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Behind enemy lines: The Daily Bruin previews UCLA vs Arizona

Senior writer Matt Cummings gives the inside look at the Bruins

UCLA bball
Simon Asher | The Daily Wildcat UA's Rawle Alkins (1) dribbles past UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2) in the UA-UCLA game on Jan. 21.

Senior writer Matt Cummings at the Daily Bruin did a Q&A session with the Daily Wildcat regarding the UCLA men's basketball team to preview the upcoming matchup between the Bruins and the Wildcats. 

Here are Matt's thoughts on UCLA's defensive versus Arizona's offense, whether the Bruins can make the NCAA Tournament and more. 

Q: UCLA currently sits at fifth in the Pac-12 (16-7, 7-4) and have won three in a row including a home win vs USC. Are the Bruins starting to turn a corner after previously dropping three in a row?

A: I’m hesitant to say they’re turning a corner because that’s exactly what I thought a few weeks ago, when their impressive victory over Utah marked their sixth win in a stretch of seven games. But two nights later, UCLA came out flat and lost to Colorado, then dropped both games of its road trip to the Oregon schools. So Bruin fans have seen this before. It does feel perhaps slightly more sustainable now, if only because their recent wins have been a little more well-rounded, rather than merely results of incredible team-on-his-back performances from Aaron Holiday.

Q: KenPom.com ranks UCLA No. 137 in defensive efficiency. What is your level of concern about the Bruins defense going against Arizona? Who do you think UCLA will have the toughest time stopping?

A: The level of concern is sky-high, I’d say, especially in terms of keeping the Wildcats off the offensive glass. UCLA has been the second-worst team in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding rate in conference play, per KenPom.com, and Arizona is the third-best offensive rebounding team. With 7-footer Thomas Welsh and 6-foot-11 G.G. Goloman, UCLA normally has the height advantage along the frontline and still has struggled to secure defensive boards. Arizona is the rare team whose big men are actually even taller than UCLA’s.

I think the obvious answer regarding the toughest player to stop is Deandre Ayton because he’s got physical gifts that you rarely see in terms of his size and athleticism. There’s very few players like him, and the Bruins haven’t dealt with any of them yet this year. Lesser post players like Oregon State’s Drew Eubanks and USC’s Nick Rakocevic have had field days on the interior against UCLA, so I think Bruin fans should be pretty worried about the matchup against Ayton.

Q: To counter that, Arizona ranks No. 105 in defensive efficiency and UCLA ranks No. 67 in offense. In what ways can UCLA create problems for Arizona's defense?

A: The No. 1 way UCLA can hurt people is in transition, where the Bruins’ talented freshmen, [Jaylen] Hands and [Kris] Wilkes, really shine. That makes defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers hugely important for spurring the Bruins offense because once they get into the half-court, they become heavily reliant on the stars: Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. That’s not always bad, as those two guys — Holiday especially — are some of the Pac-12’s best players. Holiday is a great 3-point shooter and can finish at the rim at a high level, so he’s going to pose problems for any opponent, and Welsh’s ability to hit the three-ball naturally stretches defenses. But the rest of the team really thrives in transition, so I think that’s the area where UCLA has the best chance to hurt Arizona.

Q: Do you think the Bruins are good enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament?

A: I do think they’re good enough to be a tournament team, but I don’t know if it will happen. The three-game losing streak to Colorado and the two Oregon schools really set UCLA back, and the Bruins only picked up one strong non-conference win, beating Kentucky but losing to Creighton, Michigan and Cincinnati. I think they’ve clearly got the top-end talent of a tournament team, and Aaron Holiday is possibly a top-30 player in the nation, but they don’t defend or rebound very consistently. The Pac-12 is down as a whole, which hurts UCLA’s resume, so I think the Bruins need to steal a road win over one of the Arizona schools to get into the tourney.

Q: Last year, the Bruins and Wildcats treated fans to three memorable games along with some bad blood between Alford and Miller over calling timeouts at the end of games. Do you think that bad blood will show itself again on Thursday?

A: If it’s a tight game, then maybe, but this is a pretty different UCLA team than last year. Of the major players from last year’s Bruin squad, only two are back in Holiday and Welsh, neither of whom have ever seemed particularly interested in extracurricular activities on the court. Holiday’s gritty style of play can annoy opponents, and he won’t step down from a challenge, but he mostly just goes about his business, while Welsh is a pretty mild-mannered character for the most part. If the game is close, though, who knows what can happen? These are two of the conference’s best programs, and they do compete for many of the same recruits, so I do think there’s a little extra intensity to their meetings. It should be fun. 


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