The Bruins are coming off a 72-70 victory over Arizona State, one that the Bruins made much closer than it needed to be while the Wildcats are coming off a 56-50 loss at USC, one that was not as close as the score indicates. Both teams enter the contest with a record of 6-7 so this game is big for both teams. For the Bruins, a win could catapult them to bigger things as the season progresses while a loss could be terribly disheartening for a young team, especially because it would take place at home. For the Wildcats a win would stop what has been a streak of poor form over the past several weeks while a loss could snowball them into a train wreck of a season as they would start the conference season 0-2. Games between the Bruins and the Wildcats have always been big over the past decade but this game might be one of the biggest. There hasn't been a game between these two programs the past two decades where both teams came in with such mediocre seasons. This game has the potential to be a huge turning point, good or bad, for both programs in the short and long term.
After the performance against Arizona State, the same question remains as it has all season, namely: which UCLA team will show up against the Wildcats, the focused team of the first half of the Arizona State game or the unfocused, tentative bunch that almost handed ASU a victory?
As I wrote in the preview of the ASU game, the Sun Devils, who are probably a better team than Arizona, were a good match-up for the Bruins. They don't play a defense predicated on ball pressure and this allowed Jerime Anderson to play to his strengths, which he did with aplomb. Anderson played probably his most complete game of the year, scoring just enough to keep the defense honest when ASU went to a man defense, making some smart passes and playing solid defense for the majority of the game. Tracy Pierson has made the point that UCLA's season really comes down, in many ways, to how Anderson plays and when he plays with confidence the Bruins can play quite well at both ends of the floor.
Arizona, however, will present a new challenge for Coach Ben Howland's Bruins, particularly for Anderson. First-year coach Sean Miller is a big believer in ball pressure, man-to-man defense and that all starts with his senior point guard Nic Wise (5'10" 180 lbs.). Wise is one of only two Wildcats who could honestly play for every other team in the Pac-10. The quality that makes Wise so dangerous in this game is not his ability to get to the rim, nor his ability to hit some big outside shots, both of which he is fully capable of doing, but rather his potential to shut down Anderson because of his quickness and ball pressure. Wise has been solid to very good this year on defense and he could really disrupt the Bruins at the point of attack. Anderson will more than likely not be matched up on Wise on the defensive end because of the emergence of Malcolm Lee as a shut-down defender. It was truly remarkable to see Lee so neutralize ASU's senior point guard Derek Glasser that ASU coach Herb Sendek essentially benched Glasser for a large portion of the second half. ASU's comeback from a 16-point deficit happened without Glasser on the floor and that was due to Lee's essentially suffocating defense. Lee's length and size bothered Glasser and prevented him from getting to the rim (when the Bruins were in a man defense), and Glasser was only able to get to the basket late, with one exception, because Lee switched off of him. Lee will certainly cause Wise some issues but that may not mean much if Wise can get into Anderson's head.
The other All Pac-10 level player for the Wildcats is freshman forward Derrick Williams (6'8" 235 lbs.). Williams is a low-post force for the Wildcats and the match-up he'll have against Reeves Nelson will be one to watch. Williams is second on the team in scoring at 15 PPG and in rebounding at 6.5 RPG. He was the only Wildcat to step up in the loss to USC, getting to the free-throw line 12 times, hitting 11 of those attempts. He has been to the charity stripe a whopping 106 times on the season, although even with last night's effort he's only connecting on 66% of his free throws. Williams is a match-up nightmare because of his bull-in-a-china-shop style. However, he has had some trouble going up against similar physical players and he's going to see one in Nelson. UCLA will also have the added advantage of throwing a lot of bodies at Williams, including James Keefe, who looked good in limited action against ASU, and J'mison Morgan. Miller doesn't have that kind of depth with his Wildcats. If Wise or Williams get into any kind of foul trouble then the Wildcats will find themselves in real difficulty.
The other Arizona frontcourt player is junior Jamelle Horne (6'7" 215 lbs.). He leads the team in rebounding with more than 7 RPG and he's scoring in double figures. Hill is an inside/out player with the ability to hit the ‘3' where he's taken roughly half his shots this season. The strength of Horne, though, is his ability to be the team's "garbage man," and beenefits from teams focusing on Williams. He has gotten good at finding seams in the defense and taking advantage of the opposition's inability to box out to go get rebounds. Nikola Dragovic will have to play a focused game against him and when the Bruins do play zone, if they do, then special attention will have to be played to weakside rebounding because of Horne.
Freshman Solomon Hill (6'6" 230 lbs.) is going to start on the wing. He is bigger and stronger than Mike Roll but Roll will have to be matched-up on him because of the necessity of putting Lee on Wise. Hill has been solid, averaging 8.8 PPG and 4.3 RPG in more minutes per game than Williams. Hill is a match-up that might require Howland to play Tyler Honeycutt major minutes to offset Hill's physical advantages over Roll; Honeycutt is longer and quicker than Hill and even though Hill is a big body he is bothered by length. Hill's big contribution for the Wildcats this season, though, has been on the defensive end where he is probably the most versatile of the Wildcats. He is capable of guarding three different spots on the floor. Case in point: when Williams is on the bench it is Hill that generally moves into the low post on defense.
The final starter is sophomore Kyle Fogg (6'3" 185 lbs.), an outside shooting threat who starts because Miller really doesn't have anyone better to take his place. Fogg is a dangerous outside threat, as evidenced by his 51% shooting from beyond the arc, but he absolutely cannot create his own shot. Even when screens are set for him he isn't athletic enough to always take advantage of those screens. He is essentially a poor man's Roll, without the passing ability. Fogg's presence on the court has at times forced Miller to go to a zone defense to mask his defensive shortcomings. More than likely Anderson will be matched up on Fogg. As long as Anderson fights through screens like he did the majority of the game against ASU he should be able to neutralize Fogg.
If fans thought the Bruins were young, then the Wildcats are practically infants. Miller starts two freshmen and a sophomore, but it's his bench that makes his Wildcats particularly young. Miller brings four players off the bench -- a sophomore and three freshmen. That gives the Wildcats two sophomores and five freshmen in their nine-man rotation.
Freshman post Kyryl Natyazhko (6'10" 255 lbs.), from the Ukraine, gives Miller some depth in the post but he is very limited athletically, so much so that UCLA's Morgan would look positively quick next to him. Freshman wing Kevin Parrom (6'6" 205 lbs.) has recently broken into the rotation primarily because of his abilities on the defensive end and his athleticism. Freshman guard Lamont Jones (6'0" 200 lbs.) gives depth to the backcourt but he's been a turnover machine is some games. Finally, sophomore Brendon Lavender (6'5" 205 lbs.) plays over 20 MPG although he only played 3 minutes against the Trojans. He is almost strictly an outside shooter (31 of 43 attempts from the floor have been from beyond the arc), where he hasn't been very good, but he does have the capability of getting hot. More importantly he provides some defensive athleticism so that he can play ahead of Fogg. If Lavender, or Jones for that matter, could start scoring around 8 PPG then they would probably supplant Fogg in the lineup because of their superior athleticism.
It's pretty clear what the Bruins need to do on defense: prevent Arizona from getting into the paint. That means Lee and company need to stop Wise from using his quickness to get into the lane. It means that the Bruins will probably have to give Nelson help in the form of double teams when the ball gets in to Williams. He isn't a good passer and can be forced into turnovers if the Bruins rotate properly on defense when they're in a man. If the Bruins play zone then it means that they can't give up dribble penetration off the wings or along the baseline. In short, it's all about stopping penetration and helping when the Wildcats do penetrate. In the first half against ASU, when the Bruins were in their zone, they were terrific with help defense, rotating quickly and properly. They forced numerous poor shots and some turnovers and were able to capitalize on ASU's many one-and-dones on the offensive end. If not for a couple of ASU's "prayer" shots going in, the 11-point halftime spread would have been much more. In the second half after the Bruins went up by 16 they got lazy and unfocused on defense. True, the Sun Devils hit some shots that more often than not will not go in, but the few times that ASU got into the lane the Bruins broke down in their rotations and that allowed ASU to trim the lead to one point on two occasions. If the Bruins can't stop Wise from penetrating then look for Howland to utilize the zone after made baskets and man defense when the Bruins fail to score on a possession.
Still, the ultimate key may be Anderson. He will be under much more pressure this game than he was against ASU. However, the Sun Devils did pressure him in the second half and for the first time this season he didn't lose his confidence. In fact there were a few possessions during ASU's big second half run where Anderson was the only Bruin playing with confidence. He needs to continue that against the Wildcats.
Arizona is only going to get scoring from essentially three players. If UCLA can take one of Williams, Wise and Horne out of the game, then they should win. As against ASU, the Bruins should win the battle of the boards (the Bruins would have had a huge rebounding advantage if they remembered to box out towards the end of the game). Arizona is being outrebounded by their opponents for the season.
Finally, there is the mental aspect of the game. UCLA's reaction to the win over ASU will say a lot. Will the Bruins be satisfied with that victory and come out flat or will the win propel them to a great effort. For those who view the glass as half full the Bruins suffered through a major focus letdown in the second half and they still did enough to win. That is certainly helpful in accelerating the Bruins' growth curve. Obviously UCLA's penchant for missing free throws in game-icing time is going to come back to haunt them at least once this season. However, the Bruins will have to be playing a team that can take advantage of that and Arizona shouldn't be that team.
Arizona is a mentally fragile team, and for all those that say Miller was a great hire, that remains to be seen. This is a team that easily becomes unfocused and loses confidence easily. If there is a team in the Pac-10 that is like UCLA in its deficiencies, both mental and physical, it's Arizona. The Bruins, however, are more talented and are playing on the "upswing." It remains to be seen if Arizona can get on the upswing but they certainly aren't there right now.