The No. 7 Arizona Wildcats, after a refreshing victory over nemesis Arizona State, now take on a UCLA Bruins squad discombobulated from a stunning defeat by Washington State. Despite this loss, and a claim over at Bruins Nation calling UCLA "the new worst team in the Pac-12," the Bruins are not a team Sean Miller and his Wildcats should, in any way, overlook.
9-6 UCLA, remember, knocked off (at the time) No.1 Kentucky in convincing fashion 87-77, and nine days later they only went up to Spokane and beat No. 20 Gonzaga 71-67. Plus, Arizona doesn’t have the benefit of the nation’s longest home winning streak on their side, as they must venture into rowdy Pauley Pavilion, where UCLA has lost just once this season.
Who To Watch
The Bruins share the wealth: all five starters average at least ten points per game, while four average at least 13 PPG. Junior guard Bryce Alford, son of head coach Steve Alford, leads the way with 16.9 points. He can shoot from deep (36.3%), and find his teammates (5.1 APG). Junior guard Isaac Hamilton, slightly taller than Alford at 6’5, averages a hair above 16 points, and shoots nearly 50% from the floor. From behind the arc, his 34.8% should also be respected. More diverse athletically, he likes to slash and get to the basket. He may very well possess the Bruins’ hotter hand, as he scored 27 points against Washington State on 12-22 shooting.
Down low, UCLA boasts two quality big men in 7’0 sophomore center Thomas Welsh and 6’9 senior forward Tony Parker. With averages of 13.2 points and 9.9 rebounds, and shooting 54% from the floor, Parker is a significant threat. Welsh, scoring 13.3 PPG on 59.2% shooting while hoarding 8.4 RPG, is also lethal. He exploded for 21 points and 11 rebounds in that win over Kentucky. UCLA doesn’t have the greatest depth, but their sixth man, 6’10 sophomore Jonah Bolden, is capable of being effective. Playing about 21 minutes each game, he averages 4.6 points and 5.4 rebounds. Against Gonzaga, he put up 11 points and 10 rebounds. And don’t step off him if he catches the ball behind the arc, because at 30.4%, the big fella has surprising touch.
What To Watch
Alford may not be able to throw a spit-spewing tantrum quite like Bobby Hurley, but he can still coach. Knowing his team was going to be outmatched in talent by No. 1 Kentucky, he conjured a game plan that his players executed almost flawlessly. His tactic? Crowd the lane and smother their bigs while forcing Kentucky’s guards to shoot from outside the paint. Kentucky’s bigs are not nearly as talented or productive as last year, and they were incredibly ineffective against UCLA’s defense. They were repeatedly out-hustled.
The 13-1 Wildcats are not of the Kentucky variety, however. Alford’s team may have a harder time containing leading scorer and rebounder Ryan Anderson. Notching about 15 points and 10 rebounds a game, he could soon find himself a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate. Senior center Kaleb Tarczewski is back from injury, though perhaps not completely himself just yet. And maybe it doesn’t even matter. Back-up sophomore center Dusan Ristic has been a delightful surprise. In his last five games, he has averaged 12.6 points and 1.6 blocks. He hasn’t been a spectacular rebounder, but when his team is 1st in the NCAA in defensive rebounding percentage, at 79.7%, and 4th in rebounding margin, at +12.4, that’s okay.
6’4 freshman guard Allonzo Trier, at 14.1 PPG, is now the team’s second-leading scorer, and is coming off back-to-back 20-point games. Third leading scorer, Gabe York, is shooting 43.6% from three, and averages 13.1 PPG. Starting guard Kadeem Allen, back-up forward Mark Tollefsen, and even guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, are all making key contributions as well.
Arizona’s post presence, depth, and overall talent may ultimately be too much for a discombobulated UCLA team to overcome. They will need to first recapture their defensive prowess to have any chance of pulling off the upset.
Tip-off is at 7 P.M. MST, Thursday evening, on ESPN2.