Farmar will draw the assignment of keeping Shakur out of the lane and encouraging him to return to the days when he made too many unforced turnovers. Freshman Marcus Williams, 6-6 FR SG, and the recipient of many of Shakur's passes, has been scoring at a clip of 15.2 ppg AR and is challenging Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Jon Brockman for Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year honors. Ced Bozeman will try to use his long body and senior experience to deflate the young man's expectations and performance.
JR PF 6-9 Ivan Radenovic has been another beneficiary in the AR era, boosting his scoring average almost 4 points per game to 12.0, along with 7.4 rpg. Radenovic, despite his size, prefers to face up and shoot the mid-range J or even the 3 rather than posting up inside. His mobility and versatility gave Luc Richard Mbah A Moute fits in Tucson, but Luc Richard should be able to do the same to Radenovic at the other end of the floor. Kirk Walters, 6-10 JR C (6.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg AR) remains a foul-prone work in progress who has a good turnaround J close in to the basket, and he will bang on people. Together, he and Radenovic do little to hinder opposing teams in the lane when the Wildcats are playing defense. Both players are also turnover prone, but they did combine for 27 points and 11 rebounds against the Bruins in Tucson as Ben Howland chose to focus his defense on the Arizona guards and left his inside players to defend the AZ big men one on one.
The Arizona bench consists mainly of J.P. Prince, 6-6 FR PG/SG (3.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.0 apg AR), Fendi Onobun, 6-6 FR SF/PF (4.6 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Isaiah Fox, 6-9 SR C (3.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg AR). Prince is a long and lean player with diverse skills who has a chance to develop into a real player for this team by next year. Onobun is a bruiser with a decent mid-range shot and some real low-post skills. He was redshirting until Rodgers was dismissed from the team. The Bruins may not have a scouting report on him and he could have a big game, since he has the combination of skills, strength and mobility of a player like Jamaal Williams and bears close and physical guarding. Fox has had an injury-plagued career after coming out of Crossroads High School in Santa Monica. At 275 pounds, he presents Arizona with its only real inside power, but his lack of mobility and vertical lift limits his ability to block shots or cut off dribble penetration by guards and wings. In a pinch, Daniel Dillon, 6-3 SO SG, a good defender, and/or Mohammed Tangara, 6-9 FR PF/C, a raw post player, might see some action.
UCLA's lineup has also changed significantly since these two teams first met. Cedric Bozeman has taken the place of Josh Shipp at the SF spot and Ryan Hollins is playing the C position now that Lorenzo Mata has a broken leg. Shipp had the best game of his short season against the Wildcats, getting 14 points and 6 rebounds, and it's doubtful Ced will produce similar numbers. Mata also had a very good game, getting 9 points and 7 rebounds, and playing excellent help defense which enabled the Bruins to keep Adams and Shakur out of the lane most of the night (at the expense of allowing Radenovic and Walters a lot of high percentage shots).
Perhaps most importantly for UCLA, Arron Afflalo was electric in that game, going 9-12 from the field and 3-5 from 3 en route to 22 points. Arron hasn't been shooting straight ever since, so with Arizona looking improved after the punting of Rodgers and UCLA struggling with its offense, perhaps this game will have a much different outcome from the first time these teams met.
Yes, it no doubt will, but probably not in a good way for the Wildcats. Arron's shot might have returned Thursday night. More importantly, the Bruins have been playing lock-down defense of late, the ASU game notwithstanding, and Bozeman and Afflalo seem particularly well-suited to putting the clamps on Williams and Adams, the two big guns for Arizona. With Jordan Farmar finally playing at 100%, Shakur will find it hard to shake him or Darren Collison as he tries to penetrate into the lane. Farmar's turnovers have been falling off, and Arizona stands no chance of winning if they can't force at least 20 turnovers in this game. And the Wildcats are reaching Pauley just when Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Ryan Hollins seem to be playing their best basketball of the season. With Afflalo and Bozeman adding to the rebounding derby, the Bruins are beating teams on the boards and getting to the line. Mike Roll has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat and passer and a good defender off the bench. If either Alfred Aboya or Ryan Wright can give the Bruins some productive minutes off the bench, UCLA can show Arizona a combination of mobility and strength which was in short supply for this Bruin team earlier in the season.
In short, the Bruins generally are playing much better defense than the last time they played Arizona, and have also become harder to guard. While waiting to regain his J, Arron has diversified his offensive arsenal and has become tougher for opposing guards to track consistently, so he's still scoring points despite constant double-teaming in addition to being the best defensive player in the Pac-10. And defense, not offense, will likely be the key to this game, and UCLA is simply the better defensive team, by quite a margin. The Bruins should be able to get the ball inside to Luc and Ryan, and Jordan, Arron and Cedric can penetrate against the risk-taking Arizona guards and if they get into the lane, they will either draw fouls from the Arizona big men or get uncontested shots. It's easy to figure how UCLA will defend Arizona. It isn't entirely clear how the Wildcats will shut down the Bruins.
Most likely, this game will play out with the Bruins shutting down Arizona's offense and holding the Wildcats to 60 points or something in that neighborhood. If Afflalo and Roll are off on their 3s, it will be a close game and the Bruins will win it in the last few minutes with Jordan Farmar taking charge as usual. If Afflalo and Roll are on, this game might not be that close.
I see the shots falling at Pauley on Saturday in front of a sell-out crowd and some key recruits.
UCLA 72, Arizona 60.