UCLA vs. Arizona: Bruins not the rebounding force Wildcats expected

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The UCLA Bruins aren't the productive frontline that the Arizona Wildcats and other opponents expected them to be. And on that note, neither is Sean Miller's team.

Time: 7 p.m. MST

TV: ESPN2

This was the one to play it out for the Pac-12 title.

This was the game that would be the first piece of the tipping point in whether the Arizona Wildcats, with their 403 total media day votes in their favor and 15 first-place votes, or the UCLA Bruins, they of 402 total votes but 16 first-place votes, would establish themselves as the team to beat.

This is, as always, a rivalry.

The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1 Pac-12) host the first round at McKale Center on Thursday coming off a victory against Arizona State. UCLA is coming off a loss to the Oregon Ducks, who with a win against Wazzou on Wednesday night sit alone at 6-0 atop the Pac-12.

Surprise, surprise.

Another surprise in the bout for second place is in the rebounding capabilities of the Wildcats and Bruins. UCLA (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) entered the year potential favorites because David Wear, Travis Wear, Joshua Smith and even wings like Tyler Lamb were supposed to give Ben Howland depth. Instead, transfers by Smith, forward Brendan Lane, Lamb and a dismissal of forward Anthony Stover have sucked the options from the system. The Bruins have suffered from the defection of the big men especially, and they currently rank ninth in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin.

The Wear twins remain, but neither averages six rebounds per game coming in Thursday's game.

Last week, the athletic front line of Oregon grabbed 11 offensive rebounds against UCLA, which hardly used backup big man and freshman Tony Parker.

Meanwhile Arizona has surprised in the rebounding department, and that can be said even though they just had to get better with the influx of big men. But the Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in rebounding margin and grab 75 percent of opponent misses, good enough for sixth in the nation.

That wasn't quite expected in the preseason. And Sean Miller's club had better keep it up against a UCLA team hungry for a piece of the Pac-12 pie.

Matchups galore

The production of Arizona's young bigs is always an X-factor of sorts. Outside of the Wear twins, the Bruins have little interior presence. Parker, a freshman considered before the year to be a major recruiting coup, has disappointed. He played in just three minutes against the Ducks last week.

But UCLA can make up some of the rebounding with their athletic duo of Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson.

Anderson, more of a point guard trapped in a thin 6-foot-9 frame, leads his team with 9.1 rebounds per game to go with 9.9 points and 3.7 assists. When the best players are in the game -- Muhammad came off the bench last game -- it could be up to Brandon Ashley to cover the smooth forward.

Ashley found himself on the defensive end last week, completely shutting down energetic ASU forward Carrick Felix, but his consistency in that department will be tested against UCLA.

Meanwhile, Arizona's best defenders will be busy themselves. Nick Johnson is a good bet to see much time on Jordan Adams, the least-heralded but highly effective freshman scoring guard who averages 15.2 points per game. At point guard, Mark Lyons will get another attempt to prove he's shooting for the moon, as he said after the win against the Sun Devils.

"I don't want to be the best point guard in the Pac-12, I want to be the best in the country," said Lyons, who also had three assists and three steals. "I'm aiming for the moon, so I can be amongst the stars. I play every game as if it's my last."

Lyons forcing UCLA point guard Larry Drew II -- a former recruit of Arizona's who was spurned when Brandon Jennings committed -- out of his comfort zone and thus the UCLA offense out of a rhythm could go a long way. Drew is third in the NCAA at 8.1 assists per game in his first year since transferring from North Carolina, and Lyons coming out on the attack will also be important, as it has been of late.

And of course, we get to the best matchup we might see in the Pac-12 all season.

Solomon Hill, a senior who is working his way into the NBA Draft conversation, has a prime opportunity to show scouts that his slimmed-down body is ready to defend NBA-level scoring guards. He could take his shots at Muhammad, who leads the Bruins with 17.9 points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from three-point range.

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