When the Arizona Wildcats meet the UCLA Bruins, it’s never just some ho-hum conference game. After all, these two west coast powerhouses combine for at least a share of 23 of the last 31 Pac-12 regular season championships.
When these two teams get together, it warrants every basketball fan’s attention. And Saturday will be no different.
In fact, Saturday afternoon’s contest at Pauley Pavilion might just be the biggest, and most interesting, Arizona-UCLA game we have seen in quite some time.
The Wildcats (17-2, 6-0) come in as winners of 11 straight and have opened up 6-0 in Pac-12 play for just the third time this century.
Meanwhile, in Westwood, UCLA has as much hype as they’ve had in decades. The Bruins (19-1, 5-1) are looking to defend their home floor, led by the best offense in the country.
It was already obvious that this was a marquee matchup days ago. Two longtime rivals who happen to be two of the best programs in college basketball history. Each with lofty expectations this season and each led by their own Freshman phenom.
And then a little bit of news came out on Friday night.
That leads us to our first of three things to watch on Saturday:
NO MORE SWEATPANTS!
Allonzo Trier is back. No, really, for real this time.
Trier’s status was a mystery for several months. A suspension with an unknown reason and nobody could comment on it. Details were finally made public earlier this week when it was revealed that Trier failed a performance-enhancing drug test and couldn’t be cleared to play until there was no trace of the drug in his system.
Just a few short days later, Allonzo Trier is set to make his season debut in what is undoubtedly the biggest game of Arizona’s season.
Trier averaged nearly 15 points a game as a freshman last season and brings an extremely efficient offensive game to this year’s Wildcats.
His return does bring about a lot of questions. How ready is he? He’s been practicing plenty but that’s a little different than opening your season on the road against the third-ranked team in the nation. How does he fit in? Who loses minutes?
A lot will need to figure itself out but there’s no way to negatively spin this — Allonzo Trier will be back in uniform on Saturday and that can only mean good things for the road Cats.
The UCLA hype that I mentioned before is very real and very warranted. And most of that hype is due to their Freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball.
Ball has proven to be a team-oriented, stat stuffing, game controller who has a keen eye for finding the open man. At his best, he’s shown that he can be a hyper-athletic Jason Kidd.
That is as terrifying as it sounds.
Ball is averaging 14.4 points per game, nearly six rebounds, and eight assists.
While it all starts with Ball, it certainly doesn’t end there.
Ball has been so good, he’s managed to turn T.J. Leaf into UCLA’s “other” freshman. Leaf, a former Arizona commit, has been a monster, averaging 16.9 points and nine rebounds on 64% from the field.
Senior coach’s son, Bryce Alford, is playing off the ball a lot more this year and that has improved his game mightily. He’s averaging over 17 points per game on 50% shooting after three consecutive years of not being able to shoot 40%. Alford is also hitting 47% of his three pointers, a key reason the Bruins are averaging 93.4 points per game as a team.
Ball’s ability to find the open man and Alford’s improved catch-and-shoot prowess make them a duo that can end Arizona’s winning streak in quick fashion.
LAURI’S HOT STREAK
With the news of Allonzo Trier’s return, it’s clear that he’s the story. And while that’s totally reasonable, as Trier was projected to be the best player on the floor for the Wildcats in his sophomore season, there’s a certain seven foot sharpshooter who is more than capable of making Saturday all about him.
Lauri Markkanen has unquestionably been Arizona’s best player this season and that’s been apparent over the last two weeks.
In his last three games, Markkanen has turned scoring into an art form. He’s got 75 points on 26-42 from the floor and 13-18 from deep.
UCLA loves to score but they’re not so crazy about defense, they’re 92nd in the nation in defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. That could set up the perfect opportunity for Lauri Markkanen to put on his masterpiece.