The UA (9-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is coming off an 87-73 home loss to USC on Thursday, struggling both offensively (except for Azuolas Tubelis) and defensively in their worst performance of the season. UCLA (8-2, 4-0) is in sole possession of first place after winning at ASU in overtime on Thursday.
Here are some things to know about this key conference matchup, which tips off at 7 p.m. MST on ESPN.
Bounce back or backslide?
When Arizona self-imposed a postseason ban last week it opened the door for motivation to become a big question mark, yet the Wildcats played with no less spirit in pulling off a road sweep of the Washington schools.
Then came Thursday, when the UA lost a game by 14 that it had led by nine early on. Coach Sean Miller did not mince words afterward, saying the game became “too hard” for his team and he felt they didn’t fight to the end.
“We gave up down the homestretch which is disappointing and something that clearly we will fix as we get ready,” Miller said.
But how do you fix something that, at least on the surface, didn’t appear to be schematic? The Pac-12 regular season title is the only team goal left to play for, and a loss to UCLA would put Arizona three games behind in the loss column.
It doesn’t help that UCLA is playing with great confidence, buoyed by the knowledge that most of the current Bruins team was part of a sweep of the UA last season including a dominant 65-52 win in McKale last February.
Getting more from the (starting) guards
Arizona’s starting backcourt of James Akinjo, Jemarl Baker Jr. and Dalen Terry combined for five points on 2-of-20 shooting against USC, missing all seven 3-point attempts. That trio missed 24 of 32 shots in the double-overtime win at Washington State, with only one make in 15 tries from outside.
In the same span, reserve guards Terrell Brown Jr. and Bennedict Mathurin have contributed 60 points, shooting 50 percent both overall and from 3.
Miller plans to stick with the same starting lineup against UCLA, and for the foreseeable future, but look for more instances when Brown and/or Mathurin are out there with Akinjo while Baker and Terry are sitting. The less Akinjo has to shoot—he’s failed to hit 40 percent in nine of 11 games when he attempts at least eight shots—the better.
The Bruins are the only unbeaten team in Pac-12 play, so far living up to them being the preseason pick to win the conference. Yet the last three victories have been by a total of 11 points, beating Utah and Colorado at home by two and three, respectively, before a six-point OT win at ASU on Thursday.
UCLA has the No. 12 offense in the country, per KenPom, but its also one of the most plodding. It averages 18.6 seconds per offensive possession, second-slowest in the Pac-12, but usually ends up with the best shot possible.
The Bruins are hitting 41.7 percent from 3 in conference play, while USC was the third of five Pac-12 opponents to shoot at least 46 percent from outside against Arizona.
Defensively, UCLA has struggled to protect the rim. ASU is the only Pac-12 team not to make at least 56.5 percent of its 2-point shots, so look for Arizona to feed Azuolas Tubelis and Jordan Brown early and often in the paint. Drawing fouls will be helpful, too, though the Bruins have been adept at keeping opponents off the foul line, with none taking more than 16 free throws in a game.
Sean vs. Mick
Mick Cronin is in his second season at UCLA, having coached Cincinnati from 2006-19. The early part of that tenure coincided with the end of Miller’s time at Xavier, the Bearcats’ hated intra-city rival.
And what a rivalry it was.
Known as the Crosstown Shootout, Cincinnati-Xavier games have produced brawls on occasion and technical fouls in the bunches. The last game that included both Cronin and Miller, in 2008, featured six Ts.
Miller’s Xavier squad won that game, as well as the 2007 edition, while Cronin won their first meeting in 2006. Cronin now has a 3-2 edge over Miller thanks to last year’s two UCLA vs. Arizona victories.