Arizona men's basketball looks to get back on the winning side of things as they travel to UCLA to try and snap their two-game losing streak.
For this preview, the Daily Wildcat talked with the Daily Bruin's sports editor Sam Connon to get a better look at UCLA and what to expect on Saturday.
Daily Wildcat: What has Mick Cronin done to completely flip UCLA around this season?
Sam Connon: The reactions to Mick Cronin being UCLA's coach have fluctuated a lot throughout the course of the last year, honestly. When he was hired, everyone was upset because they saw him as a backup plan and second-tier guy, but once preseason practices started, everyone started getting on board with his culture and how he ran his team. He took down the banners of all the current players that were hanging in the practice gym and replaced them with new banners of all the first round picks in UCLA history, so everyone in the fanbase fell in love with him and his whole mindset after that. People were honestly calling for his head after UCLA lost to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton, in non-conference play though, and he was kind of labeled a bust hire. But then after UCLA started 1-3 in conference play, he shuffled up his lineup a bit to get David Singleton into the starting lineup, and he's a great shooter and great defender. Even though his 3-point percentage is down from what it was last year, just inserting him into the lineup and playing freshman Jake Kyman more has really helped with spacing on offense. Everyone always talks about Cronin's defense, but his offense is really what's been surprising this year. He added the shooting on the wings and that helped open things up in the paint, because it was a mess down there early in the season. Once he got that all settled, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley became much more effective in the post, and Chris Smith became a much better slasher. So yeah, the defense has been great, and when that defense is playing to its full potential, that's when the Bruins win. They're 16-0 when they allow fewer than 70 points, and their only win when they allowed more than 70 points was in overtime against Washington State. Defense has been there basically from start to finish this year, but the offense has been the difference in this last hot streak.
DW: What's gone right for UCLA and how do they keep winning?
SC: The craziest thing about this stretch of wins of UCLA is how it does it in different ways every time. Against Utah, it's a wire to wire victory, against Colorado it's a nine-point comeback in the second half on the road. And then there were bigger comebacks against Washington and Washington State, too. So, whether they're at home or on the road, down at half, leading the whole game or fighting in a back-and-forth battle, they've just found ways to win. I mean, a few weeks ago it seemed like it was their improved free throw shooting that was saving them in the final minutes of close games, but then they were just bad from the line against Colorado and they still came back on the road. This team doesn't have a strict identity when it comes to "Oh, they do this really well" and "that's a weakness for them." Instead, it's just sound fundamentals and ability to adapt on the fly, and I think Cronin's done a great job of getting this team to buy into that.
DW: Who does Arizona need to slow down on UCLA if they want to win?
SC: It's tough because UCLA doesn't have a go-to guy day in, day out. Smith is playing great; he's averaging 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 50% from the field, 36% from three and 83% at the line during conference play. So, he's been the most consistent and efficient guys on offense. But then he scored nine points and got one rebound against Utah, and UCLA still won that one handily, so that's one of the tougher things about this team. When Smith doesn't play well, Tyger Campbell does. When neither of them are playing well, Jalen Hill steps up or Cody Riley scores 16 points in the paint on his own, it could really be any combination of things every night. Even guys like Jules Bernard who have kind of taken a backseat in a crowded lineup come in and score a team-high 16 points against Colorado. So, this team isn't exactly difficult to defend because they're going to run the score up on you every night, but they're tough to defend because they're versatile and can score in a handful of different ways.
SC: There's more hype around this week's game than there has been for probably any other game since I've been at UCLA. I missed the Lonzo Ball year, so things have honestly been pretty tame over the past year or two. This isn't the best UCLA team since then, I think that goes to the 2017-18 team with Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. But still, there are going to be lines down the street for hours for the first time all year, and Pauley Pavilion is going to be loud. So for one, I'm predicting a sellout — especially if UCLA beats [ASU]. Regardless, UCLA is going to have a big home court advantage on Saturday. Ever since I've been here, UCLA always wins the big home games, like every time against Oregon, Arizona, USC or Notre Dame. So when those sellout crowds come, that's when UCLA tends to defend its home court. The one exception is the USC game earlier this year, but that was in a down time for the Bruins and it wasn't even sold out — this time it will be. Arizona will definitely shoot better and play better than it did against UCLA the first time, but I don't think it will be enough to overcome the loud fans and hot UCLA team. Still though, Arizona is the more talented team, and talent tends to win out over time. So, maybe the Wildcats will win if they meet the Bruins in Vegas in a few weeks. This time around though, I'm going to take UCLA 74-68.
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