No. 23 Arizona (16-6, 6-3 Pac-12) has won three straight, most recently Thursday’s 85-80 home win over USC, and are tied in the loss column with Colorado and Oregon for first place in the conference.
UCLA (12-11, 5-5) lost 84-66 at ASU on Thursday night but before that had won four of its previous five.
Saturday’s tip-off is set for 8 p.m. MST with the game being aired on ESPN2. Here are some things to watch for:
Rebounding (from Thursday and on Saturday)
Arizona coach Sean Miller did not mince words during his postgame press conference on Thursday night. He was incredibly disappointed with his team’s performance against USC, even up to when it built a 20-point lead early in the second half, feeling the Wildcats had “reverted” back to a lesser version after looking so good in road wins over the Washington schools the weekend before.
“We had a hard time practicing leading up to the game,” Miller said before going into a long sermon about putting team goals over individual ones. “We have to learn from this, try our best, and see that we can be better on Saturday because I’m here to tell you that UCLA is a hard-nosed team.”
The Bruins are also the best rebounding team in the Pac-12, holding a plus-6.4 margin on the board overall and grabbing a league-best 33.6 percent of their misses on offense.
Arizona is the best defensive rebounding team in Pac-12 play, limiting opponents to offensive boards only 23.5 percent of the time. USC had nine offensive rebounds on Thursday, several during the final 13 minutes when Arizona was outscored 37-22.
The Wildcats outrebounded the Trojans 34-30 but that margin was much larger earlier in the game.
“We were really in command, maybe by a rebound margin of 10, eight, maybe even more than 10. But it creeped to four because we gave up just those killer second shots and allowed (USC) to stay in the game or make a run or hang in there,” Miller said. “If we would have rebounded the ball down the stretch, we would have been fine. This is game, for us, game 22. We had that problem game one. We have to just continue to work.”
Tougher than their record indicates
UCLA has the same record at this point in the season as it did a year ago under Steve Alford, who was let go and is now coaching at Nevada. But the Bruins team that will be at McKale Center on Saturday night won’t look much like the one Arizona played in Los Angeles (and was blown out by) in Jan. 2019 other than the uniform colors many of the same players.
That’s because the current UCLA team has started to take on the personality of its new coach, Mick Cronin, who brought with him a defense-first mentality from his previous gig at Cincinnati. The Bruins aren’t exactly producing those kind of results, ranking 10th in defensive efficiency in Pac-12 play, but it’s not for a lack of effort.
“They’re the hardest playing team that I’ve seen,” Miller said of UCLA. “They really play to win right now. It’s going to take a couple turns of it for UCLA to be the best that they’re going to eventually be, but I do believe they’re the most improved team in our conference. If you look at maybe where they were a month ago, and where they are today, they’re really moving in the right direction.”
Junior forward Chris Smith is UCLA’s leading scorer at 12.6 points per game, double what he had last season, while sophomore forward Jalen Hill is the top rebounder at 7.1 per game. A trio of freshmen, wings Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jake Kyman and point guard Tyger Campbell, are averaging nearly 23 points per game in Pac-12 play.
Arizona scored 18 points of USC’s 12 turnovers on Thursday, converting the first eight takeaways into scores to help build that big lead. Many of those takeaways came in live-ball situations, allowing the Wildcats to get out in transition and score quickly.
UCLA is averaging 13 turnovers a game in Pac-12 play, but while it gives the ball away on nearly 20 percent of its possessions only 7.9 percent end in steals, enabling the Bruins to get back into their defense.
The Wildcats have been tremendously good at taking care of the ball of late, with just 12 turnovers in the past two games and 22 during their three-game win streak. They had a season-high 18 at ASU on Jan. 25, with 15 coming from their starters.
Jemarl Baker Jr. hasn’t turned the ball over since early in the Utah game on Jan. 16, a span of about 120 minutes during which he’s dished out 19 assists. UCLA forces a steal on 11 percent of defensive possessions, though, so this will be a real test for Arizona’s ball handling.
Old coaching rivals meet again
Miller has been at Arizona for 11 years, but before that he cut his teeth at Xavier, winning 120 games in five seasons from 2004-09. And during his time with the Musketeers he was part of one of the most heated rivalries in college basketball, the Crosstown Shootout between Cincinnati and Xavier.
The last three of those games, between 2006-08, saw Miller go toe to toe with Cronin, who ran the Bearcats from 2006-19.
“They were the hardest, nastiest games,” Miller said Thursday of his battles with Cronin. “A lot of that is just a credit to the coach. I feel like UCLA is really going down that path. I mean that in a complimentary way.”
Miller got the best of Cronin in two of three meetings, including a win at Cincinnati in December 2008.
Depending on how things go Saturday, Arizona could be all alone in first in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats, Colorado and Oregon all have three losses, so an Arizona win combined with the Buffaloes falling at home to Stanford (4 p.m. MT) and the Ducks losing at Oregon State (8:30 p.m. MT) would leave Arizona by itself at the top.