UCLA men’s basketball to face Arizona in 3rd top-10 matchup of the season
Junior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. goes up for a layup in a game against Chico State on Nov. 4. Jaquez and No. 7 UCLA men’s basketball will take on No. 3 Arizona on Tuesday night. (Ariana Fadel/Daily Bruin staff)
No. 3 Arizona
Tuesday, 8 p.m.
By Jon Christon
Jan. 25, 2022 2:56 p.m.
A top-10 matchup, first place in the Pac-12 on the line and fans back in the stands.
According to coach Mick Cronin, these circumstances make for an ideal setting for ESPN’s “College GameDay” and a candidate for a Saturday primetime spot.
The only problem? The game is taking place on a Tuesday.
“I would’ve liked to have them on a Saturday where we could’ve had the game on GameDay,” Cronin said.
No. 7 UCLA men’s basketball (13-2, 5-1 Pac-12) will take on No. 3 Arizona (16-1, 6-0) on Tuesday night in Pauley Pavilion. The second-place Bruins and first-place Wildcats were originally set to square off Dec. 30 but the game was postponed because of COVID-19 protocols for UCLA’s program.
The contest will also feature fans in Pauley Pavilion at a basketball game for the first time since the beginning of December, with UCLA Athletics letting non-family spectators into indoor facilities as of Jan. 21.
After playing three straight home games in a limited capacity arena, junior guard Johnny Juzang said having fans back will make all the difference as the team prepares to welcome its highest-ranked home opponent since 2015.
“We missed (the fans) while they were gone,” Juzang said. “Having The Den back, and just having all of the Bruin community back, is seriously huge.”
With the postponement of this season’s original matchup between the Bruins and Wildcats, the two teams have not faced each other since February 2021. Including that 74-60 UCLA win, the blue and gold have taken five straight against Arizona.
But, since then, the Wildcats fired former coach Sean Miller and brought in Tommy Lloyd, a former Gonzaga assistant who spent 22 years on Bulldog coach Mark Few’s staff. In his first year in Tucson, Lloyd has led the program to its highest AP ranking since the 2017-2018 campaign.
Like Lloyd’s former team, the Wildcats like to run in transition, according to Cronin. Arizona currently ranks second – one spot ahead of Gonzaga – in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rating, which measures a team’s number of possessions per 40 minutes.
“I knew last year when we were playing them that they were going to be a problem this year,” Cronin said. “You could just see they were close. They were just a little too young, they couldn’t sustain the whole 40 minutes.”
Despite losing four of Arizona’s top six scorers from a year ago, Lloyd inherited a rotation primarily consisting of returning sophomores and juniors.
One such returner is Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Bennedict Mathurin, who paces the Wildcats and ranks third in the conference with 17.5 points per game. The guard also ranks third on Arizona in rebounding with 6.1 rebounds per contest – a mark that would lead UCLA – and knocks down 2.3 shots per game from beyond the arc.
“He’s got size and athleticism – he’s a great offensive rebounder and he’s a high-level shooter so obviously you don’t want to let him catch fire from behind the line,” Cronin said. “You don’t have to tell him to go after the ball. … If you don’t block him out, he’s going to get it.”
In addition to playing at the fastest pace in the Pac-12, the Wildcats control the interior, grabbing the most rebounds and blocking the most shots per game of any other team in the conference.
Arizona’s two starting bigs – 7-foot-1 center Christian Koloko and 6-foot-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis – combine for 28.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. Koloko is also the conference’s most prolific shot blocker, sending back more than three shots a night.
While Tubelis may miss Tuesday’s game because of a sprained ankle, junior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said neutralizing Arizona’s paint presence will be high on UCLA’s list of priorities.
“One of the challenges is that they are pretty huge,” Jaquez said. “Boxing out is going to be a major key in this game.”
After starting off the season with 12 straight wins, the Wildcats have rattled off five consecutive victories since restarting conference play Jan. 3.
But the Bruins are riding a winning streak of their own. UCLA has won three straight, including a road sweep of the mountain schools that culminated in Pac-12 Player of the Week honors for Juzang.
“We’re feeling good,” Juzang said. “Everybody is locked in and focused, so I think that’s the biggest thing going into this – good, sharp mentality.”
With both teams riding momentum, Jaquez said Tuesday’s contest has the potential to be an all-time great.
“We’ve got two great programs – UCLA and Arizona,” Jaquez said. “It’s just going to be one of those games that we talk about for a while.”
Tipoff between the Bruins and Wildcats will be at 8:00 p.m.