It's definitely been an up-and-down season for the Wildcats. Every time they look like they might be putting it together and play decent basketball, they suffer a considerable setback – or setbacks. They started Pac-10 play 2-5, with those two wins coming against the Oregon schools at home, and there was some thought that they were starting their downward spiral toward the end of the season. But they have new life – again – and they got a big victory against USC last night in Tucson, 83-76. It moves Arizona ahead of USC in the Pac-10 standings by a half game and gives them an argument to be taken for the NCAA tournament over the Trojans.
What the Wildcats having been doing differently is scoring. In their first seven conference games they averaged 59 points per game, and 79 points in their their last five. They scored 83 points against the Trojans Thursday, which is tied for the most scored against USC this season. The Wildcats in that game shot 59% from the field and 60% from three, against a team, USC, that has a field goal percentage defense for the season of 39% and 33% from three. In their last five conference games, Arizona is shooting 51% from the field and 47% from three.
Chase Budinger has been a big reason for the offensive burst. He's averaging 22 points per game in the last five games, and that hasn't been taking any more shots per game than he did earlier in the season. He's just hot, from three and just about everywhere else. He looks quite a bit more comfortable shooting the ball lately than he did before, and he's aggressively hunting his shots.
Kyle Fogg, the 6-2 freshman guard, is starting to come on offensively, too. Averaging just 6.4 points per game on the season, he's scored in double figures in four of the last six games. He's hit 12 of 20 three-pointers in the last six games, while he had gone 3 of 17 for the entire season before that. He had a breakout game against Houston January 24th and he's been feeling it ever since, having gained confidence in his outside shot. The Wildcats now are looking for him on the perimeter, and he's become a very potent second option on the wing after Budinger.
Then there's point guard Nic Wise, who has had two of the biggest games of his career in the last five games. He went off for 29 against Houston and then 27 last night against USC. He's lighting it up from three, and he, Budinger and Fogg have been a lethal, three-point combination.
The three of them are shooting for a combined 49% from three in the last six games.
Wise is still out of control at times, but he's playing with intensity and effort, and really pushing the Wildcats in transition.
Center Jordan Hill, who is still thought not to be 100% because of nagging injuries, is still a major force inside.
Sophomore wing Zane Johnson has established himself as a starter during Arizona's little streak, and it's helped to stabilize the team offensively. He's a good shooter, but also better at executing on the offensive side, doing the little things that make an offense flow, rather than former starter Jamelle Horne.
You could make a case that Arizona has made this mini-run beating Houston, Washington and Washington State at home, the Oregon schools on the road, and thnen USC at home.
But then again, they'll be facing UCLA at home. Arizona is 15-2 at home, and UCLA is 6-4 outside of Pauley Pavilion.
And if you're looking at out-of-conference wins from Pac-10 schools, Arizona might have the biggest this season, having beaten Kansas in McKale back in late December.
Arizona definitely hasn't staged this mini-turnaround by playing better defense, however. They are still mostly playing zone, and a soft zone at that. They are truly trying to out-score their opponent, so that hasn't changed much in the Arizona program.
How UCLA responds to its disappointing loss to Arizona State Thursday will greatly affect how they do in Tucson. The Bruins generally, on one hand, bounce back fairly well after a loss, and tend to improve from losses like the one against ASU. On the other hand, UCLA traditionally under Howland isn't nearly as good in the second game of the weekend, when Howland has less time to prepare. But Arizona isn't exactly doing anything differently than they ever have.
Arizona has almost no bench. Horne got 21 minutes against USC, but then Fendi Onobun, Brendon Lavendar and Alex Jacobson combined for 7. Budinger played 40 minutes, Hill and Wise 39 each and Fogg 34. So, you'd like to think that fatigue could be a factor, but you would als0 think the Wildcats would be able to play 40 minutes against UCLA in McKale on adrenalin alone. Especially since, if they beat UCLA, it probably clinches a berth for them in the NCAA tournament, barring any complete meltdown for the remainder of the season.
Perhaps UCLA's best defensive strategy going into this game was one they potentially learned in their loss to ASU. Maybe they should let Budinger (Harden) basically get his points, and not let the combined Wise, Fogg or Hill (Glasser, Abbott or Kuksiks) beat you. Collison shut down Wise in the first meeting, holding him to five points on 1-of-8 shooting, and it's critical that he do it again in this one.
Arizona definitely likes to spread the court, wait for the defense to over-play and then find the open man. UCLA will have to do quite a bit better on its defensive rotations than it did against ASU.
With how poor Arizona's defense is, and how seemingly soft the Wildcat zone should feel after facing ASU's, you would think UCLA will get enough points to win. It will be up to UCLA's defense to hold down Arizona's offense.
We said in our review that we'd take Howland against any athletic, run-and-gun, undisciplined team in the country, so we're going to stick with that statement.