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What to watch for when Arizona visits UCLA on Thursday

arizona-wildcats-ucla-bruins-preview-miller-rebounding-free-throws-johnny-juzang-pac12-basketball Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images,

The Arizona Wildcats begin their final scheduled road trip of the 2020-21 season on Thursday when they visit the UCLA Bruins in Westwood.

Arizona (14-7, 8-7 Pac-12) has lost four of its last six and is coming off a 63-61 home loss to Oregon, its fourth setback at McKale Center this season. UCLA (14-5, 10-3) had dropped three of four before winning at Washington on Saturday.

The Bruins beat the UA 81-76 in McKale on Jan. 9 and have won four in a row in the series, with Arizona’s last win at Pauley Pavilion coming in 2017.

Here’s what to watch for during the 7 p.m. MST broadcast on ESPN2:

Back to basics

Saturday’s loss to Oregon saw Arizona fail in two areas it had excelled in all season: rebounding and getting to the foul line.

The Wildcats were outrebounded for the first time all year, allowing a regulation-high 11 offensive boards to the Ducks, and the UA only took 11 foul shots after entering the game leading the country in free throws made and attempted.

Arizona’s 518 attempts and 373 makes are still the most in Division I, and it still ranks sixth nationally in free throw attempt rate, but now it will face a UCLA team that lived at the line in their previous meeting. The Bruins were 27 of 32, compared to 12 of 16 for Arizona, and UCLA had just one less rebound than the Wildcats will grabbing 10 offensive boards.

UA coach Sean Miller said there’s not a way to specifically coach getting to the line, but he believes it happens seamlessly with quality play.

“I think when we’re playing at our best we get a lot of drives in transition, a lot of offensive rebounds, we get post-ups, and when you get all three of those things you get fouls,” he said.

Start strong, finish stronger

Along with poor defense, Arizona’s last two losses have also had a common theme in that they involved a big deficit right out of the gate. The Wildcats trailed Oregon 11-2 after being down 19-2 at Colorado a week earlier.

Both times they rallied to take the lead, only to come up short in the end. Arizona had a chance to win each game, but Miller believes it’s more important to focus on what led the Wildcats to need to rally in the first place.

“You dig yourself that hole, you’re playing really good basketball but you’re just climbing that mountain for the entire first half,” he said. “Every play of the game has equal meaning. If the deficit is 7-6 not 11-2, you can make the argument that maybe you’re in a different dilemma in the last four minutes. My hope is that we can do a better job starting both of these games this week.”

Arizona is 4-4 in games decided by one or two possessions this season, while UCLA is 6-1.

UCLA’s thin frontcourt—and Azuolas taking advantage of it

When UCLA won at McKale Center last month it did so with only 39 minutes of court time from its forwards and centers. That would feel like a lot for the Bruins nowadays, who are so thin in the frontcourt they’ve turned to a player who should still be in high school to help fill the void.

While 6-foot-9 junior Cody Riley has returned from an ankle injury he’s only scored nine points in two games and still doesn’t look 100 percent. At least he’s around, unlike 6-10 junior Jalen Hill, who is not with the team due to personal reasons, while 6-9 senior Chris Smith tore his ACL in early January.

Lightly used 6-9 sophomore Kenneth Nwuba ended up starting two weeks ago at USC in an 18-point loss, and that also marked the debut of 6-9 freshman Mac Etienne, who joined the Bruins in December after graduating high school early.

Last weekend on the Washington trip the Bruins started four guards in both games, so one of Arizona’s bigs are going to have to guard either 6-6 Jules Bernard or 6-6 Jaime Jacquez Jr. It will make for some defensive challenges, but the return of Ira Lee from an ankle injury—Miller said he has practiced all week and will be available—gives Arizona an extra body down low to deal with things.

Miller is also interested to see how Azuolas Tubelis fares against the Bruins. The freshman had 15 points and eight rebounds on 6-of-12 shooting in the first matchup and could be in store for even more in Westwood.

“If you were at every practice for the first two weeks of our season, it was a big learning curve and adjustment for him coming from FIBA another country to college basketball as a freshman,” Miller said. “Where he is today, and my hope is, that you actually see that against UCLA, that he’s more prepared and better individually than maybe he was when we played them the first time.”

Guarding the hot hand

It was point guard Tyger Campbell who torched Arizona last time out, scoring a season-high 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting while making 8 of 8 free throws. Also a problem in that first meeting was Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, who made 3 of 4 3-pointers and finished with 16.

Juzang was just heating up back then.

The 6-6 sophomore is coming off a career-high 32-point performance at Washington, hitting five threes in the process, after going for 25 at Washington State two nights earlier. He had 27 against Stanford last month as well.

“I think Johnny Juzang’s emergence as a great scorer really presents a challenge,” Miller said. “He is playing with more confidence, he’s more experienced, I think he’s really improved. He can really score, he scored against us the first time. I think his trajectory was starting around that period of that time. He’s a heck of an offensive player.”

Nine players have scored at least 20 against Arizona this season, most recently Colorado’s Evan Battey when he finished with 21 including four free throws in the final minute on Feb. 6. The UA is 4-5 in games this season when it allows an opposing player to drop 20 or more.