The Runner Sports

UCLA-Arizona Pac-12 Tournament Preview

March Madness is officially underway with championship week in full swing. Tonight the Pac-12 has a showdown with promise of excitement and drama. Two of the more storied programs in Pac-12 history are having a prize fight of epic proportions. You guessed it, UCLA and Arizona. Some of the biggest names in basketball history have passed through these two programs. From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Russell Westbrook to Mike Bibby and Gilbert Arenas, these two never disappoint.

Ranked third nationally, UCLA is coming off a nail biter in a 76-74 win over USC yesterday. Two key players had slightly off nights, those being Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford. Ball had 12 points and 7 assists which are solid numbers undoubtedly, but for a potential first overall pick in this year’s draft, not so much. Alford had 8 points on 2 for 7 from the land of the three. Luckily the bigs, TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh, played impressively. Welsh with a double-double posting 11 points and 11 in rebounds, Leaf contributed with 14 points 6 rebounds and 5 assists. The unquestionable man of the night was Isaac Hamilton, his 22 points on 4-9 from three helped win the game over a stout and potential tournament team in USC.

Arizona, on the other hand, had a much different result. Although Colorado hung in tough with the mighty Wildcats for the first half, Arizona eventually won big in a 92-78 performance. Lauri Markannen had 20 points and went 4-7 on the three ball. Ristic went 7 of 8 from the floor and dropped 15. Alonzo Trier had an explosive 19 points, but that is expected coming from him, he comes into tonight averaging 16.6 points per game.

Tonight will be the third matchup between UCLA and Arizona this season, having split the previous two games. Both teams are fighting for a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Although the difference between a 2 and a 3 seed may not seem huge, only eight 15 seeds has ever gone on to win a game in the round of 64.

For UCLA to win tonight they need to establish an early presence in the paint using Welsh and Leaf often. More importantly, though, they need to get Alford and Ball off to a better start than they had against USC. Both are pivotal players and without them, Arizona could run away with the game. Ball, when firing on all cylinders, is the best facilitator in the nation averaging 7.8 assists a game. They need to get as many easy buckets in transition as possible. This plays into Ball’s hands as well, for most great passers the game is easier to dissect in transition because of possible three on two breaks and the defense isn’t set. Most importantly, they need to run Arizona’s shooters off the line and force them to drive into the big guys on the interior; that is truly one of UCLA’s greatest strengths defensively.

On the flip side, Arizona absolutely has to space the floor and make the three to win. Welsh and Leaf are no match on the perimeter for Markannen. Markannen shoots 43% from downtown and the 7-foot Finland native draws many comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki. The X factor for Arizona is Parker Jackson-Cartwright coming off the bench. He by far is the best facilitator on the team, and had 7 assists yesterday in the win against Colorado. With that spacing, it opens up many passing lanes in drive and kick scenarios that will benefit Arizona greatly. Defensively the main focus needs to be on locking down the paint and control the boards. UCLA is dangerous to score any time down the floor but if you give them two opportunities they are virtually unstoppable.

Tonight’s matchup has it all, big name stars, historically great teams, and it’s all in a tournament atmosphere in March. So cancel your plans and make reservations for your couch to sit back and watch what has the makings to be an instant classic.