Perhaps the Pac-12’s best and most historical basketball rivalry, these two programs have dominated the West Coast for decades. They combine for 25 Pac-12 (formerly Pac-10, obviously) regular season championships in the last 34 seasons and combine for 10 of the 20 Pac-12 Tournament Championships all-time.
These two meeting up in Las Vegas is nothing new. Not only is this a rematch of last year’s semifinal but this will actually be the fifth meeting between Arizona and UCLA in the last six Pac-12 Tournaments, with all the games taking place in the semifinals or championship game. Both teams won two of the previous four.
Those are all the historical aspects but it’s not like these two programs haven’t locked horns in one way or another since last year’s Pac-12 Tournament game that saw Arizona pick up the win, advance to the Final and rub it in a little with an infamous, very late timeout.
UCLA doled out Arizona’s lone home loss this season – much like last season – defeating the Wildcats in McKale back on Feb. 8, 82-74.
More recently though, the Bruins picked up a different kind of W on Arizona after Shareef O’Neal elected to decommit from Arizona and commit to UCLA after ESPN’s Sean Miller wiretap report rocked the UA program. As if dealing with the controversy wasn’t punishment enough, UCLA capitalizing on it adds some salt to the wound of an Arizona staff that has been entrenched in recruiting wars with the Bruins for the last several years.
That brings us to now. There is no love lost between these teams, these coaches or these fanbases. The Wildcats want vengeance from their only loss in Tucson this season. UCLA wants to keep a leg up on their biggest West coast competition. It’s destiny that these two lock up in Las Vegas once again.
Let’s look at three keys to Arizona advancing to their second straight Pac-12 Tournament Championship game:
Keep Trier rolling
Allonzo Trier enjoys playing against the UCLA Bruins. Last season, he returned from his 19-game suspension just in time for a game in Pauley Pavilion where he was showered with boo-birds and inflammatory chants. He responded with 12 points, a powerful slam dunk and a flex to the crowd. Since then, he dropped 28 points in their second meeting last season and scored 20 points in last year’s Pac-12 tournament win.
In this season’s only meeting between the two schools, Trier was seemingly the only Wildcat that truly showed up, scoring 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting in the loss.
Trier was excellent on offense Thursday, scoring 22 points on only nine shots in the Wildcats’ quarterfinals win over Colorado.
With Trier riding high, he needs to have the ball early and often against the Bruins. If he’s as aggressive (had 10 free throw attempts on Thursday, made them all) and efficient (shot 5-of-9 from the floor) on Friday as he was against the Buffaloes, he could steal the show and lead Arizona to another win.
Contain Aaron Holiday
It’s much easier said than done.
Holiday absolutely torched Stanford on Thursday for 34 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. He was simply on another level and the Cardinal had no hope of stopping him. This comes mere days after Holiday dismantled the USC Trojans for 34 points, five rebounds and seven assists in the regular season finale.
Yes, Deandre Ayton is the Pac-12 Player of the Year and he deserves it. But nobody in the conference is playing better ball than Aaron Holiday right now.
With Holiday officially approaching “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” levels of basketball, the best Arizona can do is stick their best defender on him like glue and make everyone else beat them on Friday night.
That means Rawle Alkins is going to have to take the responsibility of trying to shut down the red-hot Bruins point guard. He had a very nice defensive game against Colorado, collecting four steals in the win. But nobody on that Colorado team is quite at Holiday’s level.
If Alkins and Arizona can slow Holiday down and make the rest of the Bruins have to shoot the lights out, the Wildcats are in good shape.
Control the tempo
As much as I’d love to see this Wildcat team focus on getting out and running and pushing the pace, this probably isn’t the team to do it against. Arizona certainly has the athleticism to do so but UCLA’s gameplan is to get as many possessions as possible and get their opponent to settle into a fast pace, forcing up bad shots playing sloppy.
That certainly worked to the Bruins’ favor last time.
Arizona shot just 44 percent from the floor in last month’s loss to UCLA – forcing up 66 shot attempts, their second-most in conference play and only taking 10 free throw attempts, their lowest of the season.
The Wildcats need to take the slow, methodical approach and force the Bruins into playing their game on Friday night. Arizona can score with anyone in the country but if they’re in a fast-paced shootout, I don’t like their chances.