The No. 14 Arizona Wildcats knocked off the USC Trojans on Thursday night in the first game of their L.A. road trip, but it didn’t come easy.
Arizona held a 23-point lead early in the second half, but from there, the Wildcats’ effort level defensively wavered and the Trojans were able to cut their deficit to as few as three points in the final moments.
USC scored just 19 points in the first half, but scored 47 points over the final 20 minutes. As unusual as that may seem, it is not an anomaly for Arizona defense’s. Against ASU last Thursday, Arizona held the Sun Devils to 25 points in the first half, but then ASU exploded for 50 points in the second half.
Head coach Sean Miller said Arizona’s ability to play hard for 40 minutes is “non-existent” right now.
“We’ve already talked about that and we got to move onto UCLA,” he said. “UCLA may be the team that teaches us a lesson of how important it is to be in the game for 40 minutes because they’re so good on offense.
“If we do that against UCLA, they’ll beat us by 30 points. That’s one thing I know.”
The Wildcats (17-2, 6-0 Pac-12) are set to face the third-ranked UCLA Bruins on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion in a battle of two heavyweights.
The Bruins enter with a 19-1 record and a 6-1 Pac-12 record. UCLA’s lone loss was at the hands of the Oregon Ducks in Eugene after Dillon Brooks hit a game-winning shot as time expired.
But that has been the Bruins’ only setback this season. Earlier in the season, they arguably had the best win in college basketball beating a highly-ranked Kentucky Wildcats team on the road in Lexington.
“UCLA is a heck of team,” Miller said. “If you go to Rupp Arena and win, you’re one of the best. So I think that win solidified them and even the Oregon game. ... if you replay that game, a lot of things had to happen for them to leave there with a loss.
“They’re a really good team. They’re the nation’s best offensive team, statistically. They’re very difficult to guard. You watch the Golden State Warriors play in the NBA, and sometimes you just marvel at the ability to make shots. UCLA is the college version.”
Indeed. As Miller noted, UCLA boasts the nation’s best offense. The Bruins have an offensive rating — an estimated amount of points scored per 100 possessions — of 122.9, according to Sports-Reference.
Additionally, UCLA has the highest 3-point percentage in college basketball, making 44 percent of its attempts, even though they take an average of 25 per game.
“With as many as they shoot, that’s a remarkable stat right there,” Miller said.
But UCLA is not an unbalanced team. The Bruins shoot 60 percent on 2-pointers, too. In total they shoot 54 percent as a team.
UCLA plays at a lightning-quick pace — the 10th-quickest in college basketball — and average 93.4 points per game. The Bruins have six players that average double figures in the scoring column in Bryce Alford (17.4), TJ Leaf (16.9), Isaac Hamilton (15.0), Lonzo Ball (14.4), Aaron Holiday (13.2), and Thomas Welsh (10.4).
Welsh is the only one in that group that is not a 3-point threat, but the others all shoot 38 percent or higher from beyond the arc.
Ball is the maestro of the UCLA’s high-powered offense. At 6-foot-6, the freshman point guard is, as SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell put it, “putting on the greatest show in college basketball.”
Using a dazzling display of passing, Ball is averaging 8.2 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 3 to 1.
Ball’s presence has allowed Bryce Alford, the son of UCLA head coach Steve Alford, to play off the ball in his senior season. Bryce has thrived in that role, connecting on 47 percent of his 3s this season.
It would be remiss to forget to mention Leaf’s impact, too. The 6-foot-10 stretch forward is shooting 64 percent from the field and 51 percent from 3, and leads the Bruins in rebounding, tracking down 9.0 per game.
Of course, Leaf was originally an Arizona commit, but he decided to open up his recruitment and ultimately chose to stay in Southern California. That opened up the door for Lauri Markkanen to join Arizona.
If there is one weakness the Bruins have, it’s their defense. By a long shot.
In terms of efficiency, the Bruins are 92nd in the country and eighth in Pac-12, per KenPom. They are allowing roughly 100 points per 100 possessions. For reference, Arizona is allowing 92 points per 100 possessions.
Opponents are shooting 42 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3 against UCLA.
That said, when I asked Miller why he thinks UCLA struggles defensively, he says it’s one, because the Bruins often have big leads and two, because they know they can score so easily.
“They score so easily that sometimes I think when they play with a lead — we’ve done this year — you have a big lead, you’re winning, you have great confidence that you’re going to win and sometimes you let your guard down on defense,” he said. “But when they need to rise to the challenge, I think they have a team that can get big stops. They have big post players, they have some incredible guards.”
Welsh, standing at 6-foot-11, averages 1.8 blocks per game and reserve big man Ike Anigbogu is averaging 1.5 blocks per game in just 13.1 minutes.
UCLA and Arizona split last year’s series, as both teams won at home. UCLA is 54-41 against Arizona all-time.
The Wildcats are 2-4 at Pauley Pavilion since Miller became Arizona’s head coach in 2009.
Allonzo Trier will make his season debut for the Wildcats, as it was reported and later confirmed by the UA, putting an interesting twist on this game.
The sophomore averaged 14.8 points per game last season.
How to watch Saturday’s game
Time: 2 p.m. MST
How they matchup
While UCLA is favored to win this game, Arizona’s momentum to secure a Pac-12 title can gather some serious steam if it is able to knock off the Bruins.
A victory would give the Wildcats a 7-0 Pac-12 record, while handing the Bruins their second conference loss. It’d be two-game lead for Arizona, not to mention the two teams still have to match up in McKale Center in late February where the Wildcats could very well be favored to win.
And, aside from the two games against UCLA and a trip to Eugene, the remainder of Arizona’s conference schedule is very favorable.
So if Arizona wins Saturday, UCLA would likely have to beat Arizona in Tucson to have a shot at a conference title. Otherwise it would be Arizona and Oregon’s prize to lose.
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