Arizona vs. UCLA: Results aside, Bruins game about Wildcats' core

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats face the UCLA Bruins in Pauley Pavilion with everything on the line, but nothing more than simply proving they're not the team everyone thinks.

Time: 7 p.m. MST

TV: ESPN

This is a big one.

Perfectly scripted, ESPN's College GameDay scheduled the Arizona Wildcats' game against the UCLA Bruins on Saturday with hopes that the Pac-12 title on the line. It is.

Furthermore, rivalry and history between the two teams gives Sean Miller's club the first of the final two regular-season games that will mean so much heading into the Pac-12 tournament. Arizona can wilt or regroup against the Bruins, and next week, the Sun Devils.

Yet, when all is said and done and no matter how the Wildcats do -- win or lose, that is -- the most important part of playing the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion is simply showing that there's something more than rotten fuel in the tank. Nobody is asking that the Wildcats have any nitrous oxide available. They have shown with Mark Lyons' looping drive against Florida and Nick Johnson's block against San Diego State there was some to begin with.

But it's not the key to winning any more than luck should be.

Maybe the nitrous oxide is all burned up, blown in those early-season bursts. Questionably, there's no magic left for the postseason.

All that matters Saturday, though, is that Arizona (23-5, 11-5 Pac-12) can show it's running on everyday, high-performance fuel. Call it Chevron with Techron. That's because the Pac-12 tournament, the NCAA tournament ... neither is a sprint. As Arizona's 1997 national championship -- heck, every NCAA tournament team -- showed, one lucky bounce of the ball in one game isn't enough to get it done.

And that's exactly why beating the Bruins isn't the biggest of deals. Competing is another thing. The Wildcats are heading to the NCAA tournament no matter what and regardless of the seeding, they'll have to find themselves to succeed.

Against UCLA at McKale Center earlier this season, the Bruins (21-7, 11-4 Pac-12) ran over the Wildcats for an 84-73 victory.

Arizona shot 38 percent while jacking up 24 three-pointers and only hitting five. The Wildcats gave up 48 percent shooting to UCLA. Solomon Hill couldn't do much to shut down Shabazz Muhammad, and Lyons got handily out-point-guarded by former UA recruit Larry Drew II, who had nine dimes to Lyons' zip.

Other than Nick Johnson's 23 points, little for Arizona went well. And Johnson's play of late wonder's if that's a reasonable expectation nowadays. He's averaged 6.5 points over the last eight games.

All the issues will be on display against a very good basketball team. Oregon leads the Pac-12, but as much as the Wildcats would love to chase the conference title, simply playing loose, smart and aggressive basketball will be the thing to watch against UCLA.

Arizona hasn't played loose, smart or aggressive basketball very much this season. So 23-5 matters little other than a ticket to March Madness.

Three-point worries

Once one of the best shooting teams in the country, the Wildcats have fallen sharply off the cliff. They are now tied in for the No. 78-best three-point shooting percentage at 36 percent, and they're allowing 36.2 percent to opponents, which ranks 284th in the country, according to TeamRankings.com.

In Pac-12 play, the Wildcats are shooting a lowly 33.7 percent themselves while allowing 37.3 percent to opponents, a differential that adds up to deficits even within single games. Consider that during the 11-5 Pac-12 schedule that Arizona has shot 338 three-pointers to their opponents' 244, and shot selection seems to be even a deeper issue than simple three-point defense or poor shooting themselves.

The Wildcats attempt 38.5 percent more three-pointers than their opponents in Pac-12 play, a ridiculously huge difference and one that has ultimately been a large part of play that likely has induced hair-pulling amongst the UA faithful.

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