To this point in Pac-12 play, the Arizona Wildcats have not been tested. Their closest game was a 16-point home win over Washington and they’re toughest (in terms of KenPom.com ranking) was against Colorado, whom they beat by 21.
The level of competition is about to get ramped up, though, with Arizona (16-1, 6-0) visiting No. 8 UCLA on Tuesday night in a rescheduled game that was originally set for Dec. 31.
The Bruins (13-2, 5-1) were picked to win the Pac-12 this season, getting 32 of 34 first-place votes, and bring back their entire starting lineup from the team that made the Final Four in April.
To better understand UCLA, we reached out to Dimitri Dorlis of The Mighty Bruin for some insight. Here are his strong answers to our weak questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: It’s almost unheard of for a team to return all five starters, let alone a quintet that started in the previous season’s national semifinals. How do you think this UCLA team compares at this point to the one that finished so strongly last spring?
Dimitri Dorlis: “This year’s team hasn’t reached the level of the one that took the NCAA Tournament by storm last year, but I don’t think it’s a case of guys getting worse. This team has been beset with some poor luck since the start of the season. Cody Riley, one of those five starters, went out early in the first game to a knee injury that kept him out of action for two months. Then when the team seemed to be rounding into form, COVID hit and really knocked the team out. The Bruins lost a month to the pause, and have not looked close to game shape since coming back. That said, this team does seem well-positioned for a deep postseason run as it rounds into form, which is something that tends to happen under Mick Cronin.”
Johnny Juzang just had a monster weekend in helping the Bruins sweep the Mountain schools on the road, earning him Pac-12 Player of the Week honors, and he comes into this one on a run of four straight 20-point games. Safe to say he’s fully recovered from being out of action for a month because of the COVID pause?
“Unconfirmed rumors from around the program are that Juzang is one of the few players that didn’t get COVID, and it shows in his play. Juzang truly is a fearless scorer who hits some of the funkiest shots I’ve ever seen, and he seems to be rounding into form at the midway point of the season. Interestingly enough, this was the time last year where Juzang became more comfortable with the UCLA offense and started to put up major scoring performances, and I would not be surprised if the Bruins continued to ride him while the rest of the team rounds into form.”
Speaking of that pause, what (if anything) is different about UCLA’s play since returning? Any notable tweaks or changes?
“It’s pretty clear this team didn’t just test positive for COVID, but was actively affected by it. Various guys have looked noticeably out of basketball shape, and players have been playing uncharacteristically poorly since then. In particular, Tyger Campbell has looked out of sorts since the return, while Jaime Jaquez has looked heavier and less aggressive. One of the more fascinating changes has been Cronin relying on the starters more than he might normally have done, in order to help them get back into shape. Against Colorado, four of the Bruins’ five starters played at least 32 minutes, which is a crazy amount on the second leg of the Rocky Mountain Road trip, but one that helped get guys like Jaquez looking closer to their pre-COVID pause shape. The Bruins have been able to win most of their games since returning thanks to their superior talent, but they have been battles in the way they were not back in early December.”
How important has Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson been to this team?
“It’s a hard question to answer. He has certainly been important simply from a depth standpoint, especially as Riley missed out on the early season and thrust Johnson into a starting role. But it’s been a hard integration process for the Rutgers transfer, who earned All-Big 10 1st Team Defensive honors last year but has struggled in Cronin’s system. In particular, Johnson has struggled to guard out on the perimeter, where faster players have simply used their speed to get around Johnson and negate his shot-blocking ability. Against teams that play in a more traditional style utilizing their bigs in a post-up, Johnson has done well, but teams have been smart about dragging him to the outside to attack.”
Having fans back in time for this game is quite a coincidence, but there’s no way should a matchup shouldn’t have a crowd. Do you think it will have any impact on the action on the court?
“It can’t hurt! UCLA fans have a bad reputation when it comes to support and arriving to games, but it’s a very unique Los Angeles culture that not many people really understand. But when the team is good, Pauley Pavilion rocks with the best of them—just look back at how loud and engaging the place was against Villanova back in November. And with this being the premier and historic matchup in the conference between two top-10 teams, expect Pauley to be similarly rocking. That environment will absolutely help UCLA, which feeds off of crowd emotions as well as the best of them.”
Does UCLA continue its recent dominance of Arizona, and hand the Wildcats their first Pac-12 loss, or does the UA keep rolling? Give us a score prediction.
“If Sean Miller was still the coach at Arizona, I think UCLA wins this one despite their poor play since returning from COVID. But unfortunately, Miller was unceremoniously removed from the position before he could finish his rebuild of what was a once-proud program, and now Arizona fans are stuck with some no-name scrub with no head coaching experience. All joking aside, Tommy Lloyd has looked like an excellent hire for Arizona and has the Wildcats rolling, and I don’t know if the Bruins in their current state can truly match up with what Arizona has. Maybe that old Pauley magic kicks in to help the Bruins get over the hump, but I think the Wildcats win round 1. Ask me in a month and my answer may be a bit different.”