Arizona puts 3-game winning streak on the line against UCLA Bruins

Jacob Snow - USA Today Images 2020

Gary Randazzo

The streaking Wildcats are looking for their fourth-straight win on Saturday when UCLA visits McKale Center. The Bruins (12-11, 5-5 Pac-12) have seesawed their way through Nick Cronin’s first season in Westwood, yet remain dangerous and should not be taken lightly. UCLA has two conference road wins this season and, at times, show signs of playing the type of grind-the-opponent-down defense synonymous of Cronin-coached teams.

Arizona (16-6, 6-3 Pac-12) seems to be clicking at the right time of the year, yet still show youthful tendencies that prove there’s still room to grow. The Wildcats were cruising on Thursday against USC, only to see the Trojans close a 20-point, second half deficit to just three points in the closing seconds.

For a team that is averaging 80.0 points per game, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Wildcats not making a single field goal in the final eight-plus minutes against USC, but that’s exactly what happened. Somewhat skewing that fact, however, is Arizona did have 10 trips to the free throw line during the stretch and ended the game with its most free throw attempts (40) since attempting 44 against Colorado in the 2016 Pac-12 Conference Tournament.

On Saturday, UCLA would love to force Arizona’s offense into difficult stretches. Unlike USC, the Bruins will try to slow tonight’s game down to a crawl. It will not be easy, but there’s little hope for UCLA in an up tempo affair. The Bruins are only averaging 69.6 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting. Chris Smith is the lone Bruin scoring in double figures this season, averaging 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

On the other hand, Arizona features three starters averaging double-figures in scoring. Zeke Nnaji is shooting 61.4 percent from the floor this year and is averaging 16.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. The freshmen forward has eight double-doubles in Arizona’s last 11 games. Nico Mannion leads Arizona with 5.7 assists per game and is second in the Pac-12 with 126 assists. Mannion is averaging 14.5 points per game and is coming off a 20-point night against USC. Josh Green is scoring 12 points per game, while Stone Gettings has scored in double figures in each of Arizona’s three consecutive wins.

While a key for UCLA on Saturday is to keep the Wildcats out of transition, force contested shots and secure defensive rebounds, Arizona wants to push the basketball and create maximum scoring opportunities against the Bruins.

There’s a chance the Bruins can dictate tempo, but it will take some help from the Wildcats.

Arizona has only committed six turnovers in each of its last two games. Team rebounding has also improved. If the Wildcats can avoid the type of lackadaisical stretches where their up tempo style actually ends up hurting them in the form of sloppy shots way too early in the shot clock, then there’s a strong chance Arizona will pull away, and pull away fast, from the Bruins.

Expect to see the Wildcats try and pound the basketball inside against the Bruins, settle for fewer 3-Point attempts, and try and get the undermanned Bruins playing on their heels. Also expect to see a little more production from Arizona’s role players tonight, which will deliver an added punch to the very vulnerable Bruins.

UCLA is coming off a rough showing in Tempe, with Arizona State routing the visitors 84-66. The Bruins will indeed be hungry, but it’s unlikely they will catch No. 23 Arizona looking past them. The Wildcats turned in a sloppy final 13 minutes of action in their 85-80 win over the Trojans and will also be looking to make a statement on Saturday. 

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