Arizona is probably playing its best ball of the season, and it's doing it when it needs to – in February and, hopefully for the Wildcat faithful, in March. After experimenting around with the personnel for the first half of the season, out of necessity, interim head coach Kevin O'Neill seems more or less set now on his rotation, and the continuity has helped the Wildcats improve.
In the last couple of years, Arizona has been a good match-up for UCLA. The disciplined and deliberate Bruins of the last couple of years fared well against less-disciplined teams that didn't play great defense, which the Wildcats have been recently. UCLA has won the last five meetings, and they've done it pretty convincingly in the last several games.
This season, however, Arizona might be a bit different. They've gotten rid of some of their chemistry killers, and under O'Neill they're far more careful with the ball and playing better defense. They tend to have less lapses and breakdowns compared to the Arizona teams we've seen in the last couple of years.
They also play a style that UCLA has tended to struggle with a bit this season – offensively spreading the offense and using one-on-one dribble penetration or ball screens to initiate their offense and free up their shooters.
But while Arizona might be better disciplined and playing better defense, they don't have the talent of past Arizona teams. The Wildcats of the late 1990s and early 2000s were loaded, but this team isn't. They are still talented, and are one of the most talented teams in the conference, but they're not close to where they were when they were consistently a threat to go to the Final Four every season five to 10 years ago.
They do have two easy NBA-level players in sophomore Chase Budinger (6-7, 205) and freshman Jerryd Bayless (6-3, 193). Budinger is making a clear case to be on the all Pac-10 first team, averaging 18.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He could be the best catch-and-shoot guy in the league; when he's squared and in rhythm, it's in the bank, shooting 40% from three. He's very good at hunting his shot, using the staggered screens the Wildcat employ to get enough space to get off his shot. He's also a very good passer. Defensively, you have to shadow him closely, don't let him get loose and get right up in him since he still isn't great at scoring off dribble penetration. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will get that defensive assignment, and it will be a key match-up in determining the outcome of the game. UCLA needs Mbah a Moute to put all of his effort into defending Budinger, not really needing his offense in this one to win.
The key, really, to Arizona's surge has been Bayless. The Wildcats are 14-3 with Bayless and 2-3 without him. Since his return from injury, Arizona has lost just one game – to a very good Stanford team in Palo Alto. With Bayless, Budinger doesn't have to carry the team himself, he doesn't force his offense and sees far more open looks. Bayless is a very good scorer, a very consistent shooter with a quick release and great height on his jumper. He also is pretty explosive off the dribble. UCLA, though, has Russell Westbrook to guard him – which should be another monumental match-up.
The Wildcats have gone big to start games recently, going with freshman Jamelle Horne (6-6, 205) as a starter in three of the last four games. O'Neill, ostensibly, uses Horne to match up against bigger, slower teams, and Horne has decent quicks for his size. He, though, doesn't offer much in the way of offense, having not scored in his last three games, getting an average of just over 7 minutes a game in his last four games. Horne has quickly been pulled for Arizona's sophomore point guard Nic Wise (5-9, 170), and you'd have to think that O'Neill will abandon his gimmick quickly against UCLA, too. Wise's development has been critical to Bayless's effectiveness. When Bayless has to shoulder point guard duties he's not near as good. With Wise holding down the point guard spot, Bayless is far more instinctual and effective. You have to give Wise credit; in the off-season he dropped 20 pounds from his stocky body and it has definitely helped his play. He's not an immensely talented player, but he has learned his role, to distribute the ball, hit the occasional open three-pointer, which he can do, and play defense. He's learned to take care of the ball, not turning it over like he did last season, with a good 1.93 assist-to-turnover ratio. Darren Collison, though, is quicker than Bayless, so he should be able to stay with him and not allow him to penetrate and kick.
Senior Jawann McClellan (6-4, 211) is the starter at the small forward position, and he's having a solid senior season. Limited by injuries over the years and, perhaps, too high of expectations, McClellan has grown into the reliable workhorse for the Wildcats. He's averaging an astounding 35 minutes per game, having just played 40 minutes against USC on Thursday. He, in fact, had the best game of his season against the Trojans, scoring 23 points, pulling down 8 rebounds and hitting three of five three-point attempts. He's a very streaky shooter, sometimes going on very long cold streaks, but when he can give the Wildcats that third perimeter scoring option they become a dangerous offensive team. He's not great off the dribble, so it's a good match-up for Josh Shipp.
Inside, Arizona has sophomore Jordan Hill (6-9, 211), who is a talented, mobile, but pretty thin post. Hill has good quicks around the basket and is explosive off the floor, averaging 13.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. His offensive production has fallen off a bit since the re-emergence of Bayless, with Arizona becoming a somewhat more perimeter-oriented offensive team. Hill is an exclusively inside player, with really no face-up game or ability to take his man away from the basket, which makes him a good match-up for Kevin Love. Love outweights him by probably 60 pounds and, if Love doesn't have to step out to honor Hill's shot, he'll camp out underneath the basket, hold his position and wait for UCLA's ubiquitous double team to pressure Hill.
Lorenzo Mata-Real's x-rays on his wrist came back negative, but he's still questionable for Saturday. Even without him, UCLA is still much deeper on its front court, able to go with Alfred Aboya or James Keefe to body up on Hill.
Really, though, after Hill, McClellan, Budinger, Bayless and Wise, the Wildcats don't have much. Those five are averaging 32 minutes per game, with McClellan, Budinger and Bayless three among the top six players in the conference in terms of minutes played. Against USC, no other Wildcat made it to double digits in terms of minutes.
In other words, you'd have to think these guys are prone to fatigue, which isn't a great thing when you're facing UCLA, known for physically wearing you down.
Also, O'Neill is old school like Ben Howland, playing almost exclusively a man-to-man defense. It's helped to shore up Arizona's D this season, but when you only really are playing five guys it also can tire you out.
It also can get you into foul trouble, and you'd have to think that UCLA will try to get Love as many touches as possible to potentially get Hill some fouls, which he's a bit prone to do anyway.
When Hill traditionally gets in foul trouble, they've gone to Bret Brielmaier (6-6, 237) to hold down the post, muscle some guys and give out a few fouls. Brielmaier, however, has been injured and his status is uncertain (he didn't play Thursday against USC). Junior Fendi Onobun (6-6, 239) and senior Kirk Walters (6-11, 254) get some minutes, and you might see Walters get more against UCLA to give Hill a breather against Love and to keep Hill out of foul trouble.
Senior guard Daniel Dillon (6-3, 203), who O'Neill uses to provide a defensive boost, has seen his minutes diminish in Pac-10 play.
It's almost as if O'Neill has done his personnel experimenting and he only trusts those five guys, essentially, at this point.
It will be interesting to see if UCLA can execute its set offense as well as it did its zone offense Thursday against Arizona State. After that performance, you're almost wary of UCLA going back to playing against a man defense. If Hill gets worn down against Love, or in foul trouble, UCLA's offense could be too much for Arizona to keep up with.
Generally UCLA matches up well against Arizona defensively, especially since the Wildcats don't have the talent they used to have for putting the ball on the floor. Arizona has become a perimeter shooting team, with Bayless and Budinger, and it will be a matter of whether UCLA will be focused in not allowing them a lot of room to get off their shot. Arizona, when it goes two players combined to score over 40 points, they generally win. So, if UCLA can take out one of Bayless and Budinger, they'll have a good chance. UCLA has consistently kept their opponents' high scorers below his seasonal average.
Among Arizona's 6 losses, 4 have been on the road. In Pauley Pavilion, on the road, with five guys playing the bulk of their minutes, going up against the physical Bruins, without the talent they used to have, the Wildcats shouldn't ultimately be able to keep up. It could be close until for a while, but UCLA should pull away.