Even in a down year, UCLA-Arizona is big

February, 24, 2012
2/24/12
4:58
PM PT
Ben HowlandKelvin Kuo/US PresswireUCLA coach Ben Howland understands the importance of Saturday's game at Arizona.

When UCLA visits Arizona on Saturday, the game won't carry conference title implications as meetings between the Pac-12's powerhouse teams often have over the past two decades, but that doesn't mean it's a meaningless game.

Arizona (20-9, 11-5) and UCLA (16-12, 9-6) are among the five teams battling for a top-four seeding in the Pac-12 tournament and the loser of the game Saturday at 11 a.m. at the McKale Center might be on the outside looking in when it comes to a coveted first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.

"It’s very important," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Obviously we’re coming down the stretch here with only three games left in the regular season so it’s important for our potential mathematically to still have a chance to be a team that gets a bye in the first round. It’s important to try to get as high a seed as possible in the tournament and obviously we want to win."

Oregon (10-5 Pac-12), Colorado (10-5) and Stanford (9-7) are also among those fighting for those spots. California (13-3) has already secured a top-four spot and Washington (12-3) is one win away from dong the same. Any team finishing outside the top four would have to win four games in four days to win the Pac-12 tournament and earn the automatic NCAA berth that comes with it. No team has ever gone 4-0 in a Pac-10 tournament.

In other words, UCLA's chances of making the NCAA tournament may very well rest in the outcome of Saturday's game.

"If you just look at the percentages, the likelihood that someone is going to win four games in four days is very, very difficult," Howland said.

The Bruins defeated Arizona, 65-58, Jan. 5 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, but Arizona is a different team in February. The Wildcats finished January at 5-4 in conference play, but have won six of seven games in February, including a difficult sweep of Stanford and California on the road.

"They are improving," Howland said. "When they went to the Bay Area trip and swept that trip it really gave them some momentum and they’ve been playing very well."

Guard Kyle Fogg leads the team with 12.9 points and forward Solomon Hill is having what Howland called an All-Pac-12 type of season with 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.

The Wildcats, however, lack the size of UCLA, which was able to exploit that advantage earlier this season even though 6-foot-10, 305-pound center Joshua Smith sat out because of concussion symptoms. Travis and David Wear, 6-10 twin forwards, combined for 34 points on 13-of -16 shooting in that game.

Howland said Smith "tweaked" his back" Friday in practice and might not be able to play against the Wildcats again. He will be evaluated Saturday before the game and Howland said his presence would be welcomed on the offensive end against the smaller Wildcats.

"He poses problems for them matchup-wise because they don’t really have a five man that they play," Howland said. "There are matchup issues for Josh defensively trying to match up with Arizona’s personnel and that is [the same] for their team as well when he’s in the game."

Howland said Tyler Lamb would return to the starting lineup after starting Thursday's game on the bench because he "missed an academic responsibility." Guard Lazeric Jones, however, will be responsible for carrying the offensive load on the outside for the Bruins -- something he did well in the second half Thursday night against Arizona State.

Jones had 13 points against Arizona in the last meeting, but was 0-for-5 on 3-pointers and only 5-for-16 overall. That was his first game after being moved from point guard to shooting guard and is still adjusting to that role, but played with more of a shooter's mentality on Thursday.

"We’re trying to run more of our offense to get Zeek opportunities to shoot or to make plays off of his opportunities to shoot," Howland said. "I think that really helped us. I’ve been on him about passing up open shots from the perimeter and driving when he didn’t need to. He could just shoot. I thought he did a good job of that [Thursday] night."

The Bruins will need Jones to be hitting from the outside and the Wears and Smith, if he plays, to be on their games in the middle. It will be difficult to stay motivated when a top-four finish is all that's on the line against a conference rival such as Arizona, but the Bruins say they remain upbeat.

"We can’t do anything but be positive right now," Jones said. "I still have really high hopes for the Pac-12 tournament so we can’t do anything but be positive. We know it’s been up and down [this season], but the fact that guys are still smiling and continue to have fun shows a lot about the character of the team."

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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