Big front line presents matchup problem for undersized Wildcats
Of the eight schools Arizona could have faced in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament, no team is a worse matchup for the Wildcats than UCLA.
For nearly every area Arizona is weak, UCLA is strong. In the aspects where the Wildcats stand out, the Bruins aren’t far behind.
“That’s a tough matchup. They’re quality as a team,” head coach Sean Miller said. “No question they’re one of the five or six teams that can probably win the tournament.”
Arizona’s the smallest team in the conference, while the Bruins are by far the largest. Three of its four leading scorers come in at 6-foot-10, one of them being 305-pound monster Josh Smith. Arizona, on the flip side, starts a 6-foot-7 center and a 6-foot-6 power forward, and has struggled keeping opponents off the glass this season.
Between Smith and the Wear brothers — Travis and David, who Miller called “two of the best players in our conference” — the Wildcats have their hands full.
Arizona snuck past UCLA on Feb. 25 in McKale Center to split the season series, but the game could have really gone either way, as the Bruins were a Jerime Anderson jump shot away from sending it to overtime.
The Wildcats also got Smith into early foul trouble, which limited him to only 14 minutes. If Arizona can’t take Smith out of the game this time around, its Pac-12 Tournament run could end early.
“You have to look at trapping him, putting two players on him,” Miller said. “You have to make it hard for him to get the ball. You have to be as smart and efficient on offense as you can when he’s in the game.”
While Arizona’s perimeter defense is one of the best in the conference, UCLA operates in the paint more than any Pac-12 squad. The 28.1 percent the Wildcats allow opponents to shoot from 3-point range is almost negated by the fact that the Bruins attempted the second-fewest threes in the conference.
UCLA’s size doesn’t just give Arizona trouble on the defensive end, it limits them offensively as well. The UA shot only 38.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three in their last meeting, while connecting on only 36.2 percent from the floor and 17.6 percent from distance in their first matchup.
“We’ve played them twice and we’ve had two of our worst offensive performances of the year against them numbers-wise. We were better at home, but not much better,” Miller said. “Their length around the basket bothers us. For us to beat them we have to be better on offense against them.”
Like Arizona, UCLA is a much better team than its record suggests. Ben Howland’s squad lost five games by three points or less this season, all on the road, and started the season just 2-5.
“UCLA’s a lot like us in that you can probably pick four plays and say if those four plays were different, they could be right there to win the conference,” Miller said.
UCLA hasn’t gone on a road trip since it played Arizona on Feb. 25, so with a virtual home game against the Wildcats in Staples Center, downing the Bruins becomes that much more of a daunting task.
Arizona most likely needs to win out to make the NCAA Tournament but a trio of 6-foot-10 giants, one of the better guards in the conference in Lazeric Jones, a veteran coach in Howland and home court advantage stand in its way.
Can the Wildcats answer the bell and take that first step in winning the Pac-12 Tournament? We’ll find out soon enough.