The Bruins are the #5 seed while the Cats are the #4 seed. Arizona swept the Bruins in the regular season, winning in convincing fashion at Pauley Pavilion and beating the Bruins by 5 last week in Tucson in a game in which the Bruins out-played the Cats for large portions of the game.
As we arrive at this point in the season, the bottom line for the Bruins is pretty simple: win or be done for the year. Forget the possibility of the Bruins going on a three-game winning streak. The real question is: Can UCLA beat a team that is dramatically more athletic than it is across the board?
In order for UCLA to pull off the upset a few things need to happen. First of all, the Bruins must deal with the defensive pressure that Arizona will throw their way, especially at the point. In the game last week, the Bruins were able to pull out to a double-digit lead because Arizona simply couldn't force Malcolm Lee into any turnovers. Coach Sean Miller, realizing that Lee was too long for either of the guards he had to put on him, decided to start Arizona's ball pressure lower on the floor. This concession by Miller and the Cats allowed the Bruins to initiate their offense where their ability to pass, perhaps the only thing the Bruins did well this season, was able to dictate the game. When Lee left the game with cramps in the second half, Arizona immediately began pressuring Lee's replacements at the point, Jerime Anderson and Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, higher up the floor and UCLA's offense fell apart. Lee staying healthy in this game will go a long way to helping UCLA stay competitive and be in position to win at the end.
The second thing that UCLA needs to do is be active on the defensive end. UCLA's 2-3 zone has several holes in it, namely at the free throw line and on the weakside wings. When the Bruins are active, as they were in the first half of the game last week, they can force opponents into poor shots. This not only means moving their feet but also, and more importantly, keeping their arms out to cut down space in any of the passing and cutting lanes. The Bruins are a very long team, and active feet coupled with outstretched arms leads to their playing good defense. When the Bruins get lazy on defense, or they get tired, the weakside wing opens up so much more for the opposition. It's at times like that, when the Bruins aren't giving everything they have on defense, as they did in the second half in Tucson because of fatigue, that the other team can light up the scoreboard.
In particular, Arizona's sophomore guard Kyle Fogg (6'3" 185 lbs.) has gone off on the Bruins when they've played lazy defense. Fogg averages 11.2 PPG, but when you take away the games he had against the Bruins, when he scored 25 and 26 points respectively, Fogg only averages 10.1 PPG. The two things that UCLA did well at Arizona was take away freshman post Derrick Williams (6'8" 235 lbs.), who is the Cats' leading scorer and the conference Freshman of the Year, and limit the drives of senior point guard Nic Wise (5'10" 180 lbs.). However, freshman Lamont Jones (6'0" 200 lbs.) had a career game last week, scoring 16 points, many of which came at critical times in keeping Arizona in the game before Fogg went off and the Bruins' offense went south. The Bruins need to be active and intense on defense in order to take away the drives of Wise and Jones and either find Fogg or double Williams. If the Bruins can do three of those four things for the bulk of the game, then they stand a good chance of winning.
The last piece that needs to happen is UCLA's focus and intensity. I've written about this all season and it's still true; when the Bruins play with passion and focus they can stay in almost any game. This is a critical piece because, truth-be-told, there appear to be several things going on behind the scenes of the team that are getting in the way of the team coming together. The team played hard in Arizona last week in both games, but there is clearly something going on that is deeper than any of us have been told. I have nothing concrete to go by and am just theorizing, but Coach Ben Howland and the players are clearly frustrated. Still, they didn't lay down last week when they clearly could have and now they have a unique opportunity to play in a conference tournament where there isn't a dominant team. The Bruins have to bring the "fire" to the floor.
Howland and the fans should know right away whether the Bruins are going to give their all or whether the season will be over simply based on watching the defense in the game's first few minutes. If the Bruins are giving up easy looks then Arizona will win easily.
Reeves Nelson will return to the Bruin line-up for this game after missing the past five games because of eye issues. Nelson will give the Bruins an inside presence they clearly missed on offense against both Arizona schools. However, there is legitimate concern over how effective Nelson will be. In short, Nelson was nervous about suffering further injury to his eye and is bound to be tentative when he's inside the paint among other big bodies. One of Nelson's biggest assets is his ability to play hard and physically. If he plays any less than the "bull-in-a-china-shop" style that he is capable of then he's more of a liability on the floor than a help.
The Bruins will probably play with fire, at least for Thursday and give a performance that will force Arizona to have to win the game. Unfortunately, the Bruins tend to shoot themselves in the foot this season when playing in a close game with only moments left. Look for the same thing to happen Thursday. As Tracy Pierson wrote earlier this year, the Bruins will keep it close, even teasing the fans with what may have been possible, and then show that they're not ready to get over the hump at the end.