Allonzo Trier made his first appearance of the season for No. 14 Arizona but it was Kobi Simmons who was the star for the Wildcats as Sean Miller’s club picked up their biggest win of the season, going into Pauley Pavilion and knocking off No. 3 UCLA, 96-85.
Simmons had 18 points, five boards and five assists, providing the spark at the end of the first half as Arizona opened up a 48-37 lead. Lauri Markkanen, who has been Arizona’s best player on the season, finished with 18 points while Trier chipped in with 10 points, seven boards and four assists.
The win moves Arizona into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 – at least until No. 11 Oregon plays at USC tonight – at 7-0, a full two games ahead of the Bruins in the loss column. Arizona still gets UCLA in the McKale Center, but their only game against Oregon will come in Eugene.
For the Bruins, Lonzo Ball led the way with 24 points, eight assists and six boards, but he had very little impact on the game in the final 12 minutes. The bigger talking point for UCLA is their defense. They entered Saturday ranked 92nd in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and giving up 96 points to the Wildcats isn’t going to help that. Arizona was able to penetrate at will on Saturday, and it’s a concern for the Bruins that is glaring.
Here are the four things to take away from that game:
1. Allonzo Trier is back, but this was more than just his return: Getting Trier back into the fold was, unquestionably, a boost for the Wildcats. He finished with 12 points, seven boards and four assists and, for the most part, held his own on the defensive end of the floor. He had a bucket near the end of the first half that pushed Arizona’s lead to 11 points, and when UCLA made a run in the second half, he had a steal and a dunk that felt like a momentum-changing play.
Arizona is a better team with him on the floor.
But this score, this result, was about much more than just the return of a guy that sat out the first 19 games of the season. For starters, Kobi Simmons played the best game that he’s played since he arrived in Tucson. He has lottery-level talent, and while his inconsistency and tendency to coast is the knock on him, when Simmons is locked in, he can do what he did on Saturday. It was about Markkanen, who outplayed T.J. Leaf, the guy that he essentially replaced in Arizona’s recruiting class. It was about the leadership down the stretch of Kadeem Allen and the key stops that Arizona got down the stretch.
In other words, simply saying that Arizona looked like a Final Four contender because Trier was back is a disservice to that performance.
2. This win provided the validation that we needed to take Arizona seriously: Arizona entered Saturday with a gaudy, 17-2 record, but it was hard to take them seriously as a Pac-12 or Final Four contender because of the teams that they had beaten to get to this point. Prior to winning at Pauley Pavilion, the best win Arizona had on the year was a Michigan State team that just got smoked by the O.G. Anunoby-less Indiana Hoosiers or at USC, who was without Bennie Boatwright.
A competitive performance, let alone a win, would’ve been enough to convince us that their record wasn’t a fluke. A win, however, is precisely what Arizona needed to bolster a tournament résumé that still lacks a bit of depth.
3. UCLA’s defense is becoming a major concern: We knew UCLA wasn’t all that good on the defensive side of the ball entering Saturday. They ranked 92nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which isn’t good but which was the kind of thing that could be overlooked given just how dominant UCLA’s offense can be. They had developed a habit of getting up by 25 points and then slacking off on the defensive end, which isn’t ideal but whatever. They were still winning.
Saturday, however, was a disaster. Arizona scored 1.315 points-per-possession, which is downright unacceptable for a team with their sights set on the Final Four and a potential national title. The Wildcats seemed to target Bryce Alford, whose defensive issues are well-known, and routinely attacked him with dribble penetration. But Bryce wasn’t the only victim here. No one on UCLA’s perimeter seemed capable of being the stopper, and the result was that the Wildcats were able to get to the bucket at will.
4. Can UCLA still win the Pac-12?: After losing on Saturday, the Bruins are now two games behind both Oregon and Arizona in the Pac-12 standings, and they still have a trip to the McKale Center left on their schedule. The Bruins have been the trendy pick to win the national title for a while because of how quickly they can score and how entertaining they are to watch, but at this point it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to make up two games in the standings on two different teams with just 11 games remaining on the schedule.
Does that say more about the Bruins as national title contenders or just how good the Pac-12 is at the top of the conference? I’d lean the latter, but after seeing the way UCLA defended on Saturday, I’m not sure.