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Danger Zone: Arizona Thoughts

Bruins now get to focus on the most important game of the season. Yeah, I know, every game right now is the most important game of the season. However, the Arizona road game in the recent era of UCLA hoops has always stood out as the most meaningful game for Bruin's Pac-10 regular season. Why? Allow me to expand on this a bit.

I have been fanatically following UCLA hoops since 1988-89. Since that time (which was also the start of the Jim Harrick era), I believe the UCLA basketball program has won the Pac-10 championship and advanced beyond the Sweet-16 round of the NCAA four times. Bruins won the Pac-10 championship and went to at least in Elite Eight in 1992, 1995, 1997, and 2006. Guess what was the common denominator in those four years? A Bruin victory over the Wildcats in Tucson. Coincidentally, those were the only 4 times the Bruins have been victorious at McKale since 1988.

Now, I am not saying the Bruins need to beat Arizona this year at McKale to replicate what they did during the above-referenced four seasons. However, I do believe there is some kind of correlation. Those four teams represent the four best teams during the modern UCLA hoops era (or at least the era I have been following UCLA hoops). Perhaps the correlation here is all four of those teams featured savvy, mature, and experienced seniors with a blend of talented underclassmen, who weren't fazed by hostile environments on the road.

Of course, winning at Arizona doesn't necessarily mean this year's team will automatically go on to become Pac-10 regular season champions and go beyond Steve-16. However, a win tomorrow against a reeling Zona squad will be a huge boost for our team, which still has a lot of questions to answer, despite compiling an impressive 21-3 record.

Did I mention Zona was reeling? They are kind of a mess. Here is Greg Hansen, the noted columnist from the Arizona Daily Star (who was whining earlier this week about defensive trend in Pac-10) after the latest Zona debacle at McKale:

Incredibly, the UA shot an even 50 percent for the game against the nation's No. 3 field goal percentage defense (.369 average), had the roaring support from the home crowd, outrebounded the Trojans 37-29 and even made more three-pointers than USC.

But Marcus Williams committed seven turnovers, and every one of them seemed to result in a Trojan breakaway for a dunk or a layup.

It was so frustratingly typical of what has happened to UA basketball the last two seasons; just when the Wildcats seem ready to gather themselves and make a run back into top 10-type prominence, the club breaks down with defensive gaffes and ball-handling errors.
I didn't get to watch the game last night. So I am wondering if Arizona truly looked as demoralized as Hansen makes it sound. He actually goes so far to use the word "victim":
Of all the streak-busting that has been done at McKale Center this season -- Washington State's first sweep in a century or so, North Carolina's unprecedented margin of victory, and now USC's first Tucson victory in 21 years -- the scary part is that these are not isolated incidents.

Arizona has become a designated victim.
Oh, those poor Wildcats. Gosh, I thought this was all about a wide open, fast paced NBA attack Mr. Hansen. Who needs defense?

In all seriousness, I think the Bruins better be ready. Given the predicament Zona is in right now, it's pretty much an all or nothing deal for them. Either they come out demoralized and uninterested tomorrow afternoon or they come out with crazy emotion trying to make one last stand. I expect the later to take place and in that event the Bruins better be ready to play some defense.

Arizona, for all its troubles, is still an explosive offensive team. They are deadly. They are leading the Pac-10 in scoring at 80.9 points a game (the Bruins are 4th in the conference at 73.3 points a game). [Pac-10 stats] According to Pomeroy's numbers, Zona currently has the 2nd best offense in the nation (the Bruins check in at 13). They are also leading the conference in FG percentage.

So, just like it has been for last couple of years, it will come down to whether the Bruin defense can stop the expected Zona attack. Bruins despite being bruised, battered and maybe tired, and coming off arguably their worst defensive effort of the season, are still up there with their defensive statistics. They are 2nd in the conference in terms of scoring defense (behind Washington State) giving up 59.8 points a game. However, per Pomeroy, they still have the 10th best defensive team in the country, ahead of Washington State (15th). AA, DD and the rest of the Bruin guards will have to come out putting severe pressure on Shakur and Williams to make sure they don't get any confidence. Williams may be down after his 7 TO night against the Trojies. So let's hope AA comes in his one of those assassin frames of mind, shuts him down, and gets into his head. On the front, AA2, Luc, Mata and co. will have their hands full with Radenovic.

Overall, the Bruins just cannot let the Wildcats move around, make easy cuts, like their opponents have been doing in their last two games. Given the importance of this game, I sure hope we don't see the amount of easy layups, dunks, open looks, we saw courtesy of an at times slow and tentative Bruin defense in our last two games. If there is a game we need to play 40 minutes of ferocious lock down defense (the way we played during the second half 18-2 run against ASU), its tomorrow. Unlike against ASU, the Bruins cannot afford to fall behind by 10 points or more against Zona on the road. The amount of energy they spend to climb out of these kinds of deficits, leave them tired and spent, which could be a disaster against a team with the offensive talent of Arizona.

On the other side of the ball, the Bruins are going to need someone to step up besides AA and DC. We can't afford Luc to go scoreless again on Saturday. We have talked enough about Shipp's troubles. If he is not ready and focused out of the gate, I sure hope Howland doesn't waste any time in going to Roll or to Westbrook. I did notice Howland was rather quick with the hook on Thursday night, when he benched Shipp rather quickly in the second half. If Shipp is struggling on defense early on, I hope Howland doesn't waste any time in going to his bench. Keep in mind Roll came through last time we played Zona, knocking down two clutch threes in the second half. Roll also had a pretty decent game yesterday in second half, knocking down some clutch shots when the Bruins started out cold in the second half.

We will need our big guys - AA2, Mata, and even Keefe - to make their presence felt around the glass. AA2 was a monster in the last game pulling down 11 boards (in addition he also made some big free throws down the stretch). He is going to need to step up again. Hopefully, he can stay out foul trouble, Mata doesn't disappear in stretches, and Keefe (and maybe even Wright) can chip in; the Bruin depth would become a huge factor in wearing down the Wildcats.

I know we have some good reasons to be concerned about Saturday. So I will end on a cheerful note. Consider this. Despite all the issues we have experienced this seasons, the Bruins are still one Brooks shot, a couple of freakish three pointers by Stanford guards, and a DC injury away from possibly having a 25-0 record at this point in the season. All this after losing an NBA point guard and two savy senior leaders like Ced and Ryan. Still, no one on the team is making any excuses. Not bad for a team that is going through so much growing pains. I wish I could experience, discuss that kind of growing pains/process during the Bruin football seasons. Makes you appreciate what we have in Coach Howland. Doesn't it?

Bruins will definitely be in a dangerous zone tomorrow afternoon (morning in West Coast) going up against some wounded, desperate Cats. But I will be more than happy to take our chances with a coach like Coach Howland. Let's get it on.