Arizona is thrilled that Reeves Nelson won’t be in a UCLA uniform tonight, although the Bruins’ imposing size and height remains a concern.
UCLA still has the thunderous Joshua Smith, who is listed at 6-10, 305 pounds, as well as the Wear twins — Travis and David — who are long and versatile 6-10 forwards.
The Wildcats, even with Derrick Williams, failed to handle Nelson, who averaged 23.3 points and 12 rebounds in the past three meetings, shooting a ridiculous 28 of 34 from the field. UCLA coach Ben Howland booted Nelson from the team earlier this season.
Smith had 17 points and four rebounds against UA in last season’s game at UCLA, which is a good place to start as we look at three keys to the game.
3. Remember last season
This matchup should still burn for the Arizona veterans. UCLA won 71-49 at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 26 in the Wildcats’ lousiest performance of the season.
After that game, nobody could picture Arizona coming within one shot of the Final Four one month later.
While the Bruins were superb that day, playing for the last time in Pauley Pavilion before major renovation, Arizona coach Sean Miller said there was more at play than just one team being hot.
“We were miserable, and a lot of it had to do with our own team,” Miller said.
“We didn’t play with great effort. It’s just a reminder that it is so important that we’re ready to play. We can’t really control what the other team has or doesn’t, but what we can really control is how well we play, how hard we play, making sure all of our guys go into the game ready.”
2. Slow down Jones
Based on last season, Arizona wouldn’t seem to have to worry too much about UCLA point guard Lazeric Jones, who scored a total of four points in the two meetings. He was 2 of 10 from the field, missing all eight of his attempts from 3-point range.
Jones is a more productive player this time around, having to become a bigger part of the offense in Nelson’s absence. He is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13.6 points and shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
“Jones is playing as well as any guard in the conference,” Miller said.
That being the case, look for Miller to hand the defensive assignment to shooting guard Kyle Fogg, the team’s defensive ace.
1. Limit the Bruins’ offensive rebounds
With all of UCLA’s height up front, Miller figures to have to use centers Angelo Chol, Kyryl Natyazhko and Alex Jacobson more than usual.
“It doesn’t have to be in terms of scoring points,” Miller said of the big guys’ potential contributions, “but good play and just using their size against Josh Smith.
“He’s such a dominant player when he gets the ball deep. He can really put fouls on your frontcourt, and they do a great job of getting him the ball. It’s one of the keys — to try to negate or minimize his effect, which is sometimes easier said than done.”
Smith and the Wear twins have done an excellent job on the offensive glass, which has been problematic for undersized Arizona. The Cats gave up 22 offensive rebounds to Florida and 16 to Gonzaga, both losses.
Not only do the Cats want to limit easy second chances, but grabbing their share of the defensive rebounds will let Arizona push the pace of the game and not let it turn into a half-court grind.
As usual, 6-7 power forward Jesse Perry will get the start at center for Arizona and he looks forward to getting into a running game while Smith — about 90 pounds heavier — is guarding him.
“I have a big edge,” Perry said. “He can’t run with me.”
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