“He touched the ball! He touched the ball! He touched the ball!”
These were the words uttered by Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller last year in the Pac-12 Semifinal game versus UCLA. This resulted in a technical foul, which gave the Bruins two points and a slight advantage on their way to a 66-64 victory.
Fast-forward exactly one year and the Bruins and Wildcats meet again in Sin City, this time for the Pac-12 Tournament Championship. These two schools are unquestionably the most successful teams in Pac-12 history, yet it will only be the second time they meet in the Conference Championship game. The Wildcats won that matchup in 1990 at the University Activity Center in Tempe, AZ by a score of 94-78.
Arizona is the one seed in this tournament; UCLA is the two. Both teams have won their first two games in dominating fashion. However, Arizona has thrived on the defensive end, as UCLA has done their damage on the offensive end. Their lone matchup this year was won by the Wildcats in a 79-75 nail-biter in Westwood, CA.
There are many matchups in this game that are sure to be fun to watch, but these are the key ones:
Nick Johnson vs. Jordan Adams: Adams absolutely torched the Wildcats last year in Vegas, scoring 24 points while going 11-13 from the free throw line. He also broke his ankle on the last play of the game, forcing him to sit out of the NCAA tournament. Nick Johnson is the Pac-12 Player of the Year and has averaged 15 points per game this tournament thus far. Both of these players were named to the Pac-12 All-Conference team as well as the Conference All-Defensive team. Which one will lead their team to victory?
Kyle Anderson vs. Aaron Gordon: Anderson would have been Pac-12 Player of the Year if Johnson did not have the outstanding year he had. He is a 6’9” point guard who creates many matchup problems. Gordon guarded him the majority of the time in the previous meeting, and it should be the same story today. Both players are very versatile but have different styles. Anderson plays at a slow pace but is a threat for a triple-double on any given night. Gordon uses his power and athleticism to play at a fast pace and throw down highlight reel dunks. Which player/team will control the pace?
The Freshmen off the bench: Both teams first two players off the bench are freshmen. UCLA boasts the backcourt of Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford, as Arizona sends in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliot Pitts. LaVine and Alford are both outstanding shooters, so Arizona will have to defend the perimeter and not give them any space to shoot. Hollis-Jefferson is an incredible athlete who provides great energy off the bench, while Pitts is also a 3-point shooting threat. Which bench will provide that spark?
UCLA will be hungry for revenge after Arizona defeated them earlier this season on their own floor. The Bruins did not get to go to McKale Center this year because of the new Pac-12 format where some teams only play once a season. As mentioned earlier, the pace and tempo of the game will be crucial. The interesting thing about this game is that both teams are at their best playing fast pace.
Both teams have been rolling lately, and I expect both the Bruins and Wildcats to come out hot. If one team falls behind early, it is going to be extremely difficult to claw back. As usual, Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski will be the the biggest player on the court today. The UCLA big men are the Wear twins, David and Travis, who are also great jump shooters. Zeus must use his size to his advantage and be the “biggest” advantage for the Wildcats today. T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson need to get this Wildcat team going early, and I have the Wildcats winning an overtime thriller 85-82.
And always remember, “Nastiness is required.”