The Wildcat program is definitely in an interesting state, after the retirement of Lute Olson, an interim coach taking over for the season, recruits having jumped ship, and the current team trying to keep it together.
You always have to feel a little bit of sympathy for players who happen to get caught in an extreme transitional phase of a program.
But then again, it wasn't like you couldn't have foreseen it.
But that's another story. This one is about the challenge and match-ups this Arizona team presents for UCLA on Thursday.
Make no mistake, the 11-5 Wildcats are dangerous. They've had a couple of big wins (Gonzaga, Kansas) and, on one hand, there aren't a lot of expectations for the season and they could get in a nothing-to-lose mindset, which sometimes can allow you to play loose and better.
They certainly will be motivated to beat the Bruins. A win would be a significant boost to their morale during an otherwise tumultuous time.
The issue with Arizona, though, is a lack talent depth, and trying to adapt to a third new system in three years under interim coach Russ Pennell. And then there is also a matter of motivation. Sometimes this season the Wildcats have looked like they wanted to simply be any other place than on a basketball court.
The team's biggest asset is easily junior post Jordan Hill (6-9, 230). If Arizona were one of the premier teams in the country, Hill would be getting some All-American hype, averaging a double-double of 17.8 points and 12 rebounds, as well as 2.3 blocks per game. He is a force inside, with great mobility and hops, to go along with a nice post game that's developed over the last couple of years. He's very quick to a rebound, and quite a bit stronger than he looks. And he's doing all this being nicked up, and with no real back-up, and a penchant for foul trouble.
Junior forward Chase Budinger (6-7, 218) has had an up and down season so far, going through some mini-slumps where he hasn't scored much, missed quite a few shots and generally has played with little energy. He's still averaging 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3 assists per game for the season, and he put together a couple of good games last weekend against the Oregon schools at home, where he averaged 22 points. Where he's consistently been slumping is in shooting the three; even though he's shooting a very good 43% for the season, he's 6 for 30 (20%) in his last seven games.
Budinger started the season with some fire – in his first five games averaging 23 points per game. In his first seven games he shot a staggering 62% from three. The Wildcats started 7-2, beating then-top-ten Gonzaga, and there was some talk in Tucson that the Wildcats would be able to overcome all of the issues and put together a solid season. Arizona lost to UNLV, but then beat Kansas, but since have gone 3-2, losing to Cal and Stanford on the road to start the Pac-10. With the wheels starting to come off the season a bit, Budinger's effort level has waned. He's not a player who plays with a high level of intensity to begin with, and then he looked, at times, like he was literally dragging himself around the court. The focus on his jumper was obviously off, and he started turning over the ball.
At home this last weekend, Budinger looked better, and more focused, with only one turnover in two games.
The issue with Budinger, since high school, has been his lack of consistent effort and heart – and also the fact that he was branded such a great "athlete" because he has exceptional jumping ability Being athletic, though, also includes – more importantly, in fact -- having good lateral quickness, which Budinger doesn't have.
The third spoke in the wheel for the Wildcats is junior point guard Nic Wise (5-9, 177), who is trying to keep it all together while fighting off some nagging injuries. Wise averages 13.6 points and 4.9 assists per game, with a good assist-to-turnover ratio, while shooting 41% from three. He's been solid for the most part; at times, he'll over-penetrate and take a bad shot, but he's mostly Arizona's calming force.
After that triumvirate, there is a talent drop-off.
Sophomore forward Jamelle Horne (6-6, 209), though, has been playing much better since mid-December, as he's gotten comfortable as a starter. On the season he's averaging 8 points per game on the season, but has scored in double figures in four of the last six games. He's become more selective in his shots, taking those he's confident he can make, like a baseline pull-up jumper. He's still pretty raw, and can turn the ball over when he puts it on the floor too much and can also get into foul trouble.
Freshman guard Kyle Fogg (6-2, 175) has taken ownership of the fifth starting spot and, just as we wrote when we saw him as an unsigned senior at Brea-Olinda High, he has some considerable upside. He's a nice athlete, with good quickness, but is still developing his jumper, scoring just 5.3 points per game and shooting just 23% from three, which has hurt Arizona's backcourt scoring. Pennell will use him for his defensive quickness, even though he's prone to gambling and making mistakes.
Recently, in the last couple of games, sophomore Zane Johnson (6-5, 205) has taken more of Fogg's minutes, to try to get Arizona some more scoring punch from the outside, and it's helped, to a degree. Johnson is kind of the Arizona poor-man's version of Mike Roll – a good shooter (but not the caliber of Roll) that the Wildcats use to stretch defenses. Johnson has asserted himself more in recent games, putting the ball on floor and going to the basket, to mixed results. He's not great at creating a shot and needs some time to get it off. He's shooting 37% from three on the season, but in his last five games, with defenses now guarding him closely, he's 3 for 15 (20%).
After those six players, there are guys sitting on the bench, but they don't take off their warm-ups much.
Guard Garland Judkins (6-3, 195) has had a bit of a weird freshman season so far. He began the season as a starter, had some moments, but struggled as most freshmen would. He was then suspended for disciplinary reasons – a couple of times – and hasn't regained his starting spot. The last suspension was Saturday in Arizona's game against Oregon State, and it was done at the last minute, so it's uncertain if he'll be available for the UCLA game. Pennell called him "day-to-day." Even if he is, Pennell probably won't use him much.
Without many options, Pennell has gone to freshman Brendon Lavender (6-3, 205) a bit lately. Lavender, though, at this point is just a body to give the starters a short break.
As with USC Sunday, Arizona has a problem in terms of the amount of minutes its starters are logging. Wise and Budinger are over 35 minutes per game and Hill is at 33, which is quite a bit for a big man. The biggest challenge is with Hill, since he's still a bit hampered by his knee and back injuries, and can get into foul trouble, but Pennell really dosn't other options. Freshman center Alex Jacobson (6-11, 253) will get 3 to 5 minutes, but Pennell will go mostly small instead, playing Horne, Budinger and Johnson at the same time. In tight games, Pennell has tightened his subbing, so you can expect Arizona to utilize just seven guys Thursday, and that leads to fatigue for the starters, which we saw was such a factor for USC when it played UCLA.
Pennell has no back-up point guard either, so in the couple of minutes he takes Wise out to give him a rest, Budinger and Johnson have primarily been the ball handlers.
It's a bit interesting, then, that Arizona likes to press, mostly in the 3/4 court. You would think they wouldn't want to 1) get their players even more fatigued and 2) risk them getting into foul trouble.
But perhaps Pennell believes it's his only way to slow up opposing offenses. His zone defense is generally pretty porous. When Johnson's on the floor, Wise is the only perimeter guy who can stay in front of his man, and he's at a disadvantage because of his size. Opposing teams with quick guys who can penetrate have been successful against Arizona's zone.
Offensively, Arizona still runs a motion, one that looks to be initiated like a 1-4 most of the time, with a series of low-post screens to try to free up shooters and get Hill to then roll off it. They are similar to recent Arizona teams in the fact that they don't get many points off assists, relying quite a bit on their players going one-on-one.
The Alfred Aboya/Jordan Hill match-up is a good one. Expect UCLA to double Hill when he catches the ball. The Bruins will probably make a concerted effort to dump the ball down low to Aboya on offense, to try to get Hill in foul trouble.
The Wildcats should be pretty fired up Thursday in Pauley, looking at a potential upset of UCLA as a season booster. UCLA has won seven straight against Arizona, but don't expect them to be over-confident, with UCLA getting fired up after reading comments from Wise about beating UCLA at Pauley this season in a recent newspaper article.
Arizona's depth and fatigue will probably be a factor. It, though, could end up being that Arizona stays in it Thursday night, but the Bruins tire out the Wildcats enough for them to get blown out by USC on Saturday.