UCLA defeated Arizona 74-69 Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion to sweep the season series from the Wildcats and stay in contention for the Pac-12 title. With the win UCLA keeps pace with Oregon in the battle for first place and Arizona is pretty much knocked out of the race since both the Bruins and Ducks hold the tie-breaker over Arizona.
As was the case in the game at Tucson, the Bruin victory came about in large part due to the advantage UCLA had at point guard. Larry Drew played well in both games and Wildcat guard Mark Lyons, to put it mildly, did not. Lyons is a perfect example of why feel for the game is such an important quality for a point guard. Lyons has ability – he just has no clue how to play the game. His horrific decisions, bad shot selection and carelessness with the ball were the primary reason Arizona lost the game. It was appropriate that the last two Wildcat possessions of the game were Lyons missing a forced shot and then turning it over to end the game.
Drew, on the other hand, played a very good game. He took mostly good shots, found teammates for easy buckets and generally made the correct play most of the time. He did have a few stumbles late in the game where he turned it over or made bad decisions, but overall he dominated Lyons. Drew's newfound prowess from the three-point line was big again, as he knocked down a couple critical threes. Drew making perimeter shots is key for the Bruins, as it forces the opposing defense to play him honestly and not just sag off into the lane clogging up the Bruin offense.
While this was a great win for the Bruins in terms of its importance in the conference race, and also because it was in front on a national television audience on ESPN, it wasn't a great game in terms of the overall performance. It really came down to which team was going to have fewer defensive breakdowns, bad possessions and turnovers. Frankly, Arizona lost this game as much as UCLA won it. The Bruin defense was very shaky most of the game. Arizona won the rebound battle and the Wildcats repeatedly got uncontested lay-ups (not all of which they made). Arizona's offense was pretty much stopped only by bad decisions, turnovers and poor shot selection. At one point, ESPN's Jay Bilas said, "Arizona isn't running any offense at all." When Arizona actually got deeper than five seconds in the shot clock, and moved the ball, they usually ended up with quality looks. Fortunately for the Bruins, Arizona isn't a very smart team and they had a lot of empty possessions.
The Bruins did run their offense and they took advantage pretty much every time Arizona had a defensive breakdown. In addition to the advantage at point guard, UCLA also had an advantage with Kyle Anderson. The Bruin four-point lead at halftime was due largely to the contributions of Anderson. He had 15 points in the first half, taking over the scoring burden early when Shabazz Muhammad had foul trouble. Muhammad got it going in the second half, though, and ended up with a team high 18 points. He's become a very accurate shooter when he gets his feet set and he's squared up. Shot selection, though, can be an issue at times as he forces up some tough shots.
Travis and David Wear scored six and ten points respectively, but their ability to stretch the defense hurt Arizona as Wildcat freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski wasn't quick enough to close out on them. This is another reason why Arizona is a good match up for the Bruins. Typically the Wears will knock down a few jumpers but end up hurting the Bruins with their poor interior defense. But Tarczewski doesn't really have a low-post game yet and he was unable to take advantage of the Wears' shaky defense and poor rebounding. And in this game David Wear stepped up to grab a team-high nine rebounds.
Arizona came into the game ranked 11th in the country, but that ranking is largely due to two wins early in the season against Miami and Florida. Since that time, the Wildcats have been pretty mediocre and they're probably no better than the fourth best team in the Pac-12 right now. Which is why I'm not ready to say that UCLA has turned the corner on the season, or is "surging" as Bilas said on the air. Just a few weeks ago the Bruins were embarrassed at Cal and needed overtime to beat an ASU team that likely won't make the tournament. The Arizona game was obviously a big win for the Bruins, but I wouldn't be making reservations for Atlanta (or even the second weekend of the tournament) just yet.
With the win the Bruins now set their sights on the Washington schools and the last road trip of the season. UCLA has historically had trouble with the road game at UW, but this year's Husky team is pretty bad and WSU is really bad. It's not an easy trip, but a Bruin sweep is a lot more likely this year than it has been in past seasons. A sweep would give UCLA no worse than a share of the Pac-12 title and real momentum heading into the Pac-12 tournament.