Thoughts on Arizona’s Big Road Win at UCLA

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 10th, 2014

This is the early conference game that both Arizona and UCLA fans had likely been looking forward to for a couple weeks. It’s the biggest historic rivalry in the conference and it was Arizona’s first road test in Pac-12 play . But really, as people were imagining what this game would look like, this is probably not what they foresaw. UCLA holding its own on the glass, despite almost no help from its pair of senior frontcourt starters? Arizona the team with the deadly outside shooting? Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams struggling, yet the Bruins keeping this close for 40 minutes? Let’s look at each of those things below.

Gabe York's Perimeter Shooting Was a Big Key For Arizona On Thursday Night (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

Gabe York’s Perimeter Shooting Was a Big Key For Arizona On Thursday Night (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

  • The Wildcats came into the game eighth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 13th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, while UCLA is a middling rebounding team with a ton of question marks up front. Therefore the expectation was that Arizona would dominate the glass. While the Cats did make some hay on the offensive boards and wound up dominating the interior on the offensive end (Arizona outscored UCLA 42-22 in the paint), UCLA stayed in the game in large part because it was able to create second chance opportunities of its own. This was a surprise even to Arizona head coach Sean Miller, who pointed to that as one of the keys of the game by saying “They really hurt us on the offensive glass. That was a surprise to us, because we’ve done very well there, and isn’t necessarily a strength of theirs but last night it was. If we had done a better job defensive rebounding, the game wouldn’t have come down to the final plays. One of the reasons that they were in it was because of the number of second shots they got.” Even more surprising, the Bruins did their damage on the glass without much of a contribution from the Wear twins, who combined to grab just four total boards.
  • One potential weakness that has been talked about for the Wildcats since before the season began was their outside shooting, while UCLA has been terrific from deep, hitting better than 40 percent from three in its first 14 games. Last night, the only three UCLA hit for the first 35 minutes of the game was on an unintentional bank shot from Bryce Alford. The Bruins hit three more in their furious comeback down the stretch but were in no way prolific from deep last night, making just 4-of-13 from distance (30.8%). Meanwhile, a big key in this game for the Wildcats was the three-point shooting of Nick Johnson and Gabe York, who combined to hit five first half three-pointers (and six for the game). York in particular was huge, nearly doubling up his season scoring average and helping to open up the middle of UCLA’s defense.
  • Lastly, the thinking was that if UCLA was going to have a chance in this game, it would be on the backs of their two best players, Anderson and Adams. Instead, despite a combined 10-of-30 shooting from the field and a subpar 7-of-12 from the line, the Bruins were right there with the number one team in the country, largely on the backs of efficient performances by the aforementioned Alford, sophomore center Tony Parker, and junior guard Norman Powell, combining to score 28 points on just 16 field goal attempts.

So, what went according to Hoyle on Thursday night? As mentioned above, despite UCLA getting after it on the offensive glass, Arizona dominated the middle offensively, top the tune of 67% shooting inside the arc and that 42-22 advantage in the paint. Kaleb Tarczewski went unbothered by UCLA’s interior defenders, hitting all six of his shots on the way to 16 points and eight boards. Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley had a bit more trouble, but still combined to score 19 points on 13 field goal attempts, almost all of those generated around the paint. While there are ways to beat Arizona that don’t involve outgunning them inside, the teams that have the best chances to really give the ‘Cats trouble will be the teams with good size – Colorado, for example, comes immediately to mind. On the other end of the court, while  Parker was a bundle of positive energy last night, he’s still a little wild anytime he’s more than a step or two away from the hoop. And, again, not to pick on them, but the Wears have completely regressed and are playing worse than they have at any time since they were in Chapel Hill.

Aaron Gordon Is Escorted To The Hoop By The Wears (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

Aaron Gordon Is Escorted To The Hoop By The Wears (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

A few other thoughts on the game:

  • Nick Johnson was phenomenal last night and probably needs to be the favorite for the Pac-12 Player of the Year and possibly in the discussion for National Player of the Year. He scored 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting and, perhaps more impressively, checked Jordan Adams for nearly the entire game and limited him to just 4-of-15 from the field. He’s easily the best player on the best team in the nation; he plays the most minutes; and he does the most different things for this team. Miller, of course, agrees, saying “If you just look at the statistics; if you look at how he defends; if you think about the value that he brings to this team it is amazing.” So let’s look at those statistics: 16.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 56.6% eFG. On a poor free throw shooting team, he’s stroking it at 81.5 percent, meaning when the clock is running down in a tight game, he is the guy whose hands that the best team in the nation wants to have the ball. His overall numbers are always going to be limited just because he plays on a team with at least five (and maybe six) other very good players, but he uses the most possessions on the squad and does so in a ridiculously efficient way. Odds are good that he’s not going to get a lot of attention for the NPOY award just because of his numbers held down some, but he may represent the single player with the most value to his team. Really, can you imagine this Wildcats team without Nick Johnson?
  • Arizona’s been to San Diego State and Michigan and they’ve played Duke at Madison Square Garden. While conference play is a whole different ballgame for most teams, this young group has already been tested in some unfriendly places, meaning that Pauley Pavilion was no sweat. UCLA came out of the gates with good energy but the Wildcats looked completely comfortable from the opening tip. Even in the late stages when they let UCLA back into the game, it certainly wasn’t due to being awestruck by a raucous road environment. Not only is this team a very good one, it’s also battle-tested.
Bill Walton Chatting With Arizona Sophomore Brandon Ashley In Pre-Game Warm-Ups (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

Bill Walton Chatting With Arizona Sophomore Brandon Ashley In Pre-Game Warm-Ups (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

  • For those of you watching at home, the inimitable Bill Walton was a big part of your viewing experience. Prior to the game, he spent much of the 90 minutes or so before tip chatting up different people in the building, including several members of the Arizona squad. As soon as Nick Johnson came out to warm up, Walton approached him and counseled him for a while. He also spent five minutes or so with Arizona walk-on Jacob Hazzard – grandson of Bruins’ legend Walt Hazzard – and seemed to take special joy in getting a chance to talk up some of the Arizona bigs, like Ashley, pictured above.
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