Now it gets exciting.
With the win over Arizona State in overtime on Wednesday night, the UCLA Bruins now face a massive game on Saturday, and wouldn't you know it, the Bruins will be hosting the archrival (in basketball) Arizona Wildcats. But wait, there's more: the game will be the national primetime ESPN telecast, with a 6 PM PST tip, and ESPN's College Gameday studio show will be on Wooden Court inside of Pauley Pavilion for the first time since the fabled structure was reopened this past fall. Now add to these facts the idea that both the Bruins and the Wildcats are at or near the top of the conference standings…like I wrote, this game isn't big, it's massive. This isn't just a game about who may win the Pac-12 Conference title and gain some momentum heading into both the Pac-12 Tournament and the NCAAs, it's a game about perception. With all due respect to the mid-major from Spokane, and to the teams from the Mountain West, the perception about the dominant West Coast program may come down to Saturday's contest. That may or may not be true, but it may be so for the millions of east coast college basketball fans whose interest in teams and games in the west generally ends at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
The Bruins and Cats come into this game on a divergent path. UCLA defeated Arizona State in overtime on Wednesday while Arizona lost to an inspired USC squad in a game where the score made the game seem closer than it really was. To give you and idea of how well USC handled the Wildcats, USC shot over 60% from the field for the game.
So this game represents another step in UCLA's goal of a conference title, while for Arizona, this represents the Cats' last stand in their quest for the same hardware. To put the game in perspective, should UCLA lose this game it still has an outside shot at the Pac-12 title. Should Arizona lose then its shot at the conference title is officially gone and, depending on what happens elsewhere in Pac-12 play and Arizona's result next week against the Sun Devils, the Wildcats could fall to as low as the 6-seed for the Pac-12 Tournament.
UCLA's (21-7; 11-4 Pac-12) current three-game win streak has been fueled by its collective ability to become better on the offensive end of the floor. Simply put, UCLA has had better offensive efficiency than its last three opponents, Stanford, USC and ASU. Conversely, Arizona (23-5; 11-5 Pac-12) has become almost pedestrian on both ends of the floor. As Arizona's own Scout site wrote after the USC loss, it's as if the Wildcats simply sit around on offense waiting for someone to make some magic out of a one-on-one situation. Arizona is suffering from a similar malaise on the defensive end, allowing five of its last six opponents to shot at least 45% from the floor and seeing three of those five shoot over 50% from the floor.
However, as disjointed as Arizona has looked at times over the last three weeks, this game, like most others, comes down to the match-ups, including the coaching one.
It is pretty apparent now that Arizona has better athletes and UCLA has better basketball players. The question is which group will more forcefully impose its collective will on the other.
When UCLA went into Tucson last month and beat the Cats the key match-up was predicted to be that of UCLA's Larry Drew II going up against Arizona's Mark Lyons (6'1" 200 lbs.) at the point. Drew clearly won that battle and now they face round two. Lyons is a little quicker and stronger than Drew, but the UCLA point has proven over the course of the season to be the smarter player, generally playing within himself for the benefit of the team. Lyons, while leading the Wildcats in scoring at over 15 PPG, is not a true point guard. In fact, he averages almost as many turnovers per contest as he does assists. He is clearly a scoring point guard. Against the Bruins last month Lyons had 5 turnovers and zero assists as well as shooting 6-17 from the floor. Lyons scored 14 points against USC earlier in the week but only made one shot from the floor. His 12 made free throws, though, prove that he was adept at getting into the lane for contact. It will be interesting to see if UCLA's coach Ben Howland will have Drew (and Norman Powell) play off Lyons and force him to try and shoot his way out of his current outside shooting slump.
Arizona's starting two guard, sophomore Nick Johnson (6'3" 200 lbs.), is also in a protracted shooting slump. He did not have a good game at USC. He does offer outstanding jumping ability coupled with a decent three-point shot (34%). His three-point percentage was much better earlier in the year but his shooting slump has really impacted that. He'll be primarily facing either UCLA's Jordan Adams or Shabazz Muhammad. The reason for that is because Arizona's coach Sean Miller has decided to go with a three-guard attack, with senior Kevin Parrom (6'6" 220 lbs.) being the third guard/wing starter. Parrom is a better defender than Johnson because of his superior lateral quickness (although Parrom isn't a lock-down guy by any stretch) and Miller may have Parrom guard the one between Adams and Muhammad who is having the better run of play at a given moment. Adams and Muhammad combined for 38 point in Tucson. Parrom is slightly longer than Muhammad and definitely has a length advantage over Adams, but the problem for Arizona and Miller is that, when in a man defense, Johnson, who just doesn't have great lateral quickness, will have to guard one of them. The Bruins should have a decided advantage with whomever is being guarded by Johnson. Further, Adams especially has become so deft at certain defensive plays that he may actually have the ability to completely contain Johnson in this game.
Backcourt depth is provided by junior Jordin Mayes (6'3" 200 lbs.), but as Miller's bench has gotten shorter, so has Mayes' playing time. He has played a total of 29 minutes the past five games combined. For those of you who, like me, are math-challenged, that's less than 6 MPG. Miller has preferred to use one of his stable of post players to come in and play the four spot and move senior Solomon Hill (6'7" 220 lbs.) to the small forward position.
Hill is clearly the one Wildcat who has a match-up advantage over whichever Bruin is guarding him. He averages right around 14 PPG and 5.3 RPG. More than that, though, is his ability to consistently hit his shots. He is 46% from the field and 39% from behind the arc. However, by starting Hill at the four the past few games and presumably against the Bruins, Miller is creating even more of a general match-up advantage for UCLA. When Miller had freshman Brandon Ashley (6'8" 235 lbs.) in the starting five, as he did when these teams met in January, it forced Howland to counter with Kyle Anderson to guard him. Hill has a strength, length and athletic advantage over Muhammad, who was forced to guard Hill much of the game. With Hill as the power forward, Howland can assign defensive duties to Anderson, who matches up much better against the Wildcat senior.
Speaking of Ashley, he makes up one of the three-headed monster that Miller uses in the low post. Ashley's low post teammates who play are also true freshmen, Kaleb Tarczewski (7'0" 255 lbs.) and Grant Jerrett (6'10" 235 lbs.). The Bruins truly have no defensive answer to Tarczewski should he decide to become more assertive on offense and his team decides to get him the ball. Jerrett has been a bit of a disappointment to Wildcat fans because they thought he'd quickly become and inside/outside force. He hasn't become either, although he has shot the long ball pretty well this season. The fact is that while Arizona has a decided size advantage in the post, the Wildcats generally don't take advantage of that. Ashley and Jerrett are both long, rangy players and they struggled with the ability of both Travis Wear and David Wear to step outside and hit jumpers. Arizona is certainly deeper up front, but none of the freshmen Wildcats have been as influential as Anderson has been for the Bruins.
The final evaluation has to come down to the coaching match-up. This is going to turn into a bit of an op-ed piece here, so be prepared. Say what you will about Miller's ability to recruit, which has been remarkably good and lucky (Derrick Williams) since his arrival in Tucson, the reality is that he is a mediocre game coach. In many ways he is Calipari-light in that he relies on his recruiting skills to gain a talent advantage that is so great over the other team that his average Xs-and-Os ability won't impact the team in the won/loss column. Problem for Arizona is that Miller doesn't recruit nearly as well as Calipari and the Kentucky coach has developed into a decent floor tactician, even if he is still clearly overrated. Now Miller is faced with the task of trying to motivate a team that is clearly disjointed and just got beat badly by an inferior opponent, to play a team whose coach, at least, seems to have Miller's number.
Say what you want about Howland, the reality is that he has outcoached Miller far more times than not, going back to the Elite Eight game in the 2007 NCAAs. It's ironic that for such an accomplished college point guard, as Miller was, he doesn't adjust well or quickly to game situations.
It will be interesting to see if Arizona truly does get fired up for this game, or whether the Bruins do the same, for that matter. The answers to those really could be the determining factors. See, if Arizona State was a bad match-up for the Bruins, then fans need to understand that UCLA is a bad match-up for Arizona, especially if Miller decides to go small. Howland generally wins the coaching match-up with Miller, which is another factor in UCLA's favor. It's the final home game of what's been a bit of a tumultuous year for the Bruins, but they've been playing better of late and Howland has several days, not just one, to get the team prepared. Finally, Travis Wear may very well return, adding to UCLA's thin frontcourt depth. Even if the Burin junior only plays for a few minutes, those minutes may be critical, especially if someone gets in foul trouble.
With all that looking like it should go in UCLA's favor, why the hesitancy to pick the Bruins? Because no one knows which Bruin team will show, the motivated one or the disinterested one. Things that would typically motivate most teams (conference title, NCAA seeding, etc.) may not motivate this Bruin squad.
Then there's the question of the Cats. Will they come out angry and motivated or still in shock over the USC loss? Miller may be thankful right now for the extra day between games.
However, imagine for a moment, Bruin fans, if Arizona shows up with a disinterested attitude and UCLA hits the floor with passion. This game could then turn into a blowout.
While I don't think that will happen, it is nice to dream, isn't it?