I still have crystal clear memory of Salim Stoudamire sinking UCLA with his game winning, 27 foot three pointer that ignited 14,559 fans at the McKale Center into raucous frenzy. It was moments like that one, or Arizona’s thrilling overtime win at Pauley Pavillion in 1991, that have set the mold for the rivalry. And with both programs appearing to have emerged from brief periods of dormancy, Thursday’s showdown between the Wildcats and Bruins might be a game that invokes the intensity of history’s best Arizona-UCLA matchups.
Here are three keys to victory as Arizona squares off with UCLA for the 87th time in school history.
Force UCLA into low percentage shots. Arizona has only looked good in two of their five conference games to date, those being wins at Oregon St and ASU. It’s no coincidence that in both games, the Wildcats held their opponent under 40% shooting from the field. In the 10 games this season in which Arizona has forced 40% or worse shooting, they have a whopping (and surprisingly exact) 20 point margin of victory. For all the talk of close games this season, Arizona has broken plenty of them open as well, but it’s the defense that led the way in those games.
Arizona is a very difficult team to handle when they lock down on defense. Just ask ASU, who was the fourth opponent the Wildcats held under both 60 points and 20 made field goals. All suffered similar fates. If UCLA gets easy looks around the basket, it could be another anxiety filled 40 minutes for Arizona fans. But if the Cats can force low percentage shots and put the squeeze on the Bruin offense, Arizona may have too much firepower for Ben Howland’s squad.
Limit turnovers. Arizona has earned the dubious honor of being a team that is sloppy with the ball. In two games at the Oregon schools, the Wildcats turned it over a shameful 30 times. That’s why it was a sight for sore eyes when Arizona toppled ASU with just 9 turnovers in the box score.
The Wildcats are improving in that area. After coughing up more than 14 turnovers per game over the first 11 contests, Arizona has reduced that number to a more respectable 11.5 since Christmas. That’s a good start, but it’s hardly a trend yet.
The last thing the Cats want to do is let the Bruins turn miscues into transition points. If Arizona takes care of the ball and doesn’t give up easy points off turnovers, UCLA will have to execute very well to keep the game close.
The freshmen must step up to the occasion. Much has been made of Arizona’s lauded freshmen class, three of which play significant roles in the rotation. But UCLA’s newbies have been worthy of praise as well. Headlined by Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, two of the nation’s top 5 recruits last year, the Bruins boast an ultra talented set of wings. Muhammad leads the team with over 17 points per game, while the 6’9 Anderson averages 9.1 rebounds as a play-making point forward. And that’s to say nothing of the prolific scoring Jordan Adams, who has already logged nine games with 18 points or more.
That’s why Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett need to find ways to be productive against UCLA. Their play against ASU was solid, combining for 20 points, 17 rebounds, and 6 assists, including some inspired defense from Ashley.
“Brandon Ashley had his best defensive performance of his young career,” Sean Miller said after the ASU win. “There’s two different types of players he has to guard at his position. Some are more inside players, and a lot of face up players. It’s hard for a freshman, especially with his length, to always be comfortable doing both, but today he guarded on the perimeter excellent. He did it in the first half and he did it in the second half as well, and in the minutes he played he contributed in a huge way for us.”
Arizona will need more of the same from Ashley against UCLA, with contributions from Tarczewski and Jerrett as well. Luckily for the Wildcats, their talented youth seems to be rounding into form. In the last four games, Tarczewski is averaging 7 rebounds while Jerrett had a career high 6 blocks in the Wildcats’ win over Oregon St. If Arizona’s freshmen outshine UCLA’s it could be a long day for the Bruin faithful.