Note: This article also appears at CollegeHoopsNet.com.
Game of the Week: #11 Arizona at #3 UCLA (Saturday, January 20th, 4:00 PM, FSN)
Take one quick look at the college basketball scene and it’s obvious that the parity around the country is unbelievable. There might be more parity this season than any in recent memory. As a result, it makes nearly every game between potential contenders in conference play a key game. This weekend features several of those types of games, including Boston College taking on Clemson in the ACC, Oklahoma State headed to Texas A&M in the Big 12, LSU vs. Arkansas in the SEC, and Marquette against Pittsburgh in the Big East. However, the best game is between two potential National Championship contenders in the Pac-10 when Arizona heads to UCLA in a game that will be big in deciding the conference title. Expect two of the more talented teams in the country, and a game of offense vs. defense. It will be entertaining, to say the least.
Arizona has arguably the best starting five in the country on the offensive end, and that talent has translated into a very good, Top-10 season thus far. However, they really struggle on the defensive end at times, which will need to improve if they are to make a deep run in March. Ranked #2 in the RPI, the 13-3 (4-2 in the Pac-10) Wildcats opened the season with a tough loss at Virginia, but then ran off 12 straight victories, including victories over UNLV, Illinois, Washington, and Memphis. However, they have lost two of three since then, including a home defeat to Oregon. They average almost 86 points per game, good enough for a top 5 scoring offense—and best in the Pac-10. On the other hand, they give up over 74 a contest, which is next-to-last in the conference. Ken Pomeroy has the Wildcats as the most efficient offensive team in the country, but the 95th-most efficient defensive team.
UCLA had an outstanding season a year ago, and despite the loss of three starters, Ben Howland has his crew playing excellent basketball. They were #1 in the polls for much of the season, and even after their loss to Oregon, the Bruins are still one of the best teams in college basketball. Ranked #1 in the RPI, the 15-1 (4-1 in conference) Bruins won their first fourteen games of the year, which included triumphs over Texas A&M, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, BYU, Washington State, Washington, and a Maui Invitational Championship. However, their unbeaten streak came to an end when Oregon beat them in Eugene on Aaron Brooks’ shot with the clock winding down. They bounced back with a last-second victory at USC this past weekend, and could be poised for another winning streak. UCLA averages just over 76 points per game, and allow only 60.5 a contest. They have one of the best defensive teams in the country, always a staple of Ben Howland teams. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Bruins have the 13th-most efficient offense and the 4th-most efficient defense.
Arizona Team Breakdown
Arizona has been one of the best teams in college basketball this season, even after a disappointing season last year in which they backed into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the second round to Villanova. Moreover, the Wildcats also lost NBA Draft Pick Hassan Adams, but still have played much better than last season. They have one of the best and most balanced (five guys with at least 12.4 points per game) offenses in the country, and love to get out and push the ball to get points. The Wildcats don’t press on the defensive end, but have the best running game in the country. No team will beat Arizona if it is a high-scoring contest.
The frontcourt of Arizona is one of the most talented and versatile in the country. Senior Ivan Radenovic, sophomore Marcus Williams, and freshman Chase Budinger form an excellent trio capable of matching up with most frontcourts and creating mismatches all over the floor. Radenovic has had a breakout season so far this year, leading the team in rebounding while also placing second in points and assists. He is a very good inside-outside scorer who can shoot the ball with efficiency and also bang on the interior. He is one of the most difficult match-ups in the Pac-10 due to his versatility. Radenovic is also one of the best 6-10 free-throw shooters you will find, hitting his shots at an 90% clip from the line. Williams had a great finish to last season, and has carried that over to this year. He is an outstanding inside-outside scorer who is one of the best shooters in the conference. He is also a good defender. Williams is averaging over 24 points per game in Pac-10 play, and is shooting 61% from the field during that span. He has been somewhat inconsistent at times this season, but is definitely hitting his stride when it counts. Budinger has been one of the major impact freshmen this season in college basketball. He has scored at least 12 points in every game except three so far—but two of them were in Pac-10 play, which could mean he might be hitting a wall. However, he has shown the ability to score in a variety of ways and is exciting to watch. He is also a solid rebounder and an excellent passer. The supremely athletic Budinger was called the most talented recruit to ever play at Arizona by Lute Olson. Jordan Hill and Brett Brielmaier provide depth off the bench, but play less than ten minutes per game.
Arizona’s backcourt is also one of the best in the country, and is much improved over last season. The key to it all has been the play of point guard Mustafa Shakur. After not living up to his high school hype during his first three years at Arizona, Shakur has been one of the best point guards in the country this season, ranking third in the nation in assists at just under 8 per game while also putting up over 14 points per game. Shakur is a very capable three-point shooter and a good defender who is at his best when leading the fast break for the Wildcats. His ability to take care of the ball and find open teammates has been the main reason for the great start of Arizona. His backcourt partner is Jawann McClellan. The 6-5 junior was primed for a big season after playing in only two games last season due to injury. He has enormous potential and is very athletic. Moreover, McClellan is an excellent three-point shooter and has already made more threes this year than he did during his entire freshman season. His defense and rebounding are also solid. Like the frontcourt, the backcourt for the Wildcats lacks quality depth. Freshman Nic Wise provides a couple of minutes of rest for Shakur at the point, while Daniel Dillon is a very good defender who can lockdown opponents off the bench.
UCLA Team Breakdown
UCLA lost three starters from their National Championship runner-up team from a year ago, but have bounced back very well. Jordan Farmar was a first-round pick, while Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman were major contributors. However, Ben Howland pieced together a quality group and the Bruins might be even better than last year. Their defense is outstanding as usual, and they have several scorers that can get points on the offensive end.
Leading the way up front for the Bruins is sophomore Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The Pac-10 Freshman of the Year a season ago, Mbah a Moute is a versatile player that can do nearly everything on the court. He is an outstanding rebounder, both offensively and defensively. Moreover, he is extremely efficient shooting the ball and is a decent passer. He is also one of the best defenders in the conference. He has two double-doubles this season, but has contributed in all sorts of ways. However, his offensive game has not caught up with his rebounding and defense yet. He is still not a consistent offense option for the Bruins. If he can get double-figures every night, this team will be much better. One player who does not have to worry about his offense is wing Josh Shipp. Second on the team in scoring, Shipp combines with Arron Afflalo to form one of the best wing duos in the country. He played in only four games last season due to a right hip injury, but had been healthy the entire season prior to missing the USC game with a hamstring injury. He is an excellent scorer and shooter who is a very good second option on the perimeter. Shipp is also an underrated rebounder. He has scored in double figures in eleven straight games. Down low, Lorenzo Mata gets most of the minutes. He is on the team in rebounding and had 16 in an outing against UC-Riverside. He is also a good shot-blocker but does not have much of an offensive game. However, he had 12 points against Kentucky and can get putbacks and garbage points inside. Additionally, Mata is coming off one of his best games this season, when he had 12 points and 8 boards against USC. Alfred Aboya gets time backing up Mata in the paint. He is a decent inside scorer and rebounder. Freshman James Keefe and sophomore Ryan Wright also see minutes.
The backcourt has developed into one of the best in the Pac-10, if not the nation, this season. The key to the outstanding season so far for the Bruins has been Darren Collison’s ability to replace Jordan Farmar at the point. His assist numbers have dropped since the early part of the season, but he is still dishing out six assists per game and has scored in double-figures in all but one game this season. His shooting ability is also much-improved from last season. Moreover, he is an outstanding defender, and is averaging just less than three steals per game. He takes care of the ball and is extremely quick at both ends of the floor. His on-ball defense has been the key to the stingy defense that the Bruins are playing, and his playmaking ability make UCLA difficult to stop. Starting next to him is Arron Afflalo, one of the best two guards in the country. He has developed into the go-to-guy for the Bruins, leading the team in scoring. He has scored in double-figures in every game but one this season (and that was the season-opener, when he scored 9), and hit the game-winning shot for UCLA against USC this past weekend. Afflalo is one of the best shooters and on-ball defenders in the country. Afflalo has improved since last year, as has his mid-range game. Additionally, his length makes him very difficult to beat at the other end of the floor. He has the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Look for him to make a run at Pac-10 Player of the Year honors. Shooter Michael Roll and freshman Russell Westbrook provide quality depth off the bench. Roll is an outstanding shooter, while Westbrook is quick and can give Collison a breather.
This game will be an interesting contrast. UCLA is a defensive-minded team that wouldn’t mind grinding it out in a half-court game and using their depth to wear down opponents. Arizona, on the other hand, is a run-and-gun team that loves to get out and score points in transition. However, they are not playing well at all on the defensive end, meaning they have to outscore most of the opponents they face. The individual match-ups in this game are going to be unbelievable. Mustafa Shakur against Darren Collison at the point. Marcus Williams vs. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute up front. Chase Budinger against Josh Shipp on the wing. Jawann McClellan against Arron Afflalo in the backcourt. I mean, you can make All-American teams with just players from these two teams.
If Arizona is going to pull this game out on the road, they will need to do several things. First of all, they need to get the game at their pace. If UCLA gets them into a half-court game and makes them play defense, this could be a long night for Arizona. The Wildcats simply aren’t good enough at that end of the floor to compete with the Bruins. However, if Arizona can turn this into a running game and put up 80-plus points, UCLA could have trouble. Oregon beat UCLA and USC nearly beat the Bruins using a perimeter-oriented attack with four perimeter players and one post player. Luckily for Arizona, they have that same sort of personnel that could give UCLA trouble. Another key for Arizona is to get Ivan Radenovic the ball early and often. He has a mismatch with Lorenzo Mata down low, as he can take Mata outside and shoot the jumper, as well as drive past Mata for lay-ups. Also on offense, Mustafa Shakur will need to get the Arizona offense running smoothly. Darren Collison is a pest on defense, and could disrupt the Wildcats offense. Lastly, and most importantly, Arizona needs to play defense. They have struggled immensely lately on that side of the ball, and need to step it up against the Bruins. UCLA has a lot of weapons, and Arizona can’t allow them to get hot early.
Likewise, UCLA has to do a few things in order to beat the high-octane offense of Arizona. Obviously, they need to get the game at their pace, and they need to make it a half-court contest. If they make Arizona play defense on every possession, they could have a field day offensively. As I’ve stated before, the Wildcats are not good in a man-to-man defensive setting, and they are extremely vulnerable. Moreover, UCLA is too good of a shooting team to zone. Additionally, they have to take advantage of their individual advantages. Arron Afflalo has a big edge on Jawann McClellan. He should be able to get his shot off against McClellan, and will also create havoc on the defensive end. Also, Chase Budinger may be extremely athletic, but he is not an overwhelming defender, and if Josh Shipp is fully healthy, he could have a big day offensively from the wing. Also, UCLA needs to use their depth to their advantage. They have a lot of bodies, both inside and outside, and need to rotate fresh players in to potentially wear down Arizona. In the end, UCLA’s defense and Arizona’s lack thereof will be too much for Arizona’s offense to overcome. Throw in UCLA’s homecourt advantage, and the Bruins will come away with the win.
Prediction: UCLA 72, Arizona 65
Prediction Record: 5-2
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