UCLA moves into Tucson on Sunday for a 1 PM PST game against the Arizona Wildcats at the McKale Center. The game has huge implications for both the Bruins and the Wildcats. Depending on what happens on Saturday to Stanford, the Bruins may have a chance to clinch no worse than a tie for first place in the Pac-10. With Thursday's loss to USC, Arizona should be sweating, at least a little, with regard to their relative safety on the "right" side of the bubble come Selection Sunday. A victory over the Bruins would pretty much seal an NCAA Tournament berth for the Wildcats. A loss and Arizona is looking at the very real possibility of having to win at Oregon next week to feel justifiably relaxed with regard to having to perform in the Pac-10 Tournament.
There are two sets of question regarding this game. The first has to do with which teams will "show up" for this game; will the Bruins bring their ‘A' game, as they did when they embarrassed Arizona at Pauley Pavilion a few weeks ago, or will the Bruin just expect to show up and win because of that easy victory? Conversely, will Arizona show up and play like the proverbial wounded animal, or will they be so deflated from the loss to the Trojans that they will get crushed by the Bruins yet again?
The second set of questions really has only one topic: has UCLA clearly surpassed Arizona as the power team in the west? Tracy Pierson has made mention of the power shift having clearly happened, and I wrote as early as two seasons ago that the power shirt was happening, not only because of Coach Ben Howland's abilities at UCLA, but also because of the implosion that was happening at Arizona. There is no question that fans around the country, be they casual observers or hoop junkies, currently regard the Bruins as the "measuring stick," but is it a fleeting assessment that can be damaged by one loss to the Wildcats, or is it now embedded as a thought both regionally and nationally?
The more specific questions, regarding which teams will "show up," is the more intriguing question, at least for the day. The last time that the Bruins were playing in a game like this, they were about to play Washington in Seattle. At the time the Bruins were coming off of a big road victory over Washington State, while the Huskies had looked disinterested in a blowout loss at home against USC. The thinking was that UCLA would come in fired up and ready to dominate while the Huskies appeared ready to "pack it in" with regard to the season. We all know what happened as the Bruins looked lethargic and Washington played with a solid game plan and purpose. Presented with the same situation, I am not going to make the same mistake again.
Because the Wildcats are perceived as UCLA's"big" rival by many fans and by the players, expect the Bruins to come out fired up and ready to play. Howland is sure to have reiterated to the players that UCLA is only one game ahead of Stanford in the conference race and that the Bruins played in just this sort of scenario less than a month ago. Further, it's the Wildcats, and for the past two seasons plus this year's first meeting at Pauley, the Bruins seem to play at or near their best when they play Arizona.
The Wildcats should come out fired up, too. They know that their NCAA plans have been put in jeopardy because of the loss to USC and they should be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Coach Kevin O'Neill is sure to remind the Wildcats of the thumping they took at Pauley. Watching Arizona on Thursday against the Trojans, Arizona seemed to have played like a team that was looking one game ahead. That game is now here and they will play like their postseason lives and their pride will depend on a victory. In many ways they do depend on this game.
Expecting that both teams will bring a solid effort means that the game will come down to personnel and match-ups. This is where the Bruins will have a distinct advantage. UCLA already had a personnel advantage coming in before the Wildcats lost guard Nic Wise to injury. Without Wise, Arizona's ability to both run their offense and defend the Bruins in man defense is seriously compromised. O'Neill is an ardent believer in man-to-man defense and will undoubtedly play man most, if not all, of the game. O'Neill has started Jamelle Horne in Wise's place, giving Arizona a more traditional lin-up of a post, two forwards and two guards. When Horne doesn't play many minutes, forward Fendi Onobun has been the player taking his place. When O'Neill has gone to a three-guard line-up, he has used either Daniel Dillon or freshman Zane Johnson. The point is that if Arizona does use the traditional line-up, then the match-ups look like this; Jerryd Bayless on Darren Collison, Juwann McClellan on Russell Westbrook, Chase Budinger on Josh Shipp, Horne/Onobun on Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Jordan Hill on Kevin Love. If O'Neill goes small, then it means that Budinger has to shift over to Mbah a Moute and either Dillon or McClellan has to guard Shipp. These match-ups clearly favor UCLA, especially the Westbrook-versus-whoever match-up. The match-ups become more lopsided when looking at Arizona on offense. Jordan Hill can do some things against Love, but Budinger was locked up by Westbrook in L.A., Shipp can guard McClellan and the advantage that Mbah a Moute has against whomever he's on is huge. Then there's the bench: Arizona has Dillon, Onobun, Johnson and Kirk Walters. UCLA has Lorenzo Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya and James Keefe. While it's true that Arizona has more backcourt players, the overall talent and ability to play properly within a system squarely is a UCLA strength and an Arizona weakness. This is just a bad match-up for the Wildcats. On top of that, it appears that Love had his bad game against Oregon and Shipp is now coming out of his shooting slump. This is all bad news for Arizona.
In a more general sense, the feeling among many, both locally and nationally, is that UCLA has surpassed Arizona as a program. I had written that was happening over two years ago, long before many jumped on the Bruin bandwagon, or before many started jumping off Arizona's. I am not one of those that believe that Arizona is dead and buried as the "standard" of the Pac-10, but I believe that it's close. UCLA has defeated Arizona six straight games and they really haven't been that competitive. In fact, the games have gotten les competitive the past two years. Now the Bruins and the Wildcats sit on the precipice of the definitive transfer of power. Arizona has their backs up against the wall and with a loss to the Bruins there is the very real possibility that Arizona will miss the NCAA Tournament. If that happens, then the power transfer will be complete. When Ben Howland came to UCLA, Arizona was the true measure of success in the west and UCLA was about to have their 2nd straight losing season. Since then, the recruits have started looking at UCLA more than Arizona, the national media is talking more about the Bruins than the Wildcats and (here is where the real disparity has developed) the Bruins are on national television of some sort almost weekly. Arizona is not televised anywhere near the level of the Bruins.
The final piece of this is playing style. Howland's philosophy of a hard-nosed, defense-oriented team has struck a cord. Look at the top four teams in the Pac-10, UCLA, Wazzu, USC and Stanford; they all play solid defense and use their defenses to build their offenses. This wasn't the case two years ago when the Pac-10 was known as a soft, run-and-gun conference. The addition of O'Neill to Arizona has helped, but he's still playing with soft players. If the season were to end right now, the enduring vision of UCLA's season would be either one of Westbrook's thundering dunks or Love's rebound and put back against Southern Cal. Arizona's season would be summed up by Budinger getting out of the way of Love in the paint at Pauley. Will Arizona play to get rid of this "softness" issue, or will they be relegated to second-class status in the Pac-10 for the next few years? That's what this game could mean.
UCLA looks to be rounding into form, while Arizona is fighting for their postseason. That, plus the fact the game is at McKale, should make for a close, entertaining affair. However, the Bruins have advantages in match-ups and toughness, and that should be enough to transfer the power to L.A. for more than a little while and push Arizona to the brink of NCAA oblivion.