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.