Now a much bigger challenge await: fourth-seeded Arizona. The Wildcats defeated Stanford by 5 on Thursday to set up a showdown in the conference semi-finals between what are really the PAC-10 conference's two marquee teams. How will the Bruins respond to the pressure of having to take down the Cats for the third time this season? And how will UCLA react to being the "hunted" against Arizona for the first time in many years?
This is the one match-up I was and continue to be most fearful of in the conference tournament. A young UCLA team with very little postseason experience must take on an Arizona team that is used to winning and, quite frankly, is now playing with a chip on its shoulder. The Cats looked relatively good in defeating Stanford Thursday, and when you consider that they did it without All-Conference forward Hassan Adams, you have to be a least a little impressed. Although Arizona trailed by a point at the break, I don't think anyone but diehard Cardinal fans could say that they felt the Wildcats were in trouble. Honestly, watching the game it just seemed like a matter of time before Arizona took over with a short spurt and closed the game out. I know Stanford was close late, but I never got the sense that they could catch and then pass the Wildcats.
The scary thing for the Bruins is that the Cats won with Marcus Williams only scoring 11 points. That's because junior post Ivan Radenovic scored 21 and junior point Mustafa Shakur chipped in 18. It's scary because when Radenovic is on, he becomes the one post in the league that Ryan Hollins has trouble guarding. It's scary because in the Bruins' two wins this year over Arizona, Arron Afflalo, and to a lesser extent Jordan Farmar, have been able to shut down Shakur. But he came into both of those contests playing poorly to begin with. On Thursday, Shakur added 6 assists and no turnovers to go with his 18 points. And Radenovic pulled down 7 boards. Senior Chris Rodgers played well, scoring 12 points and generally harassing the Stanford guards into 14 turnovers. Now I know that he didn't do this all himself, but although Stanford senior guard Chris Hernandez scored 20 points, he had 7 turnovers, and most of those were the result of the good defense displayed by Rodgers. Overall, Arizona forced Stanford into 23 turnovers compared with only 7 for the Cats. Stanford even out-shot the Wildcats 50% to 39% form the floor. Yet Arizona still won the game.
Now for the good news. Three Arizona players, Williams, Rado and Rodgers all played at least 35 hard minutes. Shakur played 28. In fact, other than former walk-on forward Brent Brielmaier (who played 25 minutes and scored 6 points), the Arizona bench played very little. In fact, the only guard to get decent minutes off the bench was sophomore Daniel Dillon, and he only played 11 minutes. So, what does this mean? The Wildcats will tire much more easily than the Bruins tonight, especially in the second half.
Arizona's offense should also contribute to them tiring. They start out in a 1-4 offense commonly, but when that breaks down their offense degrades into a one-on-one contest. First, Rodgers attempts his And-1 impression then, if he can't get off a shot, he flips it to Williams and he has his turn. If UCLA plays tough defense for the first 15 seconds of the shot clock, Arizona will move into the one-on-one portion of their offense, which is a great deal of activity without achievement, and bound to tire them even more. You can easily see how if Arizona gets frustrated with UCLA's defense, their offense could get ugly – or uglier – in the second half.
You can ask how the Wildcats beat Stanford when they were clearly out-shot and the Cardinal out-rebounded the Wildcats by 9. The answer, besides the turnover margin, is that Arizona made 13 more free throws than Stanford attempted. Since Stanford only made one more three-pointer than the Cats, Arizona obviously won this game at the line. This is good news. First of all, UCLA plays better defense than the Cardinal and Arizona so Arizona shouldn't get to the line that much. Secondly, the Bruins do a much better job of getting to the line than does Stanford, so you can expect UCLA to shoot more than 11 foul shots. Finally, even when Arizona gets to the line, especially in the second half, expect them not to be able to shoot 80% from the line as a team. As their legs tire, especially Rado, who made 9-10 free throws, they'll start coming up short on their free throw shots, or shooting them more with their arms than their legs.
One can argue that it's not the first game where you show your fatigue from the game the day before, but rather the next day. I don't think that's going to happen on Friday. The Bruins do a great job of jamming cutters and physically bodying up on opposing post players so that they wear down as a game goes on. My guess is that Arizona will look visibly fatigued with about 5 minutes to go in Friday's game. But there is a catch.
Junior post Kirk Walters only played 11 minutes for the Cats. He'll be fresh. Shakur played 28 minutes, but that isn't much right now. He should be good to go. But the Bruins may be missing Cedric Bozeman because of a sprained left ankle. Bozeman was interviewed after the game and told reporters that he thought he'd be fine to go on Friday, but what if he can't? His absence will give the Wildcats, especially Williams the chance to go at either Mike Roll or Arron Afflalo. That would tire out both Bruin shooters. A big key for the game will be whether or not Bozeman can play. If he can, even at about 80-90%, the Bruins should win fairly comfortably. If he can't go, then expect a dogfight.
Assuming Bozeman plays, here's how the game should go. Expect Arizona to come out fired up. That's not to say that the Bruins won't be ready to go, I can see Arizona opening the game with an early lead. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the Wildcats led by something like 7 or 8 points at the break. But then expect the Bruins to begin to wear down the Wildcats. With about 8 or 9 minutes left, the Bruins should be in front and then slowly pull away for the victory.
Arizona is a scary team right now. Coach Lute Olson, I'm sure, has his kids buying into an us-versus-the-world mentality. I felt really good about my game prediction for the OSU game. This one I am not so sure about. The best things, though, are always saved for last. When you are a good defensive team you can generally say that the outcome of a game depends on how you play. The Bruins are that team, and the outcome will depend on which Bruin team shows up on Friday. Expect the "good" Bruins to be in the Staples Center tonight.