UCLA beat Stanford on Thursday to get to this point, while Arizona beat Colorado.
Arizona and UCLA matched up once in the regular season, which resulted in the Bruins surprisingly upsetting the Wildcats in Tucson, 82-74.
Here are some things to watch in Friday’s rematch.
Can Arizona slow down Holiday? Even just a little bit?
Deandre Ayton was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, but there isn’t anyone playing better basketball in the conference right now than UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday.
Over his last five games, the junior is averaging 28.2 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per contest, while shooting 51 percent from the field and 53 percent from 3.
And only once in those five games has Holiday played fewer than 40 minutes — he played 39 at Colorado a few weeks ago.
Relatively speaking, Arizona did a decent job of slowing down Holiday in the first matchup, holding him to 17 points and 8 assists on 7-of-15 shooting. But Holiday has taken his game to another level since then, and the Wildcats better figure out how to slow him down.
And it’s not just Holiday’s point totals that are frightening, but how he gets his teammates involved. All five Bruin starters scored in double figures against Arizona in February, including G.G. Goloman who had a career-high 16 points, thanks to three 3s.
The Bruins shot 52 percent from the field in that game and 11-of-24 from 3, so the Wildcats will need a much better defensive performance this time around to avoid elimination.
Can Arizona get Ayton going?
Deandre Ayton’s first postseason game didn’t quite go as planned, as the star freshman tallied just 10 points and 6 rebounds on 4-of-14 shooting in Arizona’s win vs. Colorado.
He also was handed a technical foul after arguing a call, and wound up fouling out with 3:34 left in the second half.
But despite Arizona being heavily reliant on Ayton this season, it managed to skate past the Buffaloes nonetheless.
But the margin of error against the Bruins’ high-powered offense figures to be a lot slimmer, so Arizona probably can’t afford to have Ayton struggle for a second consecutive game (or again this season if you’re looking at the big picture).
And as much as UCLA scuffles on defense this year — the Bruins are 108th in the country in defensive efficiency — it held Ayton to 16 points on 19 shots back in February.
UCLA center Thomas Welsh isn’t the most athletic defender, but he is one of the rare college big men who can match Ayton’s size in the post.
Both teams have been through plenty of adversity this year
Arizona and UCLA were both in the headlines before the 2017-18 season even began, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Bruins had three freshmen, including the polarizing LiAngelo Ball, suspended after they were caught shoplifting during a team trip to China. Ball quit the team and now plays professionally in Lithuania, while the other two — Cody Riley and Jalen Hill — were suspended for the entire season.
Hill and Riley were both four-star prospects, so losing them has hurt UCLA’s depth this season.
Thankfully for the Bruins, they had a good group of returners — mostly Holiday and Thomas Welsh — while their other freshmen, Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, have been great this season. (Though Hands is just returning from an ankle injury and only played 10 minutes against Stanford.)
UCLA was also forced to cancel a home game because of the wildfires that swept through Southern California back in early December.
Meanwhile, Arizona has had a number of things it has had to battle this season. There’s all its involvement in the college basketball recruiting scandal and the fallout from that — Sean Miller’s temporary absence and Book Richardson’s firing, etc. — plus Rawle Alkins’ foot injury and Allonzo Trier’s recent suspension and subsequent reinstatement.
Yet, both teams are playing well down the final stretch of the season, though unfortunately one will be going home after Friday’s game.
Arizona has only lost three home games in the last five seasons, and UCLA is responsible for two of them, which have occurred the last two seasons.
The one this past February was probably the worst of the bunch. Arizona trailed by double figures in the second half, before cutting the deficit to eight in the final moments.
It was the first time in recent memory that Arizona wasn’t competitive in McKale Center.
“That was probably the easiest (road) victory in McKale in seven or eight years,” Miller said afterward. “We’re not used to losing at home, but especially not in a way that we lost control of the game.”
The way the Pac-12 schedule shook out this year, Arizona did not play the L.A. schools on the road so the Pac-12 Tournament is its only chance at avenging that home loss.
But, unlike most teams in the Pac-12, the Bruins have no reason to fear the Wildcats. If they can beat Arizona in McKale, why can’t them beat them in Las Vegas?
“We went into Arizona, tough place to play, and we got the W,” Holiday said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, especially after beating them there. So I know they’re going to come out hard. We’re pretty confident. We just have to go out there and do what we can do pretty much.”
The turnover and rebounding battle
In an elementary way, Arizona and UCLA have very similar makeups. They are both great offensive teams with bad defenses.
Arizona is 16th in the country in offensive efficiency and 90th on defense. UCLA is 18th and 108th, respectively.
Another area the two teams are similar is forcing/limiting turnovers. Arizona has a turnover margin of -0.5 this season, while UCLA is at -1.0.
Interestingly enough, Arizona only committed eight turnovers on Thursday while UCLA had just seven.
But one area where the Wildcats and Bruins aren’t similar is on the glass. Arizona ranks 48th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and 49th in offensive rebounding percentage. UCLA is 171st and 100th, respectively.
That said, the Bruins were only out-rebounded 35-34 in the first matchup and both teams had 10 turnovers, making it impossible for Arizona to win given UCLA’s incredible offensive efficiency in that game.
Basically, if the Wildcats are going to have trouble forcing misses again — which seems probable — they better earn second shots and force some turnovers to make up for it. Otherwise UCLA will beat them again.
By avoiding a loss to Stanford, UCLA probably clinched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi now lists the Bruins as an 11-seed with one of the last four byes, and a loss to a team like Arizona won’t hurt UCLA much in the committee’s eyes, if at all.
A win, however, would remove all doubt about UCLA’s NCAA Tournament worthiness (and obviously so would winning the whole Pac-12 Tournament).
For Arizona, the only ramifications the Pac-12 Tournament has is on its NCAA Tournament seeding. Lunardi currently lists Arizona as a 5-seed in the South, but it is not inconceivable to think the Wildcats could move up to the 3-line if they win the Pac-12 Tournament.
Whereas a loss to UCLA on Friday probably keeps them at a 4 or a 5, and perhaps in a less favorable region.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire