Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
The UCLA Bruins (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) are in bounce-back mode as they prepare to face the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats (16-1, 4-1 Pac-12) at the McKale Center on Thursday night.
The Bruins’ trip to Tucson comes with a sense of urgency after a deflating loss to Oregon at Pauley Pavilion. The loss to the Ducks left UCLA a half-game out of first in the Pac-12 standings, and one half-game ahead of third-place Arizona.
Oregon has already beaten Arizona and UCLA, and has a very manageable schedule the rest of the way out, so it seems unlikely that Dana Altman’s defensive-minded Ducks will slip up too much.
UCLA, meanwhile, still has eight games against the top half of the conference, including two dates with the Wildcats. If the Bruins can’t get back to their winning ways quickly, they’ll be on the outside looking in as the Pac-12 title hunt heats up.
For Arizona the game is equally important, as the Cats look to continue rolling after suffering their first and only loss of the year versus the Ducks earlier this month.
Arizona has looked solid since the loss in Eugene, going 2-0 with road wins over Oregon State and Arizona State. The 71-54 beat down of the Sun Devils in Tempe saw three Zona players score in double figures, including Xavier transfer Mark Lyons who finished with 24 points.
Lyons has easily been the Wildcats’ most important player this season, averaging 15.2 PPG and 3.3 assists per game, while also bringing a tenacious defensive presence to the court. Unless head coach Ben Howland can find a way to slow Lyons down, Arizona’s pressure defense and run-first offense could be too much for the Bruins to handle in a hostile environment.
Arizona is 9-0 at home, while UCLA is 2-0 in true road games. Including neutral-site contests, the Bruins are 4-2 overall away from Westwood. But given the fact that all four wins came by four or fewer points against mediocre competition, UCLA is in need of a statement victory. A road win over the Wildcats would be the biggest triumph on UCLA’s schedule and would serve to impress when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, toppling a Top 25 mainstay on its home floor is no easy task. Arizona will be looking to bear down, keep the record at McKale unblemished, and catch up with Oregon in the standings. Fourth-year head coach Sean Miller will have his team focused and ready to go, as the national spotlight burns brightest on the best.
UCLA has to give a 40-minute effort and maintain defensive intensity from start to finish, or the Bruins will be in for a very long night in Tucson.
Overall, the Bruins’ offense has been productive this season, ranking No. 8 nationally in assists per game, No. 24 in scoring and No. 25 in field goal percentage. But recent inconsistency on offense and continued struggles on defense has UCLA falling fast out of the country’s favor.
Leading scorers Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams will need to find their stroke again after struggling in the early part of conference play. And the defense will need to hold strong in every facet, as the Wildcats can score in transition, on the perimeter and in the paint.
UCLA has the chance to reassert itself as a national power with a win over Arizona, but the desert isn’t kind to young teams. The Bruins’ talented cast of freshmen will need to step up, and Howland will have to maintain control of his players’ emotions.
If UCLA can rediscover its offensive firepower and crash the boards like crazy, all while remaining poised and present, the Bruins have the weapons to pull the upset.
Anything less and they’ll be hitting the road to Tempe in desperation mode, needing to knock off the Sun Devils on Saturday just to stay afloat in the conference title race.