Before I dive in to preview tonight’s game, there was some big UCLA Basketball news earlier today. Thanks to a generous donation of $6.5 million from Jodi and Michael Price, UCLA has established The Michael Price Family UCLA Basketball Excellence Program and, in honor of the Prices’ generosity, the head coaching positions of both the men’s and women’s basketball programs will be known as The Michael Price Family UCLA Head Basketball Coaches.
Personally, my thought on this is that, if Michael Price wants UCLA to establish a “Basketball Excellence Program,” he should start by insisting that the Athletic Department terminate the employment of The Michael Price Family UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach because Steve Alford is doing more to prevent “UCLA Basketball Excellence” than anyone else in Westwood.
But, I digress.
Tonight’s game is the biggest game of the year. the UCLA Bruins trail the conference-leading Arizona Wildcats by two games going into tonight’s only regular season meeting between the schools. So, the Bruins need a win to close that gap and leave the Bruins just a game behind the Wildcats in the Pac-12 standings.
Of course, there are even bigger implications for tonight’s game. If UCLA can win, it would go a long way towards an NCAA Tournament berth for the Bruins. And, we know that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has shown a tendency in the past to reward UCLA for playing well down the home stretch. So, a win would definitely help UCLA with the Selection Committee.
But, it’s going to be tough. That’s because Arizona has won their last 12 games at home. The good news is that Sean Miller has an .550 winning percentage (11-9 record) against UCLA, which is his lowest winning percentage against any Pac-12 school. He does, however, have a .714 winning percentage (5-2 record) against the Bruins at the McKale Center.
As a team, the Wildcats are shooting 51.4% and is the third best field goal percentage in the county, which leads me to the three keys to the game for the Bruins.
Keys to the Game
1. Outshoot the Wildcats
If the Bruins are able to have a better field goal percentage than the Wildcats, it will go a long way towards a Bruin win.
2. Force the Wildcats Take Bad Shots
The easiest way to outshoot the Wildcats is to force them to take bad shots. If the Wildcats shoot under 40% for the game the Bruins will win.
3. Play Tough Defense
Of course, the way to force them to take bad shots is to play tough defense. Tough defense, ultimately, is the most important key to this game because it makes accomplishing the other two keys all the more easier.
Previewing the Wildcats
Sean Miller has four starters who are averaging double figures in points and one of them was a big reason why UCLA lost at home last season. That’s junior guard Allonzo Trier. Trier leads the Wildcats with an average of 19.9 points per game. If UCLA can stop Trier, it would go a long way toward beating Arizona.
Right behind Trier in points per game is Arizona’s only freshman starter. Forward/center Deandre Ayton is averaging 19.7 points per game and he leads the Wildcats in rebounds per game with 10.8. Ayton is the only Wildcat averaging a double-double, which means it’s probably good that UCLA will likely have Thomas Welsh on him all night.
Between Ayton and Trier, it looks like it’s probably more important to keep Ayton from shooting as he’s making more than 64% of his attempts in conference play while Trier is “only” making about 51%. That’s probably due to the fact that more than half of Trier’s shots are from 3-point range where he shoots almost 40%.
Sophomore guard Rawle Alkins is Arizona’s third best scorer with an average of 13.8 points per game and senior center Dusan Ristic is fourth with an average of 11.7 ppg, but Ristic is only averaging 6.9 rebounds per game. If Steve Alford makes a mistake and puts Welsh on Ristic instead of Ayton, it could prove costly for UCLA.
The only Arizona starter not averaging in double figures in Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who is averaging just 7.3 points per game. He does, however, lead the Wildcats in assists, with an average of 5.0 per game. Redshirt sophomore Dylan Smith and true freshman Brandon Randolph look to be Arizona’s first two guys off the bench, as they are averging 4.8 and 4.7 ppg, respectively.
The bottom line to all this is quite simple, really. This is going to be the toughest game UCLA has played so far and it is likely to come down to the Bruins’ ability to play good defense.