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What to watch for when Arizona visits UCLA on Saturday night

arizona-wildcats-basketball-schedule-prediction-gonzaga-wooden-baylor-san-francisco Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats will try to avoid a road sweep at the Los Angeles schools on Saturday night when they visit the UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion.

Arizona (14-6, 5-2) is still smarting from an 80-57 blowout loss at USC on Thursday, its worst loss to the Trojans in 45 years. UCLA (10-9, 3-3) has lost three straight, most recently an 84-73 home setback to Arizona State on Thursday.

Tip-off at Pauley is set for 8 p.m. MST on ESPN2. Here are some things to be looking out for in Arizona’s first trip to UCLA since 2017.

Will he play?

Chase Jeter missed the USC game with a sore back, the byproduct of his hard fall early in last Saturday’s home win over Oregon State. And boy did Arizona miss him.

The junior center’s absence was felt on both offense and defense, with the Wildcats shooting just 27.8 percent—including 15 of 47 on two-pointers—while allowing USC big man Nick Rakocevic to score 27 points on 13-of-17 shooting. Arizona was forced to start 6-foot-9 Ryan Luther at the 5 and 6-5 Dylan Smith at the 4, with 6-8 Ira Lee the only frontcourt player off the bench.

“Chase is important on defense,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after Thursday’s game. “He’s important on offense, gives us a guy who can score and get fouled around the basket. And the difference without him, it isn’t that the other guys can’t do it, it’s just we don’t have that depth up front. So with him and without him, we’re two different teams.”

Jeter went through warmups before the USC game but evidently wasn’t well enough to play. Will another 48 hours be enough for him to return to action?

When the shots don’t fall

Arizona’s 27.8 percent shooting rate at USC was its worst under Miller. This came a week after the Wildcats shot 36.5 percent against Oregon, which was the third of four times this season they failed to score 60 points.

That’s the most times Arizona has scored 59 or fewer in a season since 2011-12, when it happened nine times. For those who have blocked it out of their memory, that was the last time the Wildcats did not make the NCAA tournament.

Arizona is shooting 43.8 percent this season, which is currently a tick below the 2011-12 rate (43.9) and its worst accuracy since the 1982-83 team that went 4-24 (and led to the school hiring Lute Olson for the following season).

The Wildcats are 11-0 when shooting at least 43 percent, 3-6 when failing to do so.

Starting vs. not starting

Jeter’s absence led Arizona to use a very unique lineup against USC, the sixth different five-man starting group this season. It featured two players—Luther and Smith—who have both proven to be much better as reserves, by a wide margin.

Luther and Smith combined for 13 points on 5-of-20 shooting against the Trojans, Smith making 1 of 4 threes while Luther missed all three attempts. Those numbers align with their collective shooting struggles when starting, particularly for Luther.

The graduate transfer from Pittsburgh is shooting 40 percent (20 of 50) overall and 24 percent (6 of 25) from three when starting, while as a reserve he’s shooting 47.5 and 44.4 percent, respectively.

Smith’s starting/not starting splits are more pronounced from an overall standpoint (22.6 percent to 35.8) than from three (33.3 to 37.7) but still noticeable.

Unless Ira Lee were to be inserted into the starting lineup, which doesn’t seem like a good idea, either Luther or Smith will be in there. Possibly both, if Jeter can’t go again.

A reeling opponent

As bad as Arizona looked against USC, UCLA has been dreadful most of the season. And not just before it fired Steve Alford on Dec. 31 in the wake of a four-game skid to end nonconference play.

The Bruins have dropped three straight, this after jumping out of the games with a 3-0 start in the Pac-12 under interim coach Murry Bartow, and the reasons for their recent swoon are similar to those that contributed to going 7-6 in the preseason.

UCLA is allowing 80 points per game in conference play, third-worst, despite being the second-best team in the league in defending the three-pointer at 29.7 percent. That’s because UCLA turns the ball over like it’s going out of style, giving it away 105 times in six Pac-12 contests.

The Bruins are 229th nationally in turnover percentage, at 17 percent, a rate that’s only that low because they play at the fastest pace in the Pac-12.

Arizona is forcing turnovers on 21.5 percent of opponents’ possessions this season, up to 21.8 percent in Pac-12 play, good for third-best in the league.

UCLA is also atrocious at the foul line, at 60.4 percent for the season and 57.4 percent in the conference. Leading scorer Kris Wilkes shoots 62.2 percent at the line, while freshman center Moses Brown is a pathetic 22 of 66 (33.3 percent) on free throws compared to 65.3 percent when opponents have a chance to impact his shot.

“You can’t harp on it and harp on it and harp it on,” Bartow said, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. “I think what you do is you drill it, you rep it. The guys who are poor free throw shooters, you get them in the gym a lot and (make sure) they make a lot, make sure their technique is correct, make sure they’re relaxed up there.”

The Bruins are the best rebounding team in the Pac-12, however, with a plus-5.3 margin in league play (compared to plus-1.3 for Arizona).

Avoiding the sweep

Losing Thursday at USC doesn’t bode well for Arizona’s chances at UCLA, at least based on recent history. That’s because the Wildcats’ last four trips to Los Angeles have resulted in sweeps in one direction or the other.

Arizona didn’t play in LA last season, but last time it was there in January 2017 it beat USC and UCLA by a combined 18 points (including a 96-85 win at then-No. 3 UCLA). The year before the Wildcats were swept by a combined six points, losing to USC in four overtimes.

There was no LA trip in 2015, but in 2014 Arizona pulled off the sweep, and in 2013 it went 0-2 in southern California. You have to go back to January 2012 for the last time the Wildcats managed a split in LA.

This trip remains the toughest for Arizona under Miller, with a not-so-nice 6-9 record since 2010. It has at least a .500 mark on every other Pac-12 road trip.