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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball visits UCLA in a battle for first place in Pac-12

arizona-wildcats-mens-college-basketball-ucla-bruins-pac12-rankings-preview-analysis-history-2022 Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, a big game for the Arizona Wildcats in Pac-12 play.

After steamrolling its first six conference foes by an average of 22.2 points, third-ranked UA (16-1, 6-0) gets its first real test when it visits No. 7 UCLA on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

The Bruins (13-2, 5-1) are the preseason conference favorites and return all five starters from a team that went from the First Four to the Final Four last spring. They’ve also beaten Arizona five consecutive times, with the Wildcats last winning at Pauley Pavilion in January 2017.

An Arizona win would give it a 2-game lead on the rest of the Pac-12 field, while a victory for the Bruins would tie them for first with the Wildcats but give them the tiebreaker ahead of the scheduled rematch Feb. 3 in Tucson.

This is the UA’s first time being involved in a matchup of Top 10 teams since the 2017 Pac-12 Tournament final when the seventh-ranked Wildcats beat No. 5 Oregon 83-80 in Las Vegas. The day before they beat No. 3 UCLA 86-75.

Arizona’s last road win over a Top 10 team: 2017 at UCLA.

Here’s what to look for in arguably the biggest game of the season to date for the UA:

The fan factor

This is Arizona’s third road game in six days, but it will be the first that really feels like one from an atmosphere standpoint. Stanford didn’t allow fans, while Cal’s attempt at a “Gold Out” had nearly as much red and blue in the crowd of 7,500-plus.

Expect a fair amount of UA supporters at Pauley, but also plenty of those donning UCLA’s colors, particularly since this is the first time fans will be in attendance for a game there since Dec. 1.

“Man, I’m so excited,” UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. said over the weekend. “It’s really not the same without fans there.”

Even with a sellout this won’t be the largest road crowd Arizona has played in front of this season. There were 15,544 on hand when it won at Illinois and 20,408 witnessed the Wildcats’ 4-point loss at Tennessee just before Christmas.

Tubelis’ timeline

Azuolas Tubelis sat out Sunday’s 96-71 win at Cal to give the sprained left ankle suffered at Stanford a little more time to heal. Since there’s been no indication of the severity of the sprain, whether the 6-foot-11 sophomore can play against UCLA is uncertain.

Not having him would no doubt hurt, but not as much as before Oumar Ballo decided to become a legitimate force in the post (35 points in 41 minutes off the bench the last two games) and Christian Koloko decided to put together one of his most complete games against UCLA with 19 points, a career-high 13 rebounds and three blocks at Stanford.

Like the previous two opponents, UCLA isn’t particularly big in the paint and quite small across the board. The Bruins start 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cody Riley and also play 6-10 Myles Johnson a fair amount of time, but everyone else of significance is 6-7 or shorter; per KenPom.com, UCLA is the fourth-smallest team in the Pac-12 ahead of only ASU and the Washington schools.

Still, without Tubelis the UA would remain at a 7-man rotation and concern over foul trouble figures to be much larger against a UCLA team that leads the Pac-12 in free throw attempts per game (22) and is tops in conference games in free throw attempt rate.

The UA is allowing a league-low 14.2 free throw attempts per game.

Which pace wins out?

Cal tried its darnedest to slow Arizona down, but after falling behind by double-digits less than six minutes into the game the Golden Bears scrapped their methodical approach and the game ended up with 71 possessions per team. That’s still on the low end for the Wildcats, but far from what anyone would consider a snail’s pace.

UCLA was playing fairly fast earlier in the season, but in Pac-12 play it has put on the brakes with four of its last five games having 66 or fewer possessions. The difference between the Bruins’ and Cal’s approaches, though, is that for as meticulous as they are on offense they make opponents work incredibly hard for baskets on the other end.

Pac-12 foes’ average offensive possession length is 18.7, longest in the league, and almost 30 percent longer than Arizona’s NCAA-leading 14.5 seconds per possession.

Board work

Arizona showed marked improvement in the turnover department the last two games, its eight giveaways at Cal the lowest since the third game of the season. But another crack in the dam has popped up in its place, one that could be equally as damaging in the right opponents’ hands.

The Wildcats have dipped to ninth in Pac-12 games in defensive rebounding, allowing 21 to Stanford and 15 to Cal. League opponents are grabbing 31.4 percent of their misses, though the Bay Area schools only managed 28 points on those 36 second chances.

UCLA is in the bottom half of the conference in offensive rebounding but in sweeping the Rocky Mountain schools on the road averaged more than a point per extra chance.