First-place Arizona (19-5, 9-2 Pac-12) is coming off a loss to Washington, while fourth-place UCLA (16-7, 7-4) has won three straight, including a win over USC.
Here are some storylines heading into Thursday’s game.
Strength on weakness
UCLA has the No. 1 offense in the Pac-12 since conference play started; Arizona’s is No. 2. Both teams average roughly 82 points per game.
Meanwhile, the Bruins have the seventh-ranked defense, while the Wildcats’ ranks sixth.
In short, a lot of points will be scored Thursday.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said Monday that this might be the worst defensive team he’s ever coached and warned that UCLA could score 100.
The Bruins have only scored 100 points once this year, but it’s easy to see where Miller is coming from.
Arizona ranks 106th in the country on defense, and its two biggest weaknesses are defending the 3 and defending without fouling.
Well, UCLA shoots the highest percentage from 3 in the Pac-12 (40.0) and has the highest free-throw rate (the number of free throws per field goal attempt). So, yeah, this is not an ideal matchup for the Wildcats.
But UCLA’s defense is worse, ranking 139th, and it should have difficulty slowing down Arizona, too. Its main problems are in three areas — the inability to defend off the dribble, rebounding, and forcing turnovers.
The Bruins rank 11th in the Pac-12 in both defensive rebounding percentage and takeaway percentage.
That is a dangerous combination because it means teams aren’t wasting possessions against them and when they do miss shots, they have a good chance of getting a second or even third chance to score.
Arizona’s offense ranks seventh in the entire country, so stopping it is already difficult enough. Giving it multiple chances to score on top of that? Not ideal.
And if UCLA’s defense can’t get rebounds or turnovers, it nullifies its biggest strength — transition offense.
“It’s about taking away our middle drive which is essential in how we set things up, and we’re still getting beat on middle drives too much, and then finishing,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said.
“In December we were a much better rebounding team than we are right now, and that’s been the frustrating part. We don’t want to have to defend multiple possessions. We want to be able to run and we’re very good in transition, as good as I think this league has in transition. So for us to get you in transition we either have turn you over or get rebounds, and we’ve not been a big turnover defensive team, so it’s important that we rebound the ball and be able to go.”
Possible Pac-12 pettiness
Arizona is 78-2 in its last 80 home games, but UCLA was responsible for one of those two losses, which happened last year (when College GameDay was in town, no less).
So don’t think Arizona has forgotten about that.
How can it? That game was also when Alford started beef with the Wildcats by calling a timeout with one second left in a five-point game.
Miller was furious and would get his revenge in the Pac-12 Tournament, calling a timeout with 0.9 seconds left in an 11-point game (he had to make sure his team was poised!).
Thursday’s game is the first time the two teams will meet since that incident, though Alford downplayed any bad blood between them.
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” Alford said when asked whether there would be further retaliation (via the LA Times). “And there was no intent on my behalf and he was the same way, so there’s nothing there.”
Miller is 6-3 vs. Alford, by the way.
If the game is close? Advantage Arizona
Arizona has played 11 conference games and eight of them have been decided by nine points or less. The Wildcats are 6-2 in those contests.
For the most part, the Wildcats execute when they need to (that Washington game aside).
UCLA cannot say the same.
In conference play, the Bruins are 1-4 in games decided by single digits, including an 0-3 mark on the road.
Alford attributed that to his team’s youth. UCLA center Thomas Welsh is the Bruins’ only returning starter.
“I think and I hope that we’ve had enough road games now with these new guys that, although this is probably the best road experience they’ll have, playing down in Tucson,” he said. “...We had a lot of experience last year that could help the young guys. Now it’s very few experienced (players) with a lot of young guys. Five of those guys are really going through it for the first time, and they gotta handle that well.”
UCLA is 1-4 on the road this year, and that lone win was against last-place Cal. So from that standpoint, Arizona’s chances look favorable.
Another top point guard ventures into McKale
Arizona has hosted two of the top point guards in college basketball this season in Alabama’s Collin Sexton and ASU’s Tra Holder, and it will see a third Thursday in UCLA’s Aaron Holiday.
The junior is averaging 19.2 points and 5.4 assists per game with an impressive shooting line of .472/.425/.831.
Arizona gave up 31 points to Holder and 30 to Sexton — thanks to a lot of free throws — so it will be interesting to see what kind of night Holiday has.
UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said Monday that he can do a better job setting the tone for the Wildcats defensively, and this would be a great time to make that adjustment.
It would also be a good time for PJC to regain his shooting stroke. The senior is shooting 44 percent from 3 this season, but is just 4-of-16 in the last five games.
Holiday is on the opposite side of the spectrum, shooting 13-of-25 from 3 in his last five games.
Battle of the bigs
Three of the conference’s top big men will take the hardwood in McKale Center on Thursday.
There’s Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic for Arizona and Welsh for UCLA. All are having outstanding seasons.
Welsh is averaging 13.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, and has added 3-point shooting to his repertoire this season, shooting 38.9 percent from that range.
“I’ve coached him which seems like a decade ago,” Miller said. “His skill level at 7-foot and how well he rebounds, there aren’t many rebounders that have the skill set of him.”
Ayton is averaging 19.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game on 63 percent shooting. Ristic is averaging 11.6 points and 6.9 rebounds on 58 percent shooting.
“We’ve been really good in the post, but we’re going to get a huge challenge with Ristic and Ayton,” Alford said. “That’s as big as a post challenge we’ll have all year.”
Ayton and Welsh are the only players in the Pac-12 that average a double-double.
A lot at stake for UCLA
What does this game mean for both teams?
For Arizona, it is a chance to regroup after losing to Washington, potentially extend its lead atop the conference standings, and improve its NCAA Tournament seeding (and maybe make some positive strides defensively?)
A win would also vault the Bruins back into the Pac-12 title race. A loss would all but eliminate them, especially because Arizona does not play the L.A. schools on the road this season.
“I think you have three teams (including USC) that will go against each other this week that are all talented, that are playing for bigger things,” Miller said.
“And if you’re a fan of Arizona basketball and you have these tickets, you’re going to see two fantastic games this week at McKale Center and our crowd will be alive and ready. My hope is that our team will match that.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire