UCLA and Arizona: Reasons For Hope and Reasons For ConcernPosted by AMurawa on January 7th, 2012
Thursday night in Anaheim, the two blueblood Pac-12 basketball programs squared off in a battle of deeply flawed teams. While neither UCLA nor Arizona has lived up to either of their historical standards or even their diminished expectations heading into the 2011-12 season, both programs have reasons to believe that not only will things get better in a big way next season, but that they have the ability to improve between now and the Pac-12 Tournament in March. However, at the same time, if changes aren’t made and improvement not shown, both of these teams could continue to disappoint. So, below, the reasons for hope and the reasons for concern for both UCLA and Arizona.
Reasons for Hope – UCLA
The Bruins played without sophomore center Joshua Smith last night, as he was sidelined due to a concussion he suffered in practice on Wednesday. However, in his postgame press conference, head coach Ben Howland noted that Smith was making significant progress in his quest to improve his conditioning, reporting that he was down to his lowest weight in more than a year and that he had been putting in extra running and completed a three-mile run on Sunday. Improved conditioning should keep him on the floor for longer stretches, make him more effective for those stretches, and would hopefully improve his ability to avoid cheap defensive fouls. He still has to prove that on the court, however. Another positive for the Bruins was the play of the Wear twins last night. The sophomores turned in their best collective performance, combining to score 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting while grabbing ten rebounds and just generally playing more aggressively and actively than they had displayed in the past. As Howland noted, this is really the first time in their career that they’ve played extended minutes, so there is still improvement to be had from both of them. Ideally, Thursday night was a first step towards realizing that improvement.
Reasons for Hope – Arizona
In the previous ten games Solomon Hill had played against the two Los Angeles area schools, the LA native had averaged about five points and three rebounds. Thursday night Hill went for 16 points and 11 rebounds and has clearly matured to the point where he is the team’s go-to offensive player and their team leader. He’s a versatile 6’6” wing capable of scoring off the bounce, rebounding with the big boys (he’s second in the conference in rebounding), and creating for his teammates (he leads the Wildcats in assists and is 14th in the Pac-12). More importantly, he is beginning to lead by example. And perhaps his leadership is starting to rub off on Josiah Turner. The mercurial freshman point guard earned back his starting position which he last held in the Wildcats’ season opener, played the most minutes of his career, and scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out three assists – not the most impressive of lines, but a start at least. Turner was effective at getting in the lane and drawing contact (he got to the line six times) and also showed a willingness to look to set up his teammates. He’s got plenty of talent; if he can harness it positively, the Wildcats will be better for it.
Reasons for Concern – UCLA
There are still many, and really the same ones that were there for the Bruins after Maui: This isn’t a very athletic bunch, there is no pure three-point shooter on this team, and the defense is abysmal at times. But also, for every positive listed above, there is still a flip side, namely “prove it.” Yes, the Wears were more aggressive Thursday, but in the end they still came away with just 10 rebounds between them as the Bruins got outrebounded by an undersized Wildcat team that really didn’t even play a true power forward or center. While tough interior play is not their forte, they’ll need to make it such sooner rather than later. Then there’s Smith. Okay, he’s getting in better shape; that is an unquestionable positive. However, even if he gets to the point where he is physically able to give Howland 25 or so good minutes a night, he also needs to prove that he can stay away from cheap fouls. Part of that goes on the coaching staff (really, you can’t have him going out to hedge on every screen and roll – it’s just not a sustainable strategy as has been proven again and again), but Smith also just needs to be smarter about not reaching, remaining vertical and just generally being available to help his team.
Reasons for Concern – Arizona
Um, Hill is the go-to scorer. Okay, maybe it is Jesse Perry, a 6’7” bundle of energy best suited to be a power wing, rather than the power forward or center position he is currently jammed into. No offense to either of those guys, because I really like their games, but neither is equipped to be a go-to scorer for a Top 25 team (which is what Arizona aspires to). Furthermore, right now Hill and Perry are not only the go-to scorers, but they’re the big men. Starting alongside three guards, Hill and Perry also have to bear the brunt of the team’s rebounding and interior defense. The mere fact that the Wear twins went for 34 rather easy points inside against the Wildcats and looked to be the aggressors in doing so cements the fact that Sean Miller needs to be able to get minutes out of his only legitimate big men: raw freshman Angelo Chol and junior center Kyryl Natyazkho. Getting production out of those guys this season may be easier said than done, but UA doesn’t have a chance, even in a weak Pac-12, with Hill and Perry playing the four and the five. Lastly, those freshman guards have a ton of upside, but neither has shown significant improvement since November. Nick Johnson was absolutely invisible on Thursday night, and he’s got no confidence in his jumper right now, allowing teams to lay back off the athletic wing and take away the drive. Meanwhile, Turner is capable of making the spectacular play on a fairly regular basis, but too often he forsakes the easy and correct play in lieu of an attempt for the spectacular. Miller probably thought one or both of the frosh guards would have emerged as a big-time scoring threat by this point, but it just hasn’t happened yet.