This is a very important UCLA vs. Arizona basketball game but not for the reasons that either school would have predicted preseason. Going into this year, UCLA and Arizona were both ranked in the top 20 and were set to continue to lead the Pac-12 back to where the conference should be. However, both have not lived up to preseason hype. There is a lot of similarity between the programs.
- Arizona opened the year ranked #16. UCLA opened the year ranked #17. Arizona opened the year losing its exhibition game to Seattle-Pacific and UCLA, of course opened losing to a mediocre LMU team.
- Arizona supposed breakout star and preseason favorite for Pac-12 freshman of the year for 2011-12, PG Josiah Turner, has had a tough time adjusting to the big time and was suspended for a game "due to violations of team policy". Turner has only started 1 game and instead backup PG Jordin Mayes has been the starting PG. UCLA lost preseason short list candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year Reeves Nelson when he was dismissed from the team and the team that was supposed to dominate inside is getting beat inside.
- Arizona's "glue guy, jack of all trades" Kevin Parrom, was shot while visiting his family in New York over the summer and has been limited this year. UCLA's unstoppable force, Josh Smith, while living with his family over the summer didn't stop eating and effectively limited himself by showing up to school weighing around 400 pounds.
But that is just it, Arizona is 10-4 (1-0 in Pac-12) and UCLA is 7-7 (0-2 in Pac-12). Arizona is having a rougher than expected season but still in an okay spot to make a run at the Pac-12 title. Tomorrow night against UCLA is their first true test. On the other hand, it's only the third game of the Pac-12 but UCLA is facing already facing a "must win" game.
Last year, Arizona at UCLA was the best game of the season and probably the best game from a Coach Ben Howland (CBH) team since the final four runs. It was a near perfect domination of a very good team lead by arguably the NCAA's best player last season in Derrick Williams. The game ended the old Pauley Pavilion with a story book finish with the final point being scored by Wooden's great grandson.
But this year, the game could mark the beginning of the end for Coach Ben Howland. It is very difficult to imagine any realistic scenario (short of winning the Pac-12 tourney) for a Pac-12 team to start off 0-3 and still win the conference and/or make the Big Dance. The last time UCLA started 0-3 the coach (the late Walt Hazzard) was fired and UCLA did not make the tourney. If UCLA starts 0-3, it may be hard to keep the team together to win an NIT berth or even have a winning record.
Too much hyperbole; maybe, maybe not. But this game is huge and a must win. And the ONLY good news for CBH is it is the first game of a two game set, a chance for him to work his preparation coaching magic. Howland has shown to almost always be a better coach in the first game of a two game set.
So more important than any of the match-ups, may be the game plan of Howland and the intensity of the players. Also, unlike the funeral dirge like Sports Arena, maybe the Honda Center crowd can help (The crowd at the "perfect" game at Pauley was supposedly the loudest in years). I think those factors may be as important, or more important, than any individual matchup.
PG Mayes and Turner vs. Jones
First these matchups are not necessarily the man-to-man matchup. UCLA may very well play zone against Arizona or vary these matchups, just using them here for comparison purposes.
Mayes is a guy who should be a backup PG forced to start because Turner is not ready. As Arizona's official website says: "An athletic player who settled nicely into the back-up point guard role." Turner is a guy with a lot of potential (ranked # 10 nationwide last year) but right now is shooting poorly and has as many turnovers as assists. He is not ready to run an offense.
The catch is Jones has to not try to do much and yet at the same time this is a matchup UCLA needs to win to win the game.
SG Kyle Fogg v. Jerime Anderson
In the nightmare 2009-10 campaign, Kyle Fogg's matchup against Jerime Anderson was probably the reason UCLA went to a zone. While Malcolm Lee was shutting down Arizona's PG and star, Fogg was having a career game against Anderson the first time UCLA played Arizona that year. The very next game UCLA went zone and stayed zone the rest of the year.
Last year Fogg hit double digits twice against UCLA but shot only 4-14 and did most of his damage at the free throw line in the first game when Lazeric Jones lost his cool a bit. Fogg is solid but not spectacular. If he matches up with Jerime in Man-to-Man it will be interesting to see how Jerime has improved but this may be another argument for zone.
SF/3G Johnson v. Lamb
Unlike Turner, Freshman Nick Johnson (Ranked 40th best in the country by the scouting services) has lived up to the hype. Johnson has had his biggest games in some of Arizona tougher games this year and has scored from all over the floor. He will be a tough matchup for whoever guards him and someone to watch in the zone.
Losing Reeves Nelson helped with team chemistry but it hurts in games like this. Solomon Hill is having an amazing season and leads Arizona in Points, Rebounds AND assists. He has twice been named Pac-12 player of the week already this year. This is a nightmare matchup considering what Cal's backup fours just did to UCLA. Look Hill is no Derrick Williams but he is doing whatever it takes for Arizona and this is looking to be a nightmare for UCLA.
Center\Forward Perry v. Smith
Jesse Perry is the only JC player Arizona has taken in the last ten years and ironically is a teammate in JC of LJ. Is that part of the reason LJ melted down last year? He seems to play worse in front of former teammates (see the LMU game). Perry is solid in everything he does. Of course Josh Smith (or Travis Wear, Anthony Stover, etc.) are all taller than the 6'7" Perry but will UCLA be able to take advantage of that? Perry is confident enough to talk smack:
#arizonawildcats Jesse Perry on giving up about 90 pounds to UCLA C Joshua Smith: "I have a big edge. He can't run with me."
UCLA is a better shot blocking team than Arizona (who lacks an intimidator) but it does not seem that Arizona relative lack of size otherwise affects them.
Arizona does have height off the bench (Angelo Choi and Kyrl Natazhko) but they are more just bodies. (Of course, those kind of "bodies" destroyed us in the Cal game). Arizona really plays 10 players a game with three point swing specialist Brendon Lavender and Kevin Parrom also getting minutes off the bench.
My opinions on Norman Powell have oft been stated. If CBH is going man-to-man at all, Powell will need to start or play a lot of minutes. To get more offense, it seems so as well. The other interesting defensive wildcard is Anthony Stover. He shone last year on defense against Arizona. If CBH insists on going man, those two need to play.
But CBH is the coach. These are his decisions. He better make the right ones tomorrow night against Arizona or his days as UCLA could be numbered.
Must win. Go Bruins.