There is no place Jay Bilas would rather be Saturday than in Tucson to take in the heavyweight bout between the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats and the No. 5 UCLA Bruins.
“Look, it’s not even close,” the ESPN College GameDay analyst told local media on Friday. “This is the game of the day and the game of the weekend. Everyone wants to see it. It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere. The atmosphere is always great here at McKale, but it will be fever pitch for this one.
“This is a bucket list game. If we weren’t coming here, and they asked us which [game] you would want to see, this is the one I’d like to see.”
Bilas has been part of College GameDay since 2005, and says Saturday’s matchup featuring two top-five teams is rare — even for their show, which regularly covers the top game of the week.
“Every once in a while we’ll do a (North) Carolina game and we’ll get a top-five, top-10 matchup, but it’s not as often as you’d think,” he said. “And so to get four versus five ... it’s rare. You don’t see it that often.”
Here are his thoughts on the matchup, along with some from his colleague and fellow Duke Blue Devil, Jay Williams.
Bilas is amazed by UCLA’s offense
“UCLA is shooting 53 percent from the field as a team. The last team to do that for a full season was Duke (in 1992). (Christian) Laettner, (Grant) Hill, (Bobby) Hurley. [UCLA] is averaging close to 22 assists per game. The last team to carry that through an entire season was Kentucky in 1996 — Rick Pitino’s team that had all those pros and won the national championship in the Meadowlands. That’s the kind of air they’re breathing.
“And I’m not arguing that they’re as good as Duke ‘92 or Kentucky ‘96, the point is they’re doing stuff that teams haven’t done since then. It’s not like other teams haven’t had the chance to do it. That’s a lot of basketball that has been played between ‘92 and ‘96 until now. Their offense is frightening. I know Arizona’s coaches have been spending a lot of time watching tape and all these different things and it’s gotta be like ‘holy cow, look at this. How do you stop this?’
“You can’t make a mistake. If you make a mistake it’s two or three points. If you spend too much time concentrating on one guy, they have six guys that can score. Their sixth-leading scorer (Thomas Welsh), if you give him a 15-footer, it’s a layup. He makes it every time. He never misses. And that’s extraordinary. There aren’t many teams built like that.”
Williams compared Lonzo Ball to Jason Kidd
“I knew Lonzo Ball ball for a while ... and I knew he was a special kid, I didn’t know he was going to be this special.
“That dude makes the game so easy. He reminds me so much of Jason Kidd. I got a chance to play with Jason Kidd for three months when I was working out with the Nets and Jason Kidd made a lot of people a lot of money who weren’t deserving of making a lot of money, and that’s who Lonzo Ball is.”
Williams would have been upset to be in Allonzo Trier’s shoes, and has always believed Arizona could make the Final Four
“I told people that when he comes back, I said ‘OK, here they come’, because if I’m Allonzo Trier I’m pissed off and I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder. I have something to prove. This is a Final Four team.
“This is a team at the beginning of the year that a lot of people did not talk about. And certain talking heads spoke about them. I spoke about Arizona as a team that could contend, but a lot of people didn’t see it. When Allonzo Trier came back, you feel the energy of this team change. ... You feel that this is a team that should be in Phoenix. The difficult thing about the tournament is the best team doesn’t always win. It’s a one-game series.
“But if you are asking me to bet some money on a team, I put my money on the team right here.”
Bilas says difference between Arizona and UCLA is their balance
“Arizona is really good. They’re so balanced. They defend at a really high level and even though they see a lot of zone, they’ve gotten much better against the zone. They see zone for a reason — it’s because most teams can’t guard Lauri Markkanen on ball screens. They would prefer to pack the lane and he’s shown his versatility in that he can do a lot more than shoot from the perimeter. He’s got a low-post game, he’s a good passer. He’s a really good player.
“I do think UCLA is more powerful on the offensive end, but they are not the defensive team that Arizona has proven to be. And that’s really the one difference between the two teams. Arizona consistently defends at a high level and UCLA has not done that throughout the course of the year, but they have done it much better over the last five, six games.”
Lauri Markkanen reminds Bilas of Dirk Nowitzki — and is the reason why teams play zone against Arizona
“The easy [comparison] is to say Nowitzki just because of his build and all that. He’s a prototype of the new-age game. He’s a big guy that years ago would have been put down in the post and would have been expected to play a majority of minutes with his back to the basket. But now that the game has evolved into being more of a perimeter-oriented, drive-and-kick game, he’s really versatile and he can do both. He can operate on the perimeter and stretch you, and then he can make a big guy play away from the basket, which not all big guys can do.
“One of the things about spacing — we talk about spacing a lot in basketball — spacing is great but if you can’t stretch the defense, spacing doesn’t matter. The defense won’t go with you. And they have to go with Markkanen because he can shoot. He’s elite, and not just elite as a freshman. He’s elite, period. There are very few players that are shooting close to 90 percent from the foul line and 50 percent from 3 and over 50 percent inside the arc. He does everything. And it makes him really difficult to guard. He makes you make choices defensively. Do you double him? How do you handle him on a ball screen? Because if you’re going to stick with him and recover to him, that means that the ball-handler is going to have some other opportunities.
“And that’s why you’re seeing so many teams play Arizona some zone. It’s not necessarily a question of their perimeter shooting. ... Markkanen’s the big reason.”
Bilas believes Arizona’s point guard play is good enough to reach the Final Four
“I think it’s a Final Four-caliber team. Parker Jackson-Cartwright does a good job. Kadeem Allen can play the point. They’ve got a number of guys that can handle it and initiate. They don’t have a ball-dominant guard.
“And that’s one of the things I like about Lonzo Ball. As a point guard, he can control the game without dominating the ball. And that’s not easy to do. Just because — and I don’t mean this to be disrespectful — Parker Jackson-Cartwright or Kadeem Allen are not the players that Lonzo Ball is doesn’t mean that Arizona isn’t just as good, if not better. Having a great point guard is great. It’s like having a great quarterback in football. But they’ve got good point guards and with all that they have surrounding that position, they’ve gotten plenty.”
Williams shares his keys of the game for Arizona
“I think Lauri Markkanen needs to find his shooting touch. That kid is so damn talented it’s incredible, but he needs to have a big-time game.
“Most importantly is defense. The style which UCLA plays ... having Lonzo on the court, he’s willing to kick the ball ahead very quickly. A lot of guards in college like to pound the ball, dribble out, more so like Russell Westbrook.
“Something that’s imperative for [Saturday] for Arizona is after you score, you cannot be lost in the elation that you just scored, regardless of how you scored. ... I think that comes with maturity. You have to be able to refocus and recalibrate very, very quickly till the next play.
“And obviously you have to guard off the dribble a lot better than [Arizona] did against USC. You can’t afford to let a team like USC shoot 50-plus percent from the field.
“If you’re able to do those two things, Arizona should be in a pretty comfortable place to win the ballgame.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire