The UCLA Bruins moved on to the Pac-12 Conference Tournament semifinals on Friday, and waiting for the Bruins will be the Arizona Wildcats, a 79-69 winner over Colorado in their quarterfinal game from Thursday.
Interestingly, the argument can be made that the Bruins have already won something on Friday before they even hit the floor for the game against the Cats: UCLA Coach Ben Howland publically announced that the Bruins would (thankfully) be returning to wearing their traditional home uniforms against Arizona. This after the Bruins wore the new Adidas pajama-esque camouflage uniform that, to put it mildly, did not go over well (I teach high school students and if this was supposed to be a decision that kids would think was pretty cool, just let me tell you that I have never heard a uniform selection so universally panned by kids regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or age).
Okay, enough about that -- on to the game versus Coach Sean Miller’s Wildcats. As most BROs know, UCLA swept the Wildcats during the regular season and a third win could go a long way to getting the Bruin to starting their NCAA Tournament campaign in San Jose. However, I won’t go so far as to guarantee it because of the continued existence of Utah in the Pac-12 bracket. A loss to Utah could be devastating, as Cal may find out on Selection Sunday. In the case of the Bruins, it could be a bit of a seed killer, but let’s not put the cart before the horse.
As we look at the match-up between the Cats and Bruins, let’s get some assumptions out of the way. As much as the match-up with the Sun Devils was not a good one for the Bruins, a match-up with the Wildcats is because of Arizona’s style of play, lack of a true point guard and rudimentary fundamentals. Perhaps the match-up favors the Bruins most of all, though, because of UCLA’s advantage on the sideline: Howland has tended to outcoach Miller pretty consistently. Now, Howland will not have the advantage of several days of preparation in getting ready for the Cats, and the 28-hour or so turnaround may not be enough time to truly access that kind of advantage. Until we see otherwise, though, Howland gets the nod…we think.
There will be three keys to the game on Friday: intensity, point guard play and the coaching match-up. Let’s deal with each in turn.
I was wrong in the ASU preview when I wrote that Jordan Adams would channel his anger and disappointment at not being named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team into a very good Pac-12 Tourney performance. He was pretty average on Thursday, and that’s only because he did some things to offset his miserable 2-12 shooting. However, I did say that Shabazz Muhammad could go off because of the game being in Vegas, and boy, did he ever. That was clearly the most intense Muhammad has been in a game all season, and much of that was because he carried that intensity to both ends of the floor. That kind of intensity is infectious, and it clearly spread to Muhammad’s teammates. Arizona was intense in their quarterfinal match-up with the Buffs, which, by the way, was a better win than UCLA’s in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee, but in terms of intensity, this game is going to be about the Bruins. If UCLA brings the effort and focus they showed in the final 9-plus minutes of Thursday’s game, then it will be hard for Arizona to match that. Think back to the game the Bruins won against the Cats in Tucson and how UCLA’s intensity basically carried the Bruins to an easier-than-expected win.
The point guard battle will be one to watch because of the respective play of UCLA’s Larry Drew II and Arizona’s senior Mark Lyons (6’1” 200 lbs.). Drew was very good in the win over ASU, arguably being the best player on the floor. When UCLA made its spectacular run the last quarter of the game on Thursday, it was Drew who led the Bruins, controlling the offense with mature decisions and shooting lights out when it was called for. Conversely, Lyons is more of a scoring lead guard and displayed that again in the win over Colorado. Lyons scored his typical double-digits for the game, but did so while shooting poorly from the floor, going 4-13. He was especially off from behind the arc, going 2-9. It is precisely because of this shoot-first mentality on the part of Lyons, coupled with Drew’s more instinctive true point guard play in the two previous meetings between these two teams that led to Drew almost dominating the previous two match-ups. It’s no coincidence that UCLA won both of those games. If Drew continues his play from Thursday then it will be difficult for the Wildcats to offset that, specifically because Lyons’ game does not translate to typically setting his teammates up for open shots.
The last key to the game, the coaching match-up, may be the most important one. Howland, for all his faults and for the criticism he has received for some in-game decisions this season, has simply been able to remain one step ahead of Miller when these two teams have faced off. This game is different because the short turnaround between games will not allow Howland the time typically necessary to equip the Bruins with the kind of game plan that will thwart the Wildcats. Remember, Howland had five days to plan for the win in Tucson and three before the game at Pauley Pavilion.
There are some other factors that may become just as important as the three I’ve laid out as the game unfolds. It is unlikely, for as well as he’s played the past few games, that Drew will shoot as well, especially from behind the arc, as he did on Thursday. However, it is also as unlikely that Adams and Kyle Anderson will be as ineffective on offense as they were against the Sun Devils. Anderson, in particular, has played well against the Cats. He had 12 rebounds in the game in Tucson and had 17 points and 7 rebounds in the game in Los Angeles, when he was the best player on the floor. If he comes close to playing at that level then things will be looking up for the Bruins.
The rebounding battle will also have an impact, although how big an impact remains to be seen. UCLA was able to outrebound Arizona State on Thursday, which was a bit of a surprise considering that the Bruins have lost the rebounding contest with regularity this year. If the Bruins can at least make the rebounding factor a non-issue on Friday then that will bode well, too. The rebounding, though, will probably be an indication of how intense the Bruins are playing, coupled with the play of Drew, who’s passing could lead to easy shots and not afford the Cats as many defensive rebounding opportunities.
There have been numerous BRO readers who have posted complaints on the BRO Premium Hoops Forum about how the national prognosticators could possibly have Arizona consistently seeded above the Bruins for the NCAAs when UCLA swept the Cats and won the conference regular season title. Should UCLA win then that complaint will become moot (even though, as I said, a loss against Utah could negate a win over Arizona in terms of Big Dance seeding).
I still believe that Muhammad is going to play with high intensity over the course of the game because it’s in Las Vegas. Further, I believe that both Anderson and Adams will at least shake off some of the poor offense they showed in the Thursday game. But most of all I believe that UCLA has shown a tendency to play “big” in games where the proverbial lights are on. The Bruins have been ready to play from the opening tip in both of the previous games this year against Arizona, and there is no reason to expect this game to be any different.
The trump card is the play of Drew. If he continues his solid-to-excellent play (he was much better on the defensive end in the second half on Thursday to boot) then I don’t see how Arizona offsets that advantage.
The one caveat is UCLA’s shooting: if the Bruins can’t find the range on their open jump shots over the course of the game, then all bets are off.