Basketball Preview: UCLA vs. Arizona

Here we go.  Arizona and UCLA.  This is a battle for sole possession of second place in the Pac-10 but it is more than that:

A victory over Arizona (RPI: 25) would give UCLA [RPI 48] sole possession of second place in the Pac-10 and bolster its postseason resume.

"This is a huge game," Howland said. "It's a great opportunity for us to go in and fight for a potential victory against a very good team."

Arizona is unveiling new uniforms to generate additional buzz for a game televised nationally by ESPN2.

The Wildcats are 11-0 at home, but UCLA players have said they enjoy playing in us-against-the-world environments. It certainly might seem as if everything is stacked against the Bruins.

A couple notes here.  This is a crazy important game for the Arizona team.  They feel this is their chance to prove they are back in front of a national TV audience.  (Ironically, Arizona has as many wins right now as they did last year while if UCLA were to beat Arizona they would match their win total for last year.)  How crazy is Arizona for this game?  As tasser10 noted, they are unveiling new uniforms at this game.  Arizona's student and alumni will be pumped and that tends to help their players.  

Of course as I discussed Tuesday, the biggest issue for UCLA may be facing Derrick Williams.   A stat I did not mention is that no one in the COUNTRY has attempted more free throws than Derrick Williams.  To make matters worse, UCLA may not have Reeves Nelson and certainly not at a 100%:

UCLA center Joshua Smith has been cleared to play Thursday against Arizona after completing a full practice Wednesday, but forward Reeves Nelson was again limited by his sprained ankle and will be a game-time decision.

. . .

Nelson, UCLA leading scorer and rebounder with 13.9 points and eight rebounds a game, sprained his ankle in the middle of the second half Saturday against Stanford. He finished the game, but was in a walking boot over the weekend and practiced in a limited capacity Tuesday and Wednesday.

It is hard to prepare for a player as good as Williams when your leading scorer, rebounder and top in minutes player at the 4/5 slot is "limited in practice." 

The front court match-up may be tough for UCLA.  With Nelson hurt, Smith minutes limited by his conditioning and potential for fouls, the advantage here has to go to Arizona.  Arizona's other BIGS are not that big or outstanding but have shown an ability to take what is given them.  A great example of the latter is second leader scorer and starter Solomon Hill shoots 50% from three (11-22), backup big Horne shoots 43% from three and the other big, Jessie Perry, hit a three for the key shot in their recent road win over Washington State.  None are three point specialists but again they are learning how to take advantage of playing next to Williams.  

Of course, UCLA other bigs, Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane will also play a role in this game.  Lane has been in a bit of a slump and after being one of the nation's leaders in blocks, has yet to block a shot in Pac-10 play.  He has also not drawn a charge this year.  Anthony Stover, of course, is the feel good story of the season right now for Bruin fans.  The kid has a great attitude (I feel for him matching up with Josh Smith in practice) and heart

Then came last week, when the redshirt freshman and his 7-foot-6 wingspan took center stage in the starting lineup against California and Stanford.

Stover played 38 minutes in the two games, more than he had played in the previous 10 games combined. He set career highs with five points and five rebounds in 23 minutes during UCLA's 68-57 victory over Stanford.

The 6-foot-10 center is expected to be in the starting lineup again when the Bruins play Arizona, with the winner taking over sole possession of second place in the Pac-10. . . .


Stover's promotion from benchwarmer to starter had more to do with Howland's desire to keep Smith out of foul trouble than any breakthrough by Stover. Howland said Stover was starting instead of Lane because Stover "gives us a better post presence early in the game defensively."

He had a good game against Stanford but, come on, even with blue and gold eyes it is too much to ask of him to stop Williams.  I feel confident that Stover will foul out.  I don't care if he does but the stat to watch for Stover will be defense rebounds.  Stover needs to do a better job there and, when he is on Williams, keep him off the boards.

But anyway you look at it the front court edge goes to Arizona.

THE BACKCOURT

Before the year most observers thought the combination of Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, and Joshua Smith were going to the strong suit for the Bruins.  I had higher hopes then most  for Malcolm Lee and included Lee in the key player group but I never dreamed the leader would be Lazeric Jones

And the whole conference is noticing it, this from the Huskies blog at the Seatle Post Intelligencer:

The game against Arizona on Thursday is for second place outright, and a Bruins win would give them five in a row. It's on ESPN2. Watch it. …A big reason for that success? Junior guard Lazeric Jones is playing like an all-conference selection. He's averaging 16.5 points over the Bruins' last four games.  

And it is in the back court and PG in particular UCLA looks to have an advantage against Arizona.  First from this Tuscon Citizen preview of the game's backcourt matchup which predicits Arizona wining by 7 (emphasis in answer mine):

Who has the edge? UCLA. Lazeric Jones and Lee, three-point shooting notwithstanding, comprise one of the most productive backcourts in the Pac-10. Lee leads the Bruins in scoring in Pac-10 games at 13.9 a game. Within the arc, Lee is shooting 19 of 35 (54.3 percent), and he and his backcourt mate have a tendency to get to the foul line. Lazeric Jones has gone the most to the foul line in Pac-10 games, making 32 of 37 attempts. Lee has converted 23 of 31. Jones also has 24 assists with only 11 turnovers in 197 minutes played in conference games.

Who here not related to Zeke, saw this line "comprise one of the most productive backcourts in the Pac-10" coming?  To me a key factor in both our Pac-10 losses was Zeke's injury.  I honestly think we could have beat Washington with Zeke healthy.  I know it would have been close.  As our favorite beat writer Jon Gold writes in a recent blog entry (emphasis mine):

Much was has been written about Joshua Smiths' play in Oregon and Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt's last weekend, but UCLA junior point guard Lazeric Jones is going a bit under the radar.

Jones leads the conference in free-throw shooting at 84.1 percent, and he's slowly becoming the clutch finisher that Darren Collison was for UCLA during its big run, when he was one of the top free-throw shooters in the country.

Jones came up big against Cal and Stanford, hitting 20-of-23 free throws on his way to a combined 41-point effort in the two wins. He still needs to improve on his passing and decision-making - he has no more than three assists in any of the last six games, after his 11-assist outburst against Washington State.

But it's clear to see that a major reason for the Bruins' 13-6 record has been Jones in the clutch.

Hmm, so ML is being compared to AA and Zeke is now compared to DC.  Way too early for both but still better than comparing someone on the team to Drago.  But seriously, Zeke has become the team leader and I think it is safe to say is exceeding everyone's, admittedly modest, expectations.

Arizona counters our backcourt with  Kyle Fogg at SG and Momo Jones at PG.  Jones has been, to put it nicely, a bit inconsistent and out of control as a PG.  Against Oregon State he tied his career high in points but had only one assist to 5 turnovers and Arizona lost. In Arizona's other Pac-10 loss against Washington he also had more turnovers than assists. 

Kyle Fogg will be more interesting to watch.  He has struggled this year on offense but has become something of a defensive stopper.   However, Fogg has the two highest scoring games of his career against UCLA, scoring 25 and 26 points last year (although we did better against him in the Pac-10 tourney in a UCLA win).  The first game he was arguably the reason UCLA permanently switched to zone last year when he torched Anderson while Lee was shutting down Arizona's PG Wise.  This may show the dangers of zone as Fogg actually scored one more point against a UCLA zone in the next game.  The moral of the story, with the crowd behind him, Fogg may play better on offense against UCLA then he would otherwise. 

INTANGIBLES

This is not UCLA's first tough road game as Oregon had a wildly enthusiastic crowd and SUC was into it (well if you include insulting player's parents) as well.  But as Achilles pointed out this is going to be a tough game.  We at BN do not believe in moral victories and CBH is great on the first of a Pac-10 pair but we are going to need a break or two to win this game.   On the road and against Williams, I cringe at the prospect of how many fouls the SPTRs may call.   We need to be realistic.  That said: this game must not be one of CRN's ESPN embarrassments and we expect the Bruins to fight until the end. 

And who knows, maybe this TEAM can overcome and will pull out a big win.  These guys think things are starting to click and enjoying each other:

"We still have a lot of things to improve on, but our chemistry is really clicking," said sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt. "We’re having fun on the court and off the court and it’s showing."

In its last four games, UCLA came back from big deficits in victories over Oregon and Stanford and fended off late-game rallies in victories over Oregon State and California. Those are the types of games UCLA was losing at the beginning of the season and an advancing rapport between the players has played a significant role.

"Our team camaraderie is getting stronger every single day," freshman center Anthony Stover said. "We’re all good friends on the team. Everyone on our team genuinely likes one another and that’s helping us on the court. As you can see, we’re playing better together, we’re feeding off of each other."

PSST, I know you guys are young but it is a lot more fun when you win. 

Go Bruins!

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