The UCLA Bruins and No. 6 Arizona Wildcats, two teams that were supposed to resurrect the Pac-12 from its recent stretch of mediocrity, will meet in a key showdown on Thursday to determine position near the top of the conference.
So far, it's only been the Wildcats who have lived up to the preseason billing.
Thanks to some unbelievable comebacks against Florida, San Diego State and Colorado, Sean Miller's squad jumped out to a 14-0 record and currently sits at 16-1 overall.
The Bruins, however, dropped early games to Georgetown, San Diego State and Cal Poly—yes, Cal Poly—to plummet out of the Top 25 and out of the National Title talk. Still, Ben Howland has embraced a new up-tempo, offensively minded style and as a result, his team has won 10 of its last 11 and resides in second in the Pac-12 (behind Oregon, who has given both of these squads their only conference loss).
Let's take a look at everything you need to know about this rebirth of a rivalry between two Pac-12 powerhouses.
When: Thursday, Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: McKale Center, Tuscon, Ariz.
Watch: ESPN 2
Live Stream: WatchESPN
UCLA Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Nick Kazemi, Knee, Out
Arizona Injury Report (via USA Today)
None to report
What They're Saying
In his recent power rankings, Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn takes a fantastic look at the top-notch efficiency of Arizona's ball-handlers off the pick-and-roll:
It will be crucial for Travis Wear and even Kyle Anderson to hedge the screens in an attempt to slow down Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson.
Of course, Wear will be just as important in the pick-and-roll game on the other side of the court (via CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein):
"One of the big keys in Arizona's game vs. UCLA will be how the Wildcats defend Travis Wear. 6-10 F is shooting over 50%. Pick + pop threat."—Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 21, 2013
Not only is the junior twin shooting 52.1 percent from the field (and far out-shining his bro), but he is also shooting a scorching 59.1 percent in conference play and according to Hoop-Math, nearly 50 percent on two-point jumpers alone.
The 6'10" stretch-4 is becoming automatic.
UCLA Player to Watch: Kyle Anderson
Besides Wear and Shabazz Muhammad, one of the best pure scorers in America, take a look at Kyle Anderson.
He is easily one of the most unique players in the country.
At 6'9", 235 pounds, you might think he's a power forward, which he sort of is, evidenced by his 9.1 rebounds per game and 18.8 rebounding percentage, both of which lead the Bruins and rank the true freshman in the top 100 in the nation.
But then he makes passes like these (8:31 and 9:47 marks), and you realize how versatile he really is:
That first dish garnered responses like this one from ESPN's Joel Francisco:
Anderson's tendency to play slower than anyone in the country (his nickname is "Slo-Mo" after all) slowed him down at the beginning of the season, but he is clearly getting adjusted and beginning to dominate Pac-12 play in absolutely every aspect of the game.
Arizona Player to Watch: Solomon Hill
It's hard to find a more under-appreciated player in the country than Solomon Hill. At least CBS Sports' Seth Davis thinks so:
Hill is having such a "Solomon Hill" year. Just check out his numbers and team rank in each category:
The senior isn't "elite" at any one thing, but he does absolutely everything on the court well and will do whatever it takes to help the Wildcats win.
He can score from the inside or outside, he handles the ball, he distributes, he rebounds, he makes hustle plays—and most importantly, he is the veteran leader on the floor.
To put it simply: Hill is the typical "glue guy," but he has far more talent than the average role player.
While Mark Lyons or any of Arizona's fabulous freshmen often get the credit, this team will only go as far as Hill takes it.
With both teams able to score at will (UCLA is 33rd in the nation in points per possession; Arizona is 16th), this one should come down to who can get some timely stops.
If that turns out to be true, the Bruins, whose defense has looked more crisp during Pac-12 play (first in the conference in points per possession allowed; Arizona is fifth) appear to hold the slight advantage.
But despite Arizona looking flat against both Colorado and Utah at home, I have to give the 'Cats the edge at the McKale Center.
Either way, this should be a fast-paced battle with lots of scoring and plenty of captivating matchups between future NBA studs.
Sign me up.
UCLA 78, Arizona 79