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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball rematches with UCLA

arizona-wildcats-ucla-bruins-preview-pac12-rematch-ranked-azuolas-tubelis-tommy-lloyd-stats-analysis Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A little more than a week after getting knocked down a few pegs by UCLA, the Arizona Wildcats have a chance for revenge.

The third-ranked Bruins (16-2, 8-1 Pac-12) come to McKale Center on Thursday night with a chance to beat No. 7 Arizona (17-2, 7-1) for the seventh time in a row, while also getting a stranglehold on first place in the conference and the No. 1 seed in next month’s Pac-12 tourney. A win for the UA would move it back into first and be up a game in the loss column.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and UCLA clash for the second time in 10 days:

Learning from the (recent) past

This is Arizona’s first repeat matchup with a Pac-12 opponent, and with it coming as recently after the first meeting there’s no need to see how the teams have changed since. UCLA cruised to a pair of blowout home wins over Cal and Stanford, while the Wildcats grinded out a low-scoring victory over ASU last Saturday.

After that win, coach Tommy Lloyd said he and the team needed to catch up on rest after still feeling the lingering effects of their 3-game, 6-day swing through California that ended with the 16-point loss at UCLA. On Wednesday he said the Wildcats are fresh again.

“We’re definitely in a much better place,” he said.

As for how Arizona is going to play against UCLA the second time around, Lloyd doesn’t plan on making any drastic changes due to the first result.

“We’re not waving the white flag,” he said. “We’re gonna come out and play and try to make some adjustments. Usually your adjustment starts with do what we do and do best better, you start there. I’m definitely not going to blow up what we’ve done in our offense just because we didn’t shoot well the last couple games. I have a core, deep conviction in what we do, and we’re going to double down on that.”

Arizona shot 30.7 percent at UCLA, its lowest accuracy in nearly two years, then followed that up by shooting 32.2 percent against ASU. Lloyd said he’s not worried that’s the start of a trend, nor is he worried about his players second-guessing themselves.

“Confidence ebbs and flows over the course of the season,” Lloyd said. “I think the team definitely has a core belief in themselves and in what we do. Individually it might be up and down for a few guys. But from my experience, all it takes is stacking together a couple of good plays and that confidence comes back real quick.

“The game, there’s a law of averages in this game. That’s why (there’s) percentages and what people average and all this stuff. I’m sure our opponents have had a little bit to do that. A little bit of it is just us probably missing some shots that maybe we can make it a higher clip. And then offensively, tactically, we got to look at how teams are guarding us and what we’re doing. Teams are making adjustments, and is that decreasing the quality of our shots, and what is the solution for that? Those are definitely things that we’ve looked at it and we’ve tried to address we’ll see how it works.”

Walking wounded

Azuolas Tubelis is likely to play against UCLA, just as he did in the first meeting in Los Angeles and against ASU when he was back in the starting lineup. But how much he’ll play, and how well he’ll fair while still dealing with a high ankle sprain, is uncertain.

“We’re phasing him back in, slowly trying to get him back to normal,” Lloyd said. “But again, we don’t expect them to be 100%. Just appreciate him giving the team what we can get out of him. In due time hopefully we’ll get back to the Tubelis that we’ve kind of had throughout the year. I’m going to see how it looks once the game get started. There’s been nights where you look up and he’s dynamite. And there’s been other nights where he’s not. And so I’m going to see which version we have of him there, and if he’s not at his best, I’m not going to hold it against him.”

Prior to getting injured early against Stanford on Jan. 26, Tubelis was averaging 15.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and shooting 57.4 percent and was coming off a career-high 32 points against Utah. Since returning to action he’s averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds and is 5 of 16 from the field in 36 minutes.

“I appreciate him continuing to work through this, and it shows a lot for his character,” Lloyd said. “He’s sacrificing whatever personal stats, minutes, everything, you’re talking to an all-conference player doing that. That says something about his character and what we’re trying to build as a program.”

UCLA is also dealing with injury issues, as guard Jaylen Clark remains out with a concussion—he missed the previous Arizona game—and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. is considered a game-time decision with an ankle injury. Johnny Juzang, who had 15 points against the UA last week, entered COVID protocols last Thursday but has been cleared to play.

Getting to the line

Lloyd called the first UCLA game a “high-level physical game,” one where the refs “let them play at both ends.” That greatly benefitted the Bruins, who limited the Wildcats to only 11 free throw attempts.

Arizona leads the Pac-12 in free throw attempts per game, at 21.5, and is 10-0 this season when taking at least 20 foul shots. Bruin opponents have only reached that mark four times, including the two games UCLA has lost.

Arizona had 32 free throw attempts against ASU, including 21 in the first half, which kept it in that game.

The Bruins have a higher free throw attempt rate than the UA despite taking fewer foul shots per game because of their slower tempo, as well as their tendency to take a lot of jumpers. UCLA, which is big on finding matchups to isolate with their better shooters, takes more than 35 percent of its field goals in this manner, and against the UA were 21 of 47 on non-layups.

“They just did a good job asserting their will,” Lloyd said. “They’re unique in the fact that they have multiple guys that are comfortable playing in isolation situations. You just don’t find that a lot in college these days. It’s unique to play against, so what it allows them to do is they can kind of control the game on certain nights, especially if they make those shots early and get a little bit of a lead.”

Bucking the big-game trend at home

This looks like it will be a second straight sellout at McKale, following the ASU game, which is fitting for Arizona’s first matchup at home against a Top 5 team in more than four years. The last such occurrence was December 2017, when then-No. 3 ASU—the last unbeaten team in the country—came into down and the Wildcats won 84-78.

The UA is 10-14 at home against Top 5 opponents, including 4-10 in conference play. It is 1-5 against UCLA, losing the last five including in February 2017.

UCLA has won eight consecutive road games when ranked in the Top 5 of the Associated Press poll, its last such loss coming in December 2016 at Oregon.

Arizona’s last home win over a ranked opponent was January 2020 against Colorado.