After routing crosstown rival USC in its Pac-12 opener, UCLA faces its biggest challenge of the season.
The Bruins take on in-conference rival Arizona on Thursday, and while they defeated the Wildcats thrice last season, this time around, Arizona is ranked No. 1 in the nation and has yet to be beaten.
Although the game will take place in Pauley Pavilion, it’s a daunting matchup for UCLA, which fell to both of its toughest opponents, Missouri and Duke, by coming undone in the second half.
The odds may be stacked against them, but the Bruins reserve the possibility to upset the Wildcats and notch a defining win that would reassert UCLA as one of the nation’s top teams.
It will take precision and near flawless play, but here’s how UCLA can pull off an upset over Arizona.
Arizona’s highly touted freshman forward Aaron Gordon may not be putting up the numbers he was anticipated to, but he’s nonetheless a strong force for the Wildcats on both ends.
Apart from averaging 12.4 points and eight rebounds per game, the 6’9” forward is persistent and hustles everywhere on the court.
In order for UCLA to pull through against Arizona, it will have to contain Gordon and ensure that he doesn’t dominate the paint.
The Bruins can do this by exploiting Gordon’s biggest weakness: foul shooting.
Although he’s a dynamic scorer, Gordon is an atrocious free-throw shooter, at 45 percent through 15 games.
This gives UCLA the liberty to play tighter defense on Gordon, particularly if the game is close down the stretch.
UCLA has one of the best offenses in the nation, averaging 87 points per game at a 52.7-percent clip, but it will be facing one of the best defensive teams in the nation when it takes on Arizona.
Arizona allows a mere 55 points per game and held Washington State to a paltry 25 points in its Pac-12 conference opener. The Wildcats have also allowed their opponents to make only 36.6 percent of their shots.
Facing such an efficient defense, the Bruins need to dominate the pace of the game and sustain the fast tempo that they’ve established this season.
If UCLA allows Arizona to slow the game down and resort to running a half-court set, the Bruins will be rattled.
In order to pull off the upset, they’ll have to play at the pace they want to play and prevent Arizona from slowing the game down.
UCLA has downplayed Arizona’s size advantage, but one glaring fact still remains: The Wildcats’ 7’0” center, Kaleb Tarczewski, has two inches on UCLA’s tallest players (David and Travis Wear, 6’10”).
The sophomore averages 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game this season, but has averaged 11.6 points in his last five games and pulled down nine rebounds in Arizona’s key wins over Duke and Michigan.
He’s a dangerous asset for Arizona, but UCLA’s forwards were extremely effective in limiting Tarczewski, which is exactly what the Bruins need to do this season in order to pull off an upset.
In UCLA and Arizona’s first matchup last season, the Bruins completely shut him down, limiting him to one rebound and not allowing him to record even a single point.
In the teams’ ensuing matchups, Tarczewski scored six and had double-digit rebounding efforts in both games, which made it more difficult for UCLA to close out its eventual victories.
Tarczewski will grab a handful of rebounds against UCLA, but the Bruins need to make sure he doesn’t control the paint if they are to pull off the upset.
UCLA has been pleasantly surprised by its bench this season, and that satisfaction will have to continue if the Bruins are to execute an upset of Arizona.
Through their first 14 games, freshman guards Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford have accounted for 23 percent of UCLA’s points and have consistently come up big for the Bruins when they need it.
Add in developing sophomore center Tony Parker into the equation, and UCLA’s bench has accounted for 32 percent of the team’s scoring.
Parker, LaVine, Alford and even freshman Wanaah Bail will need to maximize their minutes on the floor against Arizona by making plays on both ends and staying alert mentally, as mental lapses leading to turnovers will be especially costly against the top-ranked team in the nation.
In order for UCLA to emerge victorious on Thursday, the bench will have to not only avoid errors, but also give the team jolts of energy.
LaVine has done an excellent job of infusing the Bruins with energy this season with his high-octane dunks, and Alford has had a similar effect with his stellar three-point shooting.
Bolstering the team won’t be anything new for the Bruins bench, but it’ll be a necessity when it faces Arizona.
UCLA has played good defense for most of the 2013-14 season, but it has one major weakness: defending in transition.
Led by persistent defenders Norman Powell and Jordan Adams, the Bruins have played sturdy team defense against a half-court set, but they have struggled to defend in transition, particularly on fast breaks.
The Bruins often try to pick up their assigned man in transition instead of challenging the players running in transition, which often leads to easy baskets for the opposition.
Arizona has a few players, namely Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, who thrive in the open court and will blow past UCLA if it can’t play productive transition defense.
As important as it for UCLA to capitalize on its own opportunities in transition facing a top defensive team, it’s equally important the Bruins don’t allow Arizona easy buckets in transition.