Sean Miller wants his team to be excited for Saturday’s top-five matchup against the UCLA Bruins, but not too excited.
“I hope they’re excited. I probably ruined their excitement a little after the game, but that’s my job,” the Arizona head coach said after UA’s win over USC on Thursday. “To allow them to be the most successful, they have to be really focused on the task at hand. If you start to get too excited about the game and everything about it, you end up coming unglued or you have that anxiety that you’ve seen in these big games where you’re just not yourself.”
Distractions will be everywhere the fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats look before they take on the fifth-ranked Bruins on Saturday. Pass by McKale Center and you will see College GameDay’s monstrous tour bus taking up real estate in front of the arena.
Walk through the tunnels of McKale Center and you will stumble into members of the GameDay crew — like Jay Bilas and Jay Williams — plus dozens of other crew members and expensive camera equipment.
Then there will be the hundreds of fans lined up outside the building at dawn, waiting to burst through the doors for College GameDay on Saturday morning.
This isn’t a normal game day, but the Wildcats have to treat it like one.
“We just treat it like we do every other game,” Allonzo Trier said. “You prepare the same way, you do the right things, you go out there and play as hard as you should every other night. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing the best team or the worst team.”
This isn’t just another game, either. The stakes of this matchup are well-documented.
Aside from the fact it is the first top-five matchup between two Pac-12 teams in nine years, a Pac-12 title, the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament and potentially a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament are on the line for Arizona.
If the Wildcats beat the Bruins, they would all but lock up the first two things on that list and they likely need a win to stay in the hunt for the third. Lose, and all three are likely out of reach.
But to beat UCLA, Arizona has to play a complete game — a feat that has evaded the Wildcats recently.
“At times we played some good defense and at times we didn’t,” Miller said Thursday after USC shot 53 percent against Arizona. “You’re only going to go as far as your excellence on both ends. It can’t just be one. And just like if it’s only our defense, you have to be able to play better offense. We have to be good on both sides.”
After having the top-ranked offense nearly all season, UCLA enters Saturday’s game with the second-best offense in college basketball (Oklahoma State is first).
Miller says he has never seen a team that scores as consistently or as easily as UCLA does.
“It’s almost shocking to see how easy they score,” he said. “They blend a lot of characteristics of a team that I think can win the national championship — experience, great guard play, being great in a certain area, which for them is offensive efficiency — and that’s why for us, it’s not just going to be defense, it has to be defense and offense, but clearly our defense has to be at its best to have a chance to slow them down.”
Miller is not wrong. The Bruins have a few glaring weaknesses, mostly their defense and rebounding prowess, but there are no holes in their offense.
Led by freshman phenom Lonzo Ball and a plethora of other scoring threats, including former UA commit TJ Leaf, the Bruins shoot 42 percent from 3, 60 percent from 2, and have the 14th-best turnover percentage in the country.
All while playing at a frantic pace.
“We don’t have time to have breakdowns defensively,” Miller said. “And with that [UCLA] is still going to score, so the efficiency on both sides (of the floor) and the togetherness, this is what’s going to be required.”
Arizona won the first matchup between these two teams in Westwood back in January. It was Trier’s first game of the season, and the Wildcats smacked the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion, beating UCLA at its own game. Arizona won 96-85 in a fast-paced, high-scoring affair.
“It’s hard to beat the same team twice … but you can’t read too much into the first game,” Trier said. “We’re a lot different team, they’re a lot different team. A lot of time has passed so it’ll be good for both teams to see where we stand.”
Both teams are on lengthy winning streaks. Arizona (26-3, 15-1 Pac-12) has won five games in a row. UCLA (25-3, 12-3 Pac-12) has won six games in a row.
The Wildcats have won 70 of their last 71 in Tucson, too, but that streak could come to an end if their defense isn’t in tip-top shape on Saturday.
“We don’t want to, we have to play better defense in order to compete with them,” Trier said. “We know they’re the best offensive team in the country and we have to match that with our defense.”
The first time these teams played, Arizona did. The Wildcats held UCLA to 42 percent shooting. But, like Trier said, the first game means very little at this point.
The opposite is true for Saturday’s game.
“That’s what’s so exciting about being able to play a team like them this late in the year for what’s at stake,” Miller said. “That’s what we’ve all expected when we came to Arizona, but it’s fun for the fans and I think to a certain degree we enjoy the challenge.
“But it’s an immense challenge. To play UCLA and to beat them you have to really play great.”
For more on the matchup, see the graphic below.
How to watch Saturday’s game
Time: 6:15 p.m. MST
Live stream: WatchESPN
Announcers: Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas, Maria Taylor
How to watch College GameDay
Time: 9 a.m. MST & 5 p.m. MST
Live stream: WatchESPN
How they match up
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