However, just as this has become a pattern, so has UCLA playing better against more recognized teams, and there is no more recognized team in the West, outside of the Bruins, than Saturday's opponent, the Arizona Wildcats.
Arizona is coming to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday sporting a two-game losing streak. Now, it's not as if the Wildcats have lost to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their two losses have come at the hands of Oregon and USC, both of whom appear, as of right now, like teams that are capable of playing deep into March. The Wildcats will be desperate to avoid a third straight conference loss, one which will more than likely knock them out of the race for the conference regular season championship because it will put them three and a half games behind UCLA. So expect Arizona to give UCLA its best shot on Saturday. The Bruins better be prepared for a huge struggle.
If UCLA is able to win there is a strong possibility that Arizona's season may spiral downward quickly, as they have to play North Carolina next Saturday. That means that the Wildcats could be looking at six losses, (or more…Arizona State showed they will be a scrappy team on most nights), before the end of January. Marcus Williams, Arizona's starting forward, recently told a newspaper reporter that he was afraid of Arizona melting down like they did a season ago. So, Arizona has a great deal riding on this game.
The match-up of the Bruins and the Wildcats should come down to three facets. First, since Arizona mostly employs a zone defense and the Bruins have had trouble against zones this season, the question is how UCLA will handle that zone. Second, because of injuries and sickness, Arizona is not a deep team. Will the Bruins be able to wear down what really is a six-man team? Finally, there is the intensity factor. Arizona is a mentally fragile team. They do well as frontrunners, but the jury is still out on them when they face adversity. The Cats will inexorably start the game with a great deal of intensity. Whether they can sustain that intensity and whether the Bruins can match that intensity may be the game-deciding issue.
Quite frankly, in terms of individual talent, Arizona's starting five is probably better than UCLA's.
For the Cats this season, it all starts with senior point guard Mustafa Shakur, (6'3" 190 lbs.). The knock on Shakur is that he's never lived up to the hype he generated coming out of high school. His decision-making was constantly questioned, as was his heart. There were games in his first three seasons with the Wildcats where he simply wilted under pressure. There are even some that argue that he didn't wilt, but rather that he simply quit on his team when the going got tough. Regardless of which is true, neither applies to Shakur this season. He has developed into the floor leader that Coach Lute Olson envisioned him being when he recruited him. Shakur is one of two Wildcats who want the ball in crunch time. But he isn't being selfish about it. He is very much getting his teammates involved in the offense and is making the right passes at the right time. He is currently averaging 14.6 PPG, 7.6 APG and 4.4 RPG, all solid numbers. On top of those, he is shooting 54% from the floor and 40% from behind the arc. He is shooting 80% from the free throw line where he is leading the Wildcats in attempts. His quickness and length have enabled him to get into the lane with impunity this season and he hasn't been skittish about going into the paint. Against USC he was able to get into the lane almost at will and ended up at the charity stripe ten times. He's also playing smart on defense where he leads the team in steals with 26 and he is using his length to cause real problems on the top of Arizona's zone. But perhaps the most impressive stat that Shakur has right now is his 2.3-1 assist to turnover ratio. In short, Shakur is playing like a senior and is improving his NBA draft stock immeasurably. Shakur is going to be a match-up problem for the Bruins. Does Coach Ben Howland put Darren Collison on Shakur and hope that his quickness bothers Shakur? Or does Howland put Arron Afflalo on him as Afflalo's strength and size may bother Shakur more? Shakur is almost as quick as Collison and is longer; he can shoot over Collison. If Afflalo is used on Shakur then that means that Collison has to guard junior Jawann McClellan (6'4" 211 lbs.), and McClellan is a lot bigger and stronger than Collison.
If Shakur is a match-up problem for the Bruins then McClellan may not be. In short, if Afflalo is on McClellan for the majority of the game there is a good chance that Afflalo shuts him down. McClellan is built much like Afflalo and uses his strength more than any quickness he possesses. Generally, McClellan does well when faced with typical two-guards, but Afflalo is not a typical two-guard. McClellan averages 11.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG and is shooting 40% from behind the arc. His overall field goal percentage is only 45%, though, because he is more apt to go for a pull-up jumper than he is to drive to the basket. McClellan has not been playing well lately, only seeing 21 minutes against USC, and has only hit double figures once in the past four games. Because he missed last season it's as if McClellan is suffering through his sophomore slump right now. It's apparent that, on the floor, he looks down on himself when he misses his first one or two shots. As things have gotten tougher you can see him "pressing" more, and it is affecting his shot selection and his confidence. Because Afflalo has made much of his solid reputation on the defensive end of the floor, McClellan may be forced into a horrible game, which, if Olson sees that happening early in the game, may put McClellan on the bench quite a bit. If that happens then UCLA gets to switch Afflalo onto true freshman Chase Budinger (6'7" 205 lbs.) because of Arizona's lack of bench depth.
Budinger has already been hailed around Tucson as the "next" Sean Elliot. After Budinger's horrible performance against Oregon last weekend those comparisons have been put to rest, at least for the time being. Still, it's impossible not to see the talent that he has and why Howland recruited him so hard last year. He has an effortless jumper and fantastic jumping ability. But, much like McClellan, Budinger is a streaky shooter. If he gets going, look out, but if he misses his first few shots he tends to disappear, much like McClellan. Budinger is averaging 15.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG and is shooting 54% from the floor. He's also averaging 39% from behind the arc and he and McClellan lead the team in three-point attempts. Budinger also is second on the Cats with 185 field goal attempts, but amazingly he has been to the free throw line only 52 times, by far the lowest total of the starters. Obviously, Budinger will be a situational match-up depending on who Arizona has on the floor. For instance when senior Ivan Radenovic (6'10" 240 lbs.) is off the floor, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute may be matched on Budinger. But at least at the start of the contest expect Josh Shipp to be matched up on Budinger. While Budinger may have the size and hops to give Shipp trouble, this may be a match-up that is good for the Bruins. Budinger is in fact not very explosive nor does he move laterally very quickly. This means that Shipp could face guard Budinger, if necessary, without the worry that Budinger is going to blow by him to the basket. Depending on how Shipp's hamstring is doing, this match-up could go either way.
Radenovic is a match-up problem for the Bruins. In the three games against the Bruins last season the big Serb was the one player who had solid to very good outings in all three contests. Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright have had trouble with taller posts who could hit the open jumper or are very athletic, like Spencer Hawes and Taj Gibson. Radenovic is in that mold in that he can step outside to hit shots from behind the 3-point line. He is averaging 16.1 PPG on 52% shooting and 8 RPG. He is hitting 46% from behind the arc and is shooting an outstanding 90% from the free throw line. Radenovic has also become a pretty good passer, averaging 2.3 APG, good for second on the team. He has also showed a new toughness on the block this year, particularly with regard to defensive rebounding. He had 10 boards against USC. Finally, Radenovic has the ability to put the ball on the floor and is quicker than Mata. While Aboya can stay with him, he's giving up an awful lot of height to Radenovic, making the match-up a tough one. The advantage here has to be given to Radenovic.
The final starter on the Arizona roster is one of the best offensive players in the conference, sophomore Williams (6'7" 205 lbs.). Williams leads the Cats – and the Pac-10 -- in scoring at 18.5 PPG on 53% shooting, while second on the team in rebounding at 7.6 RPG. Of the starters, he's probably the least dangerous outside shooter, but his 33% from behind the arc is respectable and means that Luc can't simply let him float when he leaves the paint. Williams is very athletic, perhaps the most athletic ‘4' that the Bruins will see in the regular season. He is technically plying out of position, and should be a wing, but, much like the player he reminds me of, Dijon Thompson, Williams has made playing at the ‘4' work to his advantage. Typically Williams is too quick for bigger players to guard and too strong for an average wing to stay with. While the match-up with Shakur may decide the outcome of the game, the match-up with Williams isn't too far behind. Luc will have to bring his ‘A' game or Williams can and will take over the game. He is more than capable of carrying the Cats, as his 34 points against the Ducks proves. The one knock against Williams is that he can be petulant and as such play out of control. He is second on the team with 46 turnovers. Many of these can be attributed to the out of control dtives to the basket he employs when he gets frustrated or when he makes a foolish pass, which he can do with a certain degree of regularity. This is a match-up that is too close to call. If Luc brings his ‘A' game then it will be a long night for Williams. If not, then…
The bench for Olson really has become almost non-existent. Three players see time, junior guard Daniel Dillon (6'3" 203 lbs.), freshman point Nic Wise (5'9" 190 lbs.), and freshman forward Jordan Hill (6'9" 211 lbs.). Of the three, only Dillon sees double-digit minutes (averaging 11 MPG). He can be a three-point threat, but generally he's on the floor to spell some people or to take McClellan's place if McClellan isn't playing well (as evidenced by his 20 minutes against USC). Dillon did hit one three against the Trojans, but he is clearly the 5th option on offense when he is on the floor with four other starters. It will mean a lot to the Bruins if they can get one or two of the Cat starters in foul trouble and force Olson to play his bench for more than he is comfortable with. There is a significant drop-off from the starters to the bench.
As I stated earlier, this game comes down to three elements. Arizona will employ its zone because it helps to rest their players and it keeps them out of foul trouble, and also because many of its premier players – Williams and Budinger in particular – aren't great man defenders. Darren Collison will have to be more aggressive when attacking the Arizona zone because it does leave a lot of gaps to split. The Bruins will also have to move the ball into the post from time to time. Arizona's zone is particularly susceptible to the short corner pass, (the area half way between the three point line and the low block along the baseline). By placing Luc or Afflalo in that position in order to hit the mid-range jumper the Bruins will loosen up the defense in the middle and at the top.
The Bruins should be able to utilize their bench better than Arizona simply because the Bruins have better players coming off their bench. This isn't to say that Olson did a poor job of recruiting depth for his team. Two key players, center Kirk Walters and forward Bret Brielmaier, are out due to injury, etc., and both would be getting significant minutes, especially Walters. Brielmaier should be back later this year but Walters is out for the season. Having these two would make Arizona much more formidable as Brielmaier was playing well in his minutes on the floor. If UCLA can stay out of foul trouble and force Arizona into stupid fouls, then this game might be a blowout. If not, or the Bruins get in foul trouble, then Arizona could actually win by 10.
Finally there is the question of intensity. It's a good bet that Arizona will play as if it's backed into a corner, which essentially it is with Thursday's loss. Any thoughts of a regular-season conference crown really do hinge on this game. Plus, whether they want to admit it or not, UCLA is the Cats' biggest rival. So Arizona will come out fired up.
The question is whether or not the Bruins can match this intensity. Arizona's explosive players (Williams, etc.) can stake the Cats to an early big lead, much like ASU was able to do against UCLA's lackluster defense early in the 1st half on Thursday. Only Arizona will be tougher to come back against. As of right now I question the Bruins ability to play intense basketball for anywhere near 40 minutes. The last game that truly happened was against Washington (and it's turning out that Washington could be one of worst teams in the conference). Oregon and USC were both big games, and the Bruins came out flat and unfocused in both, which fits the pattern from earlier in the year. This Bruin team needs a real kick in the pants to play the kind of intense basketball they are capable of playing and I don't think the Oregon loss was it. I know that UCLA was probably looking ahead to Saturday when they played ASU, but you can't deny the pattern. If the Bruins play intensely and focused for most of the game, then this is a team match-up nightmare for the Wildcats. But if the Bruins come out mentally skittish again, then this becomes a match-up nightmare for the Bruins because the game will devolve into an Arizona player going 1-on-1 against his corresponding Bruin defender. Outside of Afflalo, I don't like the idea of that. The Bruins still need that wake-up call and I think this is where it happens.