The college basketball season is heating up as we roll deeper into conference play and closer to March Madness. Each week brings another crucial Top 25 matchup, and this week is no different.
The biggest matchup this week comes from the West Coast, where No. 3 UCLA will host No. 14 Arizona in a game with huge ramifications for a tight, top-heavy Pac-12 conference.
UCLA has one blemish on their record, a thrilling last-second loss to No. 11 Oregon back in December. Arizona has two losses, but both came to out-of-conference foes, No. 13 Butler and No. 4 Gonzaga.
As a result, Arizona and Oregon sit atop the Pac-12 standings at the moment thanks to their 5-0 conference records, but that could all change after this weekend if UCLA has their way.
CBS Sports college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg gave us the inside scoop on one of the biggest matchups of the year thus far, which can be seen Saturday, January 21 at 4:00 p.m. ET exclusively on CBS.
CBS Local Sports: Arizona’s defense struggled a little bit against Arizona State, especially in the second half, and they had trouble against UCLA in their game last year. How do they go about containing this explosive UCLA offense?
Clark Kellogg: Quite honestly you can’t really shut down UCLA. They are so good, and so efficient offensively. You really have to make it hard for them, and that means attention to detail. That means nothing in transition as best you can. And then the other side of your defense is your offense. You have to be good offensively against UCLA. In other words, you can’t turn it over, and you need to get quality shots. If you have some post presence advantage with (Dusan) Ristic and (Lauri) Markkanen, you’ve got to try to take advantage of that.
But part of good defense against UCLA is efficient offense. So it’s three-pronged: you’ve got to be good offensively, then you’ve got to minimize transition — that means maybe you don’t send everybody to the glass when you shoot it, maybe you send another man back initially, or maybe you pressure the outlet pass if your bigs are around. And then your attention to detail is critical, because they’re going to make shots, and they’re going to get shots. So that’s the recipe, but it’s a lot easier to talk about than it is to do.
CBS Local Sports: When Oregon beat UCLA, they did it by trading offensive blows. Is that something Arizona is capable of doing?
Kellogg: They’ve got enough offensive juice, they can’t just play an offensive game though. They’ve got to make it hard — or at least a little more difficult — for UCLA to find their best offensive rhythm. Again, a team as potent as UCLA, you most likely aren’t going to be able to take everything away, but you can’t give them everything. You can’t give them offensive rebounds, you can’t give them transition. You can’t give them open jump shots because you go under a screen that you’re supposed to go over, you don’t rotate… Those kinds of attention to detail will have to be on point.
And again, I watched UCLA hang 104 points on Colorado. And it was the easiest 100 points I’ve ever seen! I know Arizona and Colorado are different, but when you’ve got that kind of octane offensively, I just don’t see a team being able to choke all of that off.
They don’t have the kind of depth you’d like to have, but they’ve got enough ingredients to be able to give themselves a chance to win. But it’s going to require a high level of execution at both ends.
CBS Local Sports: Many people thought this was going to be a make-or-break year for coach Steve Alford after an abysmal 2015-16 season. How impressive has UCLA’s turnaround been?
Kellogg: Well, in basketball it doesn’t take long. You play five guys at a time, if you’ve got eight really good players, you can compete at a high level. And the injection of talent and mentality that’s joined, a couple of good upperclassmen, is a recipe for a major turnaround.
I don’t watch a lot of the high school guys. I read about them, but don’t watch them; I tend to let myself see them in college. But I’d heard about (Lonzo) Ball, and I’d heard about (TJ) Leaf, but again, until they show it, you don’t know. So I’m mildly surprised, just because I didn’t know how good those kids were. But in terms of the context of basketball, you can see why.
CBS Local Sports: How does this year’s Arizona team compare to the Sean Miller teams we’ve seen make some deep tournament runs over the last few years?
Kellogg: Sean Miller is one of the outstanding coaches in our game, and he has been for a long time. You think about this team and the blows they’ve had not having (Allonzo) Trier, losing Ray Smith to a career-ending injury, having a short roster and being young. And in a year when there’s not really what you would call a “dominant” team, a team like Arizona is one of those teams that’s maybe a tad off the beaten path that could find its way to Phoenix. In a year when perhaps the expectation isn’t there, because of their material and working through the adversity they’ve been through, the opportunity might be. This team, with this landscape, is a formidable team even though they have some flaws. They have tremendous talent.
I always start [by asking] — when looking at a team — do they have a couple of guys that look like they might play beyond college? And they look like they might.
CBS Local Sports: If Arizona can pull off a win against UCLA, what does that do for them nationally? How does that change the perception of them?
Kellogg: It gives you a little bump and eyebrows raised, no doubt. UCLA is considered one of the top teams in the country, and Arizona is one of the top programs in the country. But this year’s team is surprising folks at 5-0 and 16-2. So it’s a long way to go before you get to the end of conference play. But at this stage it certainly would raise eyebrows and validate who and what this team is and can potentially be.
As a matter of fact, for the casual fan that doesn’t pay attention to it, it wouldn’t be a blip on his or her radar because they’re not aware of Arizona being short-handed. They just know Arizona is typically good. So for the casual fan I don’t think it would be much of anything, but for those of us who watch it closely, it would definitely be a ‘wow, that’s impressive’ kind of thing.
CBS Local Sports: Who’s your x-factor on both sides in this game?
Kellogg: Aaron Holiday, no doubt. I start with him for UCLA. I think for Arizona… When you look at their team and how they play and how they’re constituted, the guy who kind of does a little bit of everything for them and kind of gives them some leadership and their toughness in many ways is Kadeem Allen. I know he’s averaging double-digits, but he’s one of those guys I like to call ‘valutility’ type of guys. He’s more than just a Velcro guy, because he’s got skill, but he can also do those kind of ‘valutility’ kind of things in addition to being able to give you 20-plus on a night.