Shabazz Muhammad went for 23 points and Jordan Adams added 15 as UCLA went into the McKale Center and knocked off No. 6 Arizona 84-73 on Thursday night.
It was as impressive of a performance as we’ve seen out of this Bruin program since Ben Howland led them to their third straight Final Four in 2008. UCLA jumped out to a 19-3 lead before the second TV timeout and never let the Wildcats get closer than four points the rest of the way.
Thoroughly beating a team like that on the road is impressive on its own. But UCLA did it while Travis Wear, arguably their most important player since Howland turned UCLA into a running team, spent the end of the first half and the entire second half sitting on the bench with a concussion. It also deserves mention that Adams was dealing with what UCLA termed cramps during the second half.
And UCLA still didn’t buckle as Arizona made a second half run in front of a raucous home crowd.
Oregon has to be considered not only the favorite to win the Pac-12 this season, but also the best team in the league this year. Not only do they have a two game (or more) lead on everyone in the conference other than UCLA, they’ve already beaten Arizona and UCLA. This win over UCLA came on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion. And the Ducks won’t face either team again this season. It’s their title to lose.
But I don’t think the Bruins are all that far off their pace.
The bigger question mark is with Arizona.
The Wildcats have an impressive computer profile in both the RPI and Kenpom. They have an impressive record and some impressive wins this season. But there are issues when you look past the box score.
For starters, Arizona’s only dominant win over a relevant team came on Saturday at Arizona State. When they beat Long Beach State, the 49ers didn’t have their transfers eligible yet. Florida gave away a win when they decided to commit consecutive turnovers in the back court and miss a front-end in the final minute. Colorado blew a 10 point lead in the final four minutes and had what should have been a game-winning three waved off. Miami was playing just their second game without Reggie Johnson in the lineup. (Arizona made a comeback in the San Diego State game as well, but I thought they played well in that game, so I’m leaving it out of this discussion.)
Those four wins, as a result, are going to look much better on paper than they did to the naked eye.
And well the eye-test is far from a scientific method, it is enough for me to be concerned about the Wildcats.
For starters, Arizona has a number of solid pieces on the offensive end of the floor, but they don’t have that one guy that a coach is forced to game-plan around. There is no Mason Plumlee or Doug McDermott. They don’t have a Trey Burke or a Russ Smith. There isn’t even a guy like a Shabazz Muhammad or a Jordan Adams, someone that will scare opposing coaches.
That’s not a crippling issue, and neither is the fact that the Wildcats are playing this season without a true point guard. I like Mark Lyons. I think he’s a good player and a good scorer. But he’s not a point guard. He’s not a facilitator, creator or leader. He had 16 points tonight, but he also shot 6-17 from the floor and had five turnovers and no assists. On the season, he’s now averaging 15.2 points, 3.2 assists and 3.0 turnovers. Again, that would be fine if the Wildcats had a Draymond Green or a Grant Gibbs on their roster, but they don’t.
Arizona is not a bad basketball team.
They’re good. They have enough talent that finishing outside of the top three in the Pac-12 would be a major disappointment, and they’ve proven that a) they never give up on a game, and b) they have the moxie to fight back late and win a game in crunch.
But their record is deceiving.
Hypothetically speaking, if Kenny Boynton doesn’t choke, Sabatino Chen’s shot counted and Nick Johnson misses the block against Chase Tapley, how would you view the Wildcats?
Because it shouldn’t be all that much different than how you view them now.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.