Thursday, January 24, 2013
Journey to the Tourney: UCLA at Arizona
By Eamonn Brennan
Since last season, we've had high hopes for this game.
Those hopes existed for a whole variety of reasons. On a very basic level, it started with both teams' huge offseason personnel turnover. We saw how Ben Howland and Sean Miller were both infusing so much talent into their new lineups; we assumed it would be impossible for either team to be bad. But it went beyond that. The hope about this game, and these two teams, was about the hope that both programs were, after variously timed years of tumult, back. It was about whether, after a historically horrific year, the Pac-12 could very quickly become once more the province of UCLA and Arizona teams ready to compete for a national title. There was redemption, rivalry and lottery draft picks. All things considered, this was a pretty easy game to look forward to.
Of course, UCLA almost didn't get here. In November and December, the Bruins had to wait to get star freshman Shabazz Muhammad eligible (and when he did get eligible he was out of shape from an offseason injury). They lost at home to Cal Poly. Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith transferred, only the latest in UCLA's recent exodus. UCLA wasn't defending, they didn't have an offensive style that worked for their talent, the new Pauley Pavilion seemed just as quiet as the old. The whole thing could have devolved into a mess -- and the last thing Howland needed, the thing surer to get him fired than anything else, was yet another mess.
And then, something sort of miraculous -- or at least really unexpected! -- happened: UCLA got good.
After losing to Cal Poly and then being outdrawn and outplayed in Anaheim by San Diego State, UCLA rattled off a 10-game winning streak, which included a home win over Missouri and league wins over their first five Pac-12 opponents. Muhammad played his way into game shape, and became an efficient scoring force worthy of his considerable hype. Freshman point-forward Kyle Anderson settled into an identifiable role (he also stopped shooting 3s), and freshman Jordan Adams proved his early-season breakout was no fluke. Alongside the Wear twins (who have turned the 15-foot jumper into a programmable, almost mechanical process) and former UNC transfer Larry Drew, now playing the most efficient hoops of his career, the Bruins can put points on the board on just about anybody.
The question is: Can their defense hold up? Because the No. 6-ranked Wildcats are not the team you want to play just-OK defense against. Through five Pac-12 games, the Wildcats score 1.08 points per trip, the most efficient offense in the Pac-12; on the season, they average 1.12. Their mix of talent and distribution of responsibility is almost ideal: Senior guard Mark Lyons leads the team in usage (26.5 percent, to be exact), but his usage isn't so lopsided as to be a detriment. Do-everything senior Solomon Hill and sophomore scoring guard Nick Johnson help lead the way. Senior Kevin Parrom is an excellent glue guy. And freshman forward trio Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett -- all highly touted themselves, the reason the Wildcats' recruiting class was as well-regarded as UCLA's and Kentucky's -- contribute size, rebounding and blocked shots.
The good news for UCLA? Lately, its defense has taken a turn for the Howland-esque: In UCLA's first six conference games, the Bruins have held opponents to .94 points per possession, best in the Pac-12. Their offense has taken a definite dip as Muhammad has entered a minor scoring funk, but that defensive improvement should give Bruins fans hope as they get set for tip-off in Tucson tonight. So too should the fact that Arizona's defense in conference play has been just OK; the Wildcats have allowed .98 points per possession, fifth best in the Pac-12.
In other words, based on how each team has played in recent weeks, this game might not be quite as lopsided as we think. If the Bruins can score like they did during that 10-game winning streak, actually haul some defense along for the ride, and get big performances out of the Wears, whose job it will be to keep those Arizona bigs off the offensive glass -- well, sure, Arizona's the favorite. But UCLA's got a shot.
At the end of the day, that's all we really want: A UCLA-Arizona game with bite, a Pac-12 with a national title contender or two, and some high-profile, talented hoops in a league long known for it. UCLA almost melted down before it could happen, but it's happening. We've got that much. It's enough.