With all due respect to #18 Oregon, who are an excellent 13-1 on the season, Arizona’s game at UCLA this Thursday is the biggest game of the conference season. That’s no slight to #15 Colorado either, who are more than capable of winning the conference. But Arizona vs UCLA was and still is the biggest hoops rivalry of conference powers this side of the Mississippi.
And to be perfectly honest, the Bruins kicked the Wildcats’ butts last year, giving Arizona three losses. If for no other reason, this is a big game in reestablishing the pecking order of the Pac-12.
NBA scouts must be drooling about this matchup. Not only is Arizona loaded with potential pros, UCLA has some serious star power as well.
There might not be a more versatile player in the country than UCLA’s Kyle Anderson. The 6’9 sophomore defies traditional positions, as he averages a team high 8.9 rebounds per game while also facilitating the offense to the tune of 6.6 assists per game. If that weren’t enough, he’s also a capable scorer at 15.1 points per game.
Anderson affects the game in a number of different ways and will pose an interesting matchup problem for Arizona. Don’t be surprised to see Aaron Gordon get the defensive assignment, though the Wildcats may deploy several players to prevent Anderson from his typical all around impact.
In the Bruins’ opener against USC, Anderson went off for 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists on 10-14 shooting, while committing just 1 turnover. Clearly Anderson is a focal point for UCLA, and stopping him will be a top priority for Arizona.
UCLA is led in scoring by fellow sophomore Jordan Adams with 18.7 points per game on an efficient 50.6% field goal percentage. Adams lit up the Cats last year, especially in the Pac-12 tournament. And on Thursday, his offensive firepower will be on full display.
Adams has scored 18 or more points in 10 games already, eclipsing 20 in 7 of those games, and even hitting the 30 point mark in late November. He can score in bunches, and is UCLA’s top offensive option whenever he’s on the court. If Arizona’s defense wants to continue their staunch play, they will need to focus on limiting Adams’ looks at the basket.
Though UCLA’s two stars lead the way, they are actually a balanced team like Arizona. The Bruins have an 8 man rotation, with all players receiving between 19 and 31 minutes per game. Head coach Steve Alford relies heavily on Anderson and Adams, but he’s not afraid to let his bench play.
When Arizona heads to LA with their #1 ranking on the line, you can expect UCLA to play one of their best games of the season. Still searching for a marquee victory to pad their tournament resume, this would be the perfect opportunity for the Bruins to steal a big time win on the national level. Undefeated Arizona could be running into the perfect storm for a loss.
Think again. This year’s Arizona team is special. Battle tested, versatile, and carrying the undeniable chip on the shoulder that winners have, the Wildcats have entered more hostile environments and against better teams than they will face against UCLA.
That doesn’t mean they’ll win. But they should. And if Arizona does indeed suffer their first loss, it won’t be because of a lack of toughness or inexperience on the road, it’ll be the result of a tough fought battle. No matter what the Vegas line says, Arizona is the favorite and should win this game.