Tip-off at Pauley Pavilion is set for 8 p.m. MST on ESPN. Here are some things to watch for.
Hot vs. cold
The Bruins are the hottest team in the Pac-12, winning six straight and eight of their last nine, propelling themselves to the top of the conference standings and into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Their winning streak started on Feb. 8 in Tucson when they routed Arizona 65-52, holding the Wildcats to their worst-ever shooting percentage in McKale Center (25.4%).
Arizona is 3-2 since then, losers of two straight, all but ending its hopes of claiming a conference championship.
That alone doesn’t inspire much confidence that Arizona can snap its losing streak, though Vegas oddsmakers actually peg the Wildcats as slight favorites for Saturday’s contest.
Those shooting struggles
Game in and game out, you really have no idea which Arizona team will show up. One weekend, they can shoot 20 for 44 from 3, the next game they can go 3 for 26.
I mean, there is really not much else to say here except that Arizona needs to do more of the former and less of the latter to have a shot at beating a scorching UCLA team.
While Arizona’s 3-point shooting was a problem vs. UCLA the first time—they shot 6 for 23—the bigger issue was the Wildcats struggling to finish around the rim, going 6 for 20 on layups.
They were, for the lack of a better term, soft.
“You have to be physical, you have to go through contact, you can’t cry,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said that night. “Sometimes you have to make a clever pass because they’re physical and walling up, and their toughness and physicality wore on all of us. it wore on our team, wore on our drives, wore on our second shots. Early in the game you could see guys are like begging for the foul and falling down. And you have to know going into the game that they’re playing that type of game, and you have to be able to adjust but that that really bothered us.”
Even Zeke Nnaji had trouble that night, going 2 for 8 from the field, though he did go 10 for 10 from the line. Unless Arizona can flip the script on the perimeter, it will need to find a way to get Nnaji going this time around.
If UCLA deploys the same kind of defense USC did—i.e. doubling on the catch, not rotating off shooters—it won’t be easy, especially if UA’s guards continue having difficulty with their entry passes.
“When you have a player like Zeke, it’s so important that you have the piece of mind that you exhausted all possibilities of being able to maximize him,” Miller said. “He had a double-double. You have to take in consideration the number of times he caught the ball and got trapped and the number of free-throw attempts and times he got fouled. In tonight’s circumstances, we probably needed three or four more quality low post catches and shots that I thought we had him but weren’t able to get him the ball.”
The Bruins also present a problem on the glass, entering as the Pac-12’s top offensive rebounding team. Arizona infamously has difficulty corralling rebounds in close games, so that’s pretty worrisome.
Green and Hazzard
The Wildcats will be without Josh Green, who did not travel with the team to Los Angeles as he nurses a lower back injury. That we know.
What we don’t know is whether or not Max Hazzard will suit up. The Los Angeles native missed the USC game for “personal reasons” though oddly he was on the bench anyway.
Not having Green makes the Wildcats far less intimating in transition and on defense, while Hazzard’s shooting was sorely missed against the Trojans.
Also: them being out puts Arizona at eight healthy scholarship players, causing them fade down the stretch of Thursday’s game as fatigue started to set in.
“We’re down to just a couple guards and I thought we wore down as the game went on,” Miller said.
As Nico Mannion has struggled down the stretch, UCLA’s freshman point guard has surged. Tyger Campbell has averaged 10.8 points and 7.6 assists over the last five games. In his last two games he has 25—yes, 25!—assists to just four turnovers, a big reason the Bruins picked up wins over Colorado and ASU.
Campbell’s 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the Pac-12.
And while Campbell is not much of a shooter, he is becoming a more consistent scorer, tallying double figures in seven of his last eight games.
UCLA notoriously has fairweather fans, so now that the Bruins are winning, they are showing up in droves.
9,626 flocked to Pauley Pavilion for the ASU game on Thursday, creating a raucous environment that Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley compared to the excitement of the Lonzo Ball era.
With the Bruins now in first place and inching closer to an NCAA Tournament bid, you can expect a similar environment Saturday night. Probably even more hectic given the storied history between Arizona and UCLA, and the fact the Wildcats will bring their fair share of fans to Westwood.
Arizona just needs to keep pace with Colorado in the loss column to earn a bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Buffaloes have two games left—a Sunday tilt at Stanford followed by a road game at Utah next Saturday.
If Arizona falls to UCLA, it will need the Buffaloes to drop one of their final two games. If the Wildcats beat UCLA, they can clinch a bye with a sweep of the Washington schools.
ASU, Oregon and UCLA all own the tiebreakers over Arizona, so it’s unlikely the Wildcats will finish better than fourth.
An incredible broadcast
We get the treat of having Bill Walton AND Richard Jefferson doing color commentary alongside Dave Pasch.
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