Arizona Preview

Lyons & HIll

After a big conference loss at home, UCLA faces its toughest road game of the season, against #6-ranked Arizona in the hostile McKale Center...

Coach Ben Howland's UCLA men's basketball team faced a crucial Pac 12 Conference test last Saturday and failed. The Bruins were simply defeated by a more athletic and, on that day, a better-coached team in losing to Oregon with first place in the conference on the line.

Now the Bruins need to do something they haven't been asked to truly do yet this season: mentally regroup quickly. That's because UCLA's next game is Thursday night against the Arizona Wildcats. The unranked Bruins and #6 Wildcats will tip off at 6 PM PST from McKale Center in Tucson with the game being telecast on ESPN2.

Coach Sean Miller's Wildcat squad is very similar to the Oregon team that just dispatched the Bruins. However, even though Arizona is a very athletic team and certainly more athletic than the Bruins, there are some key differences between the Wildcats and the Ducks that actually give the Bruins a puncher's chance to pull off the upset in the desert.

The Wildcats are similar to the Bruins in that their rotation ostensibly has eight players in it, although Miller really only plays seven. The Wildcats do have more true scholarship players than do the Bruins, however sophomore Angelo Chol (6'9" 225 lbs.) and freshman Gabe York (6'2" 185 lbs.) have barely been playing.

Arizona has started the season 16-1 (4-1 Pac 12), including wins over Florida and San Diego State, and the key players that have led to that record start are in the backcourt and on the wing. While he hasn't gotten the press clippings that go along with being a senior leader, small forward Solomon Hill (6'7" 220 lbs.) has probably been the best, most complete player on the Wildcat roster this season, and easily one of the best players in the Pac-12. He's been a dependable scorer (13.6 PPG), rebounder (5.4 RPG) and defender. His shooting percentages have been good, both from the field (47%) and from behind the arc (44%). He can be ferocious on both ends of the floor when he wants to be, which apparently is more often than not this season. He's big enough to match up against any wing physically, but quicker than the vast majority of them, so he is going to be a handful for whichever Bruin guards him. More than likely Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson will find themselves guarding Hill at some point during the game. When Muhammad gets him, it will be a preview of what it takes to guard an NBA-level wing for the UCLA freshman.

The engine that has driven the Wildcats this season, and arguably the catalyst for the Wildcats being better than they were last season, is senior Xavier transfer Mark Lyons (6'1" 200 lbs.). He leads the team in scoring at 15.2 PPG and is hitting better than 34% from the three-point line. He also leads the team in assists with 56. However, there are parts of Lyons' game that may actually provide the Bruins and Larry Drew II a glimmer of hope.

Drew is coming off what was clearly his worst game as a Bruin. His defense has been mediocre at best this year and now he's taking on arguably the best scoring guard in the Pac-12. Lyons is sure to attack Drew and Norman Powell when Arizona has the ball, but it's when he's playing defense that may offer UCLA a respite. I wrote in the Oregon preview that UCLA had yet to play against the kind of defensive pressure it saw against Oregon. While Arizona may have the same kind of athleticism, the Wildcats don't pressure the ball at the point of attack like Oregon does. That starts with Lyons. He's been about the same level as Drew this season when it comes to defense. If Drew can put the loss and game from Saturday behind him then he should be able to find his teammates in open spots.

The other starting guard is sophomore Nick Johnson (6'3" 200 lbs.) who is averaging 12.7 PPG. He is also shooting a respectable 38% from outside the arc. Between him and Lyons, Johnson is the better defender, but that doesn't mean that he is very good laterally. In fact, he's pretty average. People get caught up with Johnson's leaping ability, which really is quite good, and equate that to his being a terrific athlete (In fact, Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks were the dissenting voices on Johnson's athleticism when he was a high school prospect, if you may remember, citing his lack of lateral quickness). The reality is that Jordan Adams and certainly Norman Powell will both be able to get around Johnson. Still, Johnson has quick hands and reads passes very well. That's where he gets the bulk of his team-leading 38 steals. In that way he and UCLA's Adams are very similar. The thing about Johnson is he does have a knack, as does Lyons, of hitting big shots. That's something that should pique UCLA's awareness.

The two guards/wings who have been getting time off the bench have been junior Jordin Mayes (6'3" 200 lbs.) and senior Kevin Parrom (6'6" 220 lbs.). While Mayes is the same size as Johnson he is a very different player. Mayes is much more of a point guard, although Miller seemingly still attempts to put the square peg that is Johnson into the round hole that is the point guard position. He's the prime example of a guy who shouldn't be labeled a combo guard because he's really neither a point guard nor a shooting guard. Mayes hasn't shot well at all this season but Miller can count on him, at least, to come in and provide solid defense. He still has trouble taking care of the ball at times, though, and that's not something a team needs out of its point guard.

After sitting out last season because of a gunshot wound, Parrom has returned to help lead the Cats in his senior season. He is averaging about 9 PPG and is shooting very well, which is what he was known for before his injury. However, what he's really bringing to the table this season is rebounding. He's hitting the boards for almost 10 rebounds every 40 minutes. He is in some ways much like UCLA's Kyle Anderson in that sense.

On paper the Wildcats appear to have a massive advantage in the frontcourt. However, appearances can be deceiving. While Arizona clearly has talent up front, the young Wildcat posts have been wildly inconsistent. It has gotten so bad at times that journalists who have covered the Wildcats have opined about whether the Cats would be better off up front with a little less raw talent and a little more experience, savvy and composure.

Part of the reason the Wildcat post players have been so inconsistent is the fact that all three of them who see significant minutes are true freshmen. The starters have been Kaleb Tarczewski (7'0" 255 lbs.) and Brandon Ashley (6'8" 235 lbs.), and coming off the bench has been Grant Jerrett (6'10" 235 lbs.). All three were highly ranked and bring different strengths to the team. Still, none of the three has put together a consistent season on both ends of the floor. This could be an area that UCLA's frontcourt players, including Kyle Anderson, could exploit. But keep in mind that one of these Cat posts or all three have the talent to simply dominant a game.

Tarczewski is the most physical player of the three. He was also the highest rated of the three. He has nice touch around the basket (51% shooting) and he is the team's leading rebounder at 6 RPG. The problem is that Miller and Wildcat fans were expecting more of a presence from Tarczewski, especially on the offensive end. While this is definitely a guard-driven team, Arizona still is looking for more offense from Tarczewski. Perhaps his numbers would look better if he was hitting better than 50% from the free throw line.

Ashley may have the most upside of the three posts. Like Tarczewski, he is more of a back-to-the-basket player, although he has more range than his teammate. He has hit both of his three attempts this season. The complaint about Ashley is that he occasionally plays soft for an inside player. Further, his defense is susceptible to being faked out by the pump. He likes to look for blocks because of his length but his timing has been off this year and his fundamentals are still way off. However, the most likely reason for both Ashley's and Tarczewski's inconsistency is that the two of them have been turnover machines for the Wildcats. They both have 28 turnovers on the season, and while that may not seem like much keep in mind that the two of them don't get a lot of touches (remember it's a guard-driven team) so while that number may seem low, it really is excessive.

Jerrett is the most skilled among the three, and has been more efficient on the offensive end, having far fewer turnovers than his teammates in the post, but he's played pretty soft on defense, too. Unlike Tarczewski and Ashley, Jerrett is very much an outside threat, having connected on 38% of his three-point attempts. His rebounding numbers highlight the knock on Jerrett, which, at 3.7 RPG, would be fewer than both Hill and Parrom for the minutes he plays. Remember, this is from a guy who is 6'10".

Make no mistake; the Wildcats have talent. Ask Florida and the Aztecs. Still, there are some real holes with the Cats, with the team not yet as good as a whole as the sum of its part. It actually play into what UCLA does well.

The key for UCLA is easy points. Unlike Oregon, Arizona does not get back well defensively. The Wildcats tend to be very undisciplined in playing defense on their opponent's secondary break, preferring instead to look for the highlight reel steals and dunks. That should give UCLA plenty of opportunities to get relatively uncontested shots in its early offense.

The Wildcats, for all their athleticism, really don't cause the kind of defensive havoc one would think. They only average forcing 14 TPG. Oregon was much more reliant on causing turnovers and they were better at it. Plus, Arizona averages about as many turnovers as it causes. One of the things UCLA has done well this year is hold onto the ball. Further, the Bruins have been solid in terms of causing their opponents to turn it over more than them.

This game may actually negate the fact that Travis and David Wear don't have great rebounding numbers. Arizona averages roughly the same number of boards per game as the Bruins but the Cats will now be facing an offense that is predicated on having the big men, in this case the Wears, shoot the mid-range jumper, thus drawing the Wildcat posts away from the hoop. This should open things up much more for the Bruins to hit the offensive glass and successfully score second-chance points. It's a very interesting frontcourt match-up – the young, athletic but raw Wildcats against the far less athletic but skilled veteran Bruins.

Then there's the "perfect storm" argument. I truly believed UCLA would win last Saturday and was as disappointed as anyone who is a fan with the loss. However, while Howland was definitely outcoached, keep in mind that Drew was horrible running the point at key moments, Muhammad was clearly thrown off by not starting, he and Adams had very off games from the perimeter, and there were three turnovers off inbounds plays in the second half (which gets into Drew's poor game).

The chances of all of those things happening again are remote. That alone should be good enough to give the Bruins an added 5-10 points. Remember, Oregon only won by 9 and that was because of fouling at the end. It was essentially a four- or five-point game for much of the second half. That isn't to say that it wasn't apparent Oregon was going to win, it is simply a way of pointing out that in spite of the "everything-that-can-go-wrong-will" scenario, the Bruins were in the game.

Arizona is not a disciplined team and this should allow the Bruins to get some easy baskets, not just in transition and semi-transition, but also in their halfcourt offense as Arizona will attempt steals when they only need to play straight-up defense.

There are some big obstacles, however, for the Bruins to overcome. The first and most obvious as well as the most difficult to overcome is the effect of playing at McKale. Even though UCLA went on the road and swept the mountain schools, this is entirely different. The noise will be a factor and the Bruins should simply understand that the crowd will be good for at least one run per half by the home team. How well the Bruins deal with those runs and the crowd could go a long way to determining the outcome of the game.

Then there's Arizona's athleticism. Lyons has the potential to cause Drew to really look bad defensively. Up front, should things come together for the freshmen posts of the Cats then UCLA really has no answer.

UCLA's confidence took a hit on Saturday. The question is whether that will linger with the Bruins. This is one area I think I've gotten to know this team and I am pretty comfortable in writing that I expect an angry Bruin team rather than one questioning itself.

One thing to possibly consider: Adams and Anderson both missed some practice this week due to illness. It would severely hinder UCLA's chances if they aren't 100%.

Finally, there's the coaching battle. There were clearly some curious coaching decisions on Saturday by Howland, which arguably helped lead to the defeat. Howland was outcoached during the game by Oregon's Dana Altman (and that was one of the preview's key issues of that game: who was going to win the coaching battle). There isn't as much of an issue here. While Miller is a very shrewd recruiter, he isn't the in-game manager that Altman is at Oregon. Really, though, how many times have fans seen Howland "outcoached" because he was caught blindsided by what another coach was doing. The reality is that when Howland is outcoached it more often than not is because he has done something to, in essence, hurt himself. There is always the chance Howland may suffer another self-inflicted wound in Tucson, but the reality is, and this is huge, Howland is much better preparing for and focusing on the Thursday game in a two-game week than the Saturday game.

When I first started writing these previews back during Howland's first Final Four season (2006), the game that put me "over the top" in doing this was predicting UCLA would beat Arizona in the desert. I was ridiculed and questioned throughout the time the preview was posted until just before the game ended in a UCLA victory. In fact, just to really pat myself on the back, I believe I was off by only one or two points in the game score prediction. I see a lot of similarities between that game in 2006 and this one. This Arizona team isn't "all that"; remember that the Cats should have lost to Colorado at McKale and it shouldn't have been close (free throws, free throws, free throws…). The toughness of this team should continue to be questioned. I see a very close game, probably closer than most others see it, but I can't bring myself to go out on the proverbial limb and choose the Bruins, not in the hostile environs of McKale. Still, don't be surprised if the Bruins surprise people Thursday night.

Arizona 77
UCLA 72

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