Arizona Preview

UCLA was humiliated by Arizona a few weeks ago at Pauley. Now the Bruins travel to Tucson, looking to at least keep the final score respectable. There are many reasons to expect a Wildcat blowout, but it wouldn't be a complete shock if this game is more competitive than the last meeting between the two teams...

UCLA takes on Arizona tonight in Tucson and it's a match-up that, on paper, would appear to be a mismatch. After all, Arizona is currently ranked #1 in the nation and they've lost only one conference game this year. The Bruins, meanwhile, are in the midst of one of their worst seasons ever and it was only four weeks ago that they suffered a record-setting defeat at the hands of the Wildcats in Pauley. And the oddsmakers see this game as a blowout – Arizona is a seventeen-point favorite.

There are, however, some faint signs that this game might be more competitive than one would expect. Arizona is not playing good basketball lately – they struggled to win at Washington and took their time putting away Washington St. In fact, the Wildcats have played in spurts for much of the season, rarely putting together a solid forty minute effort.

The injury suffered by Luke Walton has certainly hurt Arizona – he doesn't look anything like the player who dominated the Pac-10 conference tournament last year. Also, Jason Gardner has had a disappointing senior season. His shooting percentage is down from three-point range and overall. He's also had a number of games where he's made some really shaky decisions. His shot selection has been poor at times and he doesn't have the ability to create for his teammates.

But Gardner is the Arizona point guard in name only – when the Wildcats are playing well, the offense runs through Luke Walton. Due to a series of ankle injuries, Walton hasn't been able to play at 100% this season. When he's healthy, Walton is one of the best players in college basketball.

After a somewhat slow start, Channing Frye has rebounded and he's played well recently. Last week against Washington, Frye had his best game of the season, as he scored 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Arizona hasn't had a really strong presence inside for much of the season and Frye's resurgence could give them a boost.

While Gardner, Walton and Frye are all key components for the Wildcats, the one guy the Bruins might want to pay the most attention to is Salim Stoudamire. He is by far the most dangerous shooter for Arizona and he could have a huge night if the Bruins don't do a good job of finding him at the three-point line. Perimeter defense has been a weakness for UCLA all year and they need to make Stoudamire a driver, rather than let him catch and shoot.

The Bruins didn't play a great game in Georgetown – you could argue that they'd have a ten-game losing streak if not for the generosity of Pac-10 refs – but they did continue their recent trend of competing well for most of the game. Earlier in the season, you saw longer, and more frequent, stretches where UCLA players looked like they didn't even want to be playing.

Coach Steve Lavin seems to have settled, at least for now, on going with a shorter rotation and that appears to have had a positive effect on UCLA's cohesiveness. The hockey-style substitution pattern looks to be, thankfully, a thing of the past. The insertion of Dijon Thompson, and Ryan Hollins, into the starting lineup has helped as well. More minutes for Thompson and Hollins, and fewer minutes for Cummings and Young, is a good thing – particularly if you're looking toward the future. Thompson and Hollins figure to be key parts for the Bruins' future, while Young and Cummings have demonstrated repeatedly that they just don't get it. It's about the team, fellas – not what kind of numbers you put up.

With a great home court advantage, superior talent, depth and coaching, it's obvious that Arizona is a big favorite tonight. If the Wildcats are truly focused and play with intensity, it won't matter how well the Bruins play. UCLA simply doesn't have the talent to compete with a Wildcat team at the top of their game. But if Arizona continues with their season-long trend of playing in spurts, with loose possessions and questionable decisions, then it's possible UCLA makes the game a little closer than one would suspect. In any event, UCLA fans have to be hoping that the Bruins at least compete for forty minutes. If they do that, you probably won't see a replay of the debacle we saw when Arizona visited Pauley.

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