The Arizona Wildcats (19-5, 9-2) are coming back home following a tough road loss in Seattle on Saturday night. They’re back in McKale to take on the L.A. schools — first up are the UCLA Bruins (16-7, 7-4) who are riding a three-game win streak ahead of Thursday night’s contest.
Arizona is looking to get back on track in more ways than one. Other than falling this past weekend to a buzzer-beater and suffering just their second Pac-12 loss of the season, the Wildcats are looking to avenge their lone home loss from a season ago.
In last year’s final home game of the season, Arizona fell for the first time all season at McKale, 77-72 to the Lonzo Ball-led UCLA Bruins.
The rosters are vastly different this time around but much like last year, the Wildcats are undefeated at home entering their meeting with the Bruins.
So how can Arizona right the wrong from last February? Will they be able to shut down the Bruins’ win streak?
Let’s check out three keys to an Arizona win on Thursday night (tipoff is set for 8 p.m. MST on ESPN).
Embrace the pace
UCLA plays at a fast tempo, faster than nearly everyone else in the Pac-12. For the season, they rank behind Arizona State but since conference play has started, nobody in the Pac-12 is getting more possessions than the Bruins.
The Wildcats haven’t played particularly fast this season as that’s not Sean Miller’s style but Arizona has the personnel to run with just about anyone in the country.
The Bruins want to maximize their possessions and get up as many shots as they can. Arizona’s offense is more athletic and explosive than the Bruins so if given the opportunity, the Wildcats need to get out and run.
In the half-court, look for quick ball movement leading to even quicker shots. Parker Jackson-Cartwright will need to have his best entry passes ready on Thursday night because feeding Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic could be the easiest to put up a fast, large volume of shots.
Neither defense is good. But the Bruins have been beating opponents with a track meet style offense. Arizona is one team that can more than handle themselves in a track meet.
While UCLA’s defense has struggled, they’ve made things difficult for opponents on their first shot.
In conference play, UCLA is only allowing opponents to shoot 42 percent from the field and 34 percent from deep.
Where the Bruins are getting killed though is on the offensive glass. They’ve given up more offensive boards in Pac-12 play than anyone else. With a beast like Ayton in the middle and a strong offensive rebounder coming from the wing like Rawle Alkins, the Wildcats shouldn’t be afraid to miss their first shot against this team. If someone has a look from deep, they should take it on Thursday night despite the team only shooting 2-of-12 from beyond the arc in the loss to Washington. Thanks to trusty rebounders, Allonzo Trier and company should have the green light.
If Arizona can dominate the offensive glass like most against UCLA have, they won’t need a great shooting night to put big points up on the board.
Watch out for foul trouble
Arizona’s depth has been an issue all season and it reared its ugly head in Saturday night’s loss with only one Wildcat — Emmanuel Akot — playing double-digit minutes off the bench.
The Bruins’ aforementioned affinity for tons of possessions gives them a couple of advantages — a ton of 3-pointers and even more free throws.
UCLA attempts nearly 26 freebies per game in Pac-12 play and has drawn more than 20 fouls in three of the last four games.
If Arizona wants to keep their starting five intact for crunch time, they have to play carefully on defense. UCLA settles for shots plenty, and they can afford to as they’re hitting treys at a 40 percent clip in conference play, but when they’re not settling, they’re looking to get to the rim and draw a foul. Watch out for point guard Aaron Holiday. Not only does he lead the Bruins in scoring with 19.2 points but he also takes 6.2 free throws per game and makes 83 percent of them.
Unless Sean Miller wants to see a lot of his bench on Thursday night, the defense can’t play too aggressively.