Tomorrow evening, the UCLA Bruins host the Arizona Wildcats in the only meeting between the teams in this year’s regular season. In advance of tomorrow’s game, we had some questions about the Wildcats for our friends at SB Nation sister site Arizona Desert Swarm. Scott Moran from ADS graciously answers our questions below. Also, be sure to check out Scott’s questions and our answers over at Arizona Desert Swarm.
BN: The FBI probe into college basketball is still a major story, and Arizona has been a part of it for better or worse. What are your thoughts on former Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson pleading guilty to one count of federal funds bribery?
SM: It’s hard for me to pass judgment on this, since a lot of people in Tucson have sort of put on blinders to any bad news about the probe (and I can’t say I blame them). The biggest part of Richardson’s plea was that he pled guilty to steering alumni to certain brands once they’re in the NBA, but didn’t plea in regards to paying players to attend Arizona. The fact that he admitted to some crimes but not others seems to point towards innocence in that regard, and that would allow Arizona to dodge the kind of truly crippling sanctions Louisville faced. Now, that still means Arizona was employing a man who was bribing people, but the NCAA would have very little to work with if that was all he did. The day the infamous “wiretap” story came out seemed to be the beginning of a long stretch of dark days for the Wildcats, but things have improved markedly since then. We’ll see what happens as the probe continues.
BN: How did Arizona end up actually having enough players to field a team this season after having their recruiting class fall apart the way it did?
SM: Sean Miller pulled a rabbit out of his hat with this year’s roster. After the wiretap story, Shareef O’Neal, Jahvon Quinerly, and Brandon Williams all decommited, turning another top-ten class into an empty one with little time left to sign players. As the story seemed to lose it’s ring of truth with each passing day, Miller was able to convince enough players to come around. Brandon Williams recommited, which was absolutely pivotal. Devonaire Doutrive also signed with us, and grad transfers like Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman have been crucial in filling out the roster. If Chase Jeter hadn’t transferred just in time to be on the court for Arizona this year, it would have been a nightmare. He’s the lynchpin of the roster if you ask me. Losing Emmanuel Akot hurts, but the fact that Miller has enough players to withstand that transfer boggles the mind.
BN: Which player should we be watching out for on Arizona?
SM: For me the answer is Chase Jeter. Jeter was a pretty big diasppointment at Duke, and he transferred to Arizona last offseason, spending 2017-18 sitting out. This year, he’s been the most talented guy on the floor in Tucson, and he’s helped keep a bit of last year’s inside presence going. Miller has been forced to play something resembling smallball this year, and Jeter is often the only guy inside the arc. Considering he’s only 6’9” or 6’10”, he’s done a hell of a job imposing his will. He’s been a good rebounder, he can score and can convert from the line when needed, and he has enough experience to be the leader of the team. Watching him go up against Moses Brown shoud be fun, and I expect the two to essentially fight to a draw.
BN: Despite all of the turnover, this still feels like a Sean Miller team, with a good defense and questionable offense. How have the Wildcats progressed throughout the season?
SM: The Wildcats were always gonna be a flawed team this season due to the issues mentioned above regarding attrition. Still, they’ve looked pretty good about 75% of the time, and it is true that it feels like a Sean Miller team when they’re clicking. Arizona was in a dogfight with Gonzaga in Maui, and then took a while to truly get whooped by Auburn, another top-ten team. They beat a soon-to-be-ranked Iowa State squad, and looked to be in good shape. Unfortunately, errors like poor free throw shooting and bad rebounding came back to hurt them in a close loss to Alabama and a brutal home loss to Baylor, where Arizona was outrebounded 51-19 (yes, really, that bad). Overall though, it’s been hard to complain about their January performance so far. The Oregon loss was almost entirely due to overreliance on the three and a cold shooting night, and the Oregon State win proved a lot of those recurring errors have improved. I still get scared about a Warriors-esque team that goes cold fairly often, but Arizona’s managed to keep afloat so far, and they deserve a lot of credit for that in my eyes.
BN: Final Score predictions?
SM: I really think this will be a fun game. These teams are usually the blue-bloods of the Pac-12, and both have fallen on hard times this year, just like everybody else in this trash heap of a conference. Obviously Steve Alford has given way to Murray Bartow, and Arizona fans always find something to complain about Sean Miller. I think this game really comes down to Arizona’s shooting. The ‘Cats will slow down UCLA fairly well, but if this team tries to shoot 25 threes and can only make 5, UCLA wins. Even in the always formidable Pauley Pavilion, I think Arizona has a good shot of getting buckets to fall, and I say Arizona wins 74-67. Wouldn’t shock me to see a Bruins win though. Any Arizona fan knows to never get confident when you’re playing in Westwood.
Thanks again to Scott Moran from Arizona Desert Swarm.com for answering our questions. The Bruins and the Wildcats tip-off tomorrow evening at 7 pm PT.