The 2014 Pac-12 tournament unfolded as everybody wanted it to, with an epic title clash between two conference powerhouses with a well-established rivalry. The championship game promises to be a thoroughly competitive and entertaining one, with key players stepping up under the bright lights in Las Vegas.
Arizona has arguably been the best team in the country, losing only three games all year by a combined 12 points, and it has likely locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins, on the other hand, are fighting for tournament seeding in an attempt to position themselves for a deep run into the madness.
In such a heated and important game, these are the players that will decide the outcome—and therefore the ones you should be watching.
Kyle Anderson, G, UCLA
Per-Game Averages: 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals
One reason you should take the time to watch sophomore guard Kyle Anderson is because he’s one of the most unique players in the country. With a lanky 6'9" frame and subpar athleticism, he’s not your prototypical point guard.
Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times presents a common evaluation of Anderson from NBA circles:
Asked whether Anderson would be a first-round pick, an NBA scout said, "He's not on my list. It will depend on who's in love with him."
The scout, speaking anonymously because his team doesn't allow him to comment about college players, predicts Anderson will have trouble in two areas: shooting and defense.
Anderson is shooting 49% this season, using his lanky body and long arms to go over defenders. He won't be able to do that in the NBA, the scout predicts, because the players are "bigger and more athletic."
As for Anderson's defense, the scout said, "The only position he can play is [power forward]. He would be a perfect player in the 1970s. He plays at the speed from that era."
Despite that, Anderson’s high basketball IQ has made him a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award—and UCLA’s best hope of upsetting the Wildcats.
Arizona boasts the best defense in college basketball, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced rankings, and a lot of that is due to the lockdown perimeter skills of Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell.
Anderson's size means that McConnell will be put in the unusual role of off-ball defense, and his unique skill set makes him a tough cover for anybody.
The gangly point guard will be a key piece in head coach Steve Alford’s chess match against Arizona, and he could be the difference in the game.
Nick Johnson, G, Arizona
Per-Game Averages: 16.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals
Arizona is such an intriguing team because it's so deep and it doesn't really boast one “star.” But if you had to pick one, you’d probably go with Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
An uber-athletic guard who leads the Wildcats in scoring, Johnson also plays phenomenal defense and has a knack for coming up big in crucial situations.
The reason that he is important in this game is because of his scoring. Pac-12 Network analyst Kevin O’Neill summed up the what the contest will come down to, per Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star:
UCLA has enough ability and enough talent, they have the same level talent and offensively they’re really, really good. My question is can they stop Arizona at all. Sean (Miller) won’t let it be a track meet. He’ll slow it down with their defense, and offensively UCLA had better be able to get some stops or they can’t win the game.
We know the Wildcats are going to buckle down and make life for the Bruins offense miserable, but the game will be decided by whether or not the Arizona offense can put points on the board—or, more realistically, whether UCLA can stop it.
Johnson is the floor general for the Wildcats offense, and he’ll be responsible for orchestrating the offense and carrying the team when the inevitable scoring slumps occur.
In a game featuring so many skilled and electrifying players (like Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine), Anderson and Johnson are going to be the most important players on the floor. For that reason, your eyes should be on them during the tantalizing matchup.
For more college hoops news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @shehan_peiris.