Pac-12 basketball is UCLA vs. Arizona. Since Arizona joined the league, the two have combined to win 24 of the 36 league championships. Although the Bruins lead the series 42-36, 4-1 over the past two seasons, we fans know Arizona got its foothold while the UCLA program wandered in the desert (pun intended) in the post-Wooden era with the exception of parts of the Harrick and Howland tenures.
We know more about what next season will look like with the departures Gordon and Johnson of Arizona for the NBA, and our own draft announcements by Kyle and Zach. Jordan Adams recently announced his decision to return to school for his junior year.
On paper, once again Arizona looks like the better squad. This ESPN preview has Arizona at #1 and UCLA at #22. Further, Scout ranks Arizona's incoming class at #3 and UCLA at #7.
Should we listen to the mainstream media and the internet talking heads (oh--I guess I am one now)? When you look at the match-ups, It appears to be close again. These are the critical questions which I will attempt to answer with a position-by-position comparison:
1) Is our point guard situation workable?
2) How do the incoming freshman actually perform at the college level - especially UCLA's Kevon Looney and Arizona's Stanley Johnson? Both highly rate five star McDonald's All Americans will be expected to crack the starting lineups immediately. For the Bruins, Looney is the key to a hoped for rebounding renaissance. Read here and here for my earlier thoughts on our incoming players.
3) Which coach prepares best and makes the smarter in-game tactical decisions and adjustments (don't laugh just yet)?
Point Guard: Hamilton vs. McConnell
(I ask for your indulgence here - I will get back to Bryce). I'm not a McConnell fan. I don't think he is someone you have to worry about on the court - offensively or defensively. Why has his role been so exaggerated by the media? Two reasons. One, shoot-first Mark Lyons was the point guard in Arizona's disappointing 2012-13 season. Two, if college basketball were played with five balls, Kentucky and Arizona would be playing in the finals every year. But its not, and TJ McConnell made the chemistry work last season. Five teammates actually lived together. The Bruins, on-the-other hand, do not have a true point guard on the roster. Former five star McDonald's All-American, 6'4" Isaac Hamilton had a shoot first reputation in high school. I saw him in practice. He has a smooth, gliding style on offense. Defensively, he did a fine job covering Kyle, Jordan and Zach. That said, this is an experiment, and we won't begin to know the results until November 7.
Isaac is hands down the better player compared to McConnell, but I will give the slight advantage to Arizona at point guard especially when you add incoming freshman, true point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (ex-teammate of our own incoming freshman Thomas Welsh). Although only 5'8", speedster PJC has the ability defend his man for 94 feet in a Wildcat back court that will have a tough time applying pressure without him.
2 Guard: Powell vs. S. Johnson
Leaving our point guard dilemma aside, this match-up is the game-decider. I've seen Stanley Johnson three times now. He didn't impress me in the California Southern Section Finals when his Mater Dei team beat our own 2016 point guard Lonzo Ball's Chino Hills team. He hung around the perimeter all day long. But then came the all star games, Micky D and especially the Jordan Brand Classic. There's no box score yet, but I believe he scored 24 points in about 24 minutes - an unheard of amount of time in a high-level 32 minute all-star game. According to DraftXpress.net, he's 6'7 and 237 lbs. This is a man! And he's playing the 2 (and 3 I'm sure) - are you kidding me?
As good as Norman Powell will be next year, and as strong as he already is, he can't cover Johnson. The more likely scenario will be that Powell shifts defensively to cover McConnell or goes out of the game. The assignment might go to Jordan Adams, who shut down Allan Crabbe two seasons ago. You could even see 6'9" Jonah Bolden get minutes against Johnson. Though not known for defense, he's long and athletic enough to give Johnson problems.
The good news will be that a back court of McConnell and Johnson will be too slow to give our guards problems bringing it up.
Still, advantage Arizona.
Center: Parker vs. Tarczewski
We're expecting our new front court crew to finally resolve our long-standing rebounding nightmare. On its face, it appears that we can throw Parker, Welsh, Looney, Bolden, Bail and Golomon at Arizona's front court.
Some say last season was effectively Tony's first year in the program, and big men develop more slowly. I simply say (read my AAU discussion) that the game was too fast for Parker last year. I frequently bemoaned his lack of fundamentals - especially his inability, on a virtually total basis, to box out. I'm pretty sure Schilling drilled him for 12 months, and Tony is not a stupid kid. But stepping on PAC-12 court is apparently a very different proposition. If the light bulb does go off in Tony's head, we might actually have a helluva front court.
For now, I have to give Arizona a slight advantage.
Small Forward: Adams vs. Ashley
Advantage Bruins. No question for me. I don't think Jordan can cover Ashley, but there are several choices on the D: Bolden, Bail and Looney.
Power Forward: Looney vs. Hollis-Jefferson
Kevon Looney had 11 rebounds, two blocks and six points in 11 minutes in the Micky D game. Though slight of build, he's someone who will mix it up everywhere on the court, and yes, he boxes out.
Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson made his bones last season as a rebounder and shot blocker. Will he be an offensive force, in addition, against the slim Looney down low? Let's hope Wes Long works his magic on Looney in the weight room.
I give the slight advantage to the Bruins.
Despite the highly decorated cast, Arizona has not gone too deep into its bench in the last two seasons. As a matter of fact, the injury to Ashley almost torpedoed the entire season. Further, Gave York is rumored to want to transfer.
For 2014-15, we have Welsh, Bolden, Bail, Golomon, Allen Alford/Hamilton vs. Jackson-Cartwright and incoming power forward Craig Victor (as a little aside, note that Arizona seems to get all the West Coast Nike, Findlay Prep and AAU Oakland Soldiers guys).
Coaches: Alford vs. Miller
If we were talking about recruiting, the discussion is over: Miller. However, Alford out-coached Miller in the Pac-12 championship. Perhaps too much was made about getting the Bruins loose for the game after the embarrassing loss to WSU, or playing your starters exclusively down the stretch. And perhaps it was the players coming to together knowing it was near the end for three of them--who will ever forget Travis Wear diving for the loose ball? Nevertheless, Miller has been prone to bizarre decision-making: he was skewered by his usually adoring fans for starting York last tme instead of Hollis-Jefferson out-of-the-blue allowing the Wears to go off.
Many of us, if we had to choose, would take Miller as coach. You can probably prove me wrong if you look closely at his recruiting, but he is a classy guy. That said, the coaching is a wash.
Position-by-position, I gave Arizona a slight overall advantage, 3-2 among the starters.
As I said at the beginning, there are several x-factors including the point guard situation and the Bryce Alford circus surrounding it, and the actual performance, on a Pac-12 court, of our vaunted incoming front line. For the Bruins, add to that the upside we hope for from Tony Parker, Jordan Adams (a year removed from his injury) and Norman Powell (last chance to make an impression on the NBA execs).
Arizona has its own monkey on its back. The internet meme about not being able to get to the Final Four is out there. Was it the injury to Ashley this time, or Sean Miller's inability to pull a Calipari? Even the kumbaya living arrangement wasn't enough last season. These guys are going to have a chip on their shoulders.
My bottom-line: Its another dog-fight, but without Nick Johnson's leadership, I look forward to another cratering by the Wildcats.