Before each of the past few seasons, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller and UA athletic department officials pick a game for their now-annual “white-out” event.
This year’s decision may have been the biggest no-brainer yet.
After two years of facing Washington in down-to-the-wire “white-out” games before sold-out crowds dressed in white, the Wildcats switched to UCLA for reasons that have long been obvious.
Not only did the Wildcats and Bruins have a strong rivalry throughout the Pac-10 era, but UCLA has rebounded this season behind a talented cast of freshmen and some key veterans. Both teams were preseason favorites to win the Pac-12, with Arizona edging the Bruins 403-402 in voting for the conference’s official poll.
There’s also good national exposure tonight to showcase all that talent, and all that crowd energy: ESPN2 will be carrying the game, with former Bruin great Bill Walton handling the color commentary.
In addition, the 7 p.m. tipoff is not only in local prime time but also not too late for East Coast hoop junkies to tune in.
“It’s a big, big game, no question,” Miller said. “Our conference feels that way and it’s a big game nationally for us.”
Since the season has progressed, the decision to make tonight’s game a “white-out” keeps looking more appropriate.
1. The Ducks aren’t coming.
Thanks to the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule, Arizona won’t have a chance to avenge its 70-66 loss at Oregon on Jan. 10 during the regular season. In fact, the Ducks won’t have to play UCLA again, either, after beating the Bruins last Saturday in Los Angeles, giving them a major edge in the conference race.
Still, Miller said it’s too early to worry about what scheduling help Oregon may have at this point.
“If we can worry about that, that means we’re winning a lot of games on our end,” Miller said. “We have 13 games left. We have to be good. Oregon is certainly a factor; their play speaks for itself.”
2. The Washington game could be a yawner.
It’s not that the Huskies can’t be competitive against Arizona, after losing dynamic freshmen Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross to the NBA last spring.
It’s that this season’s Arizona-Washington game at McKale is scheduled for Feb. 20 at 9 p.m.
On a Wednesday.
That late midweek start could affect the energy inside McKale Center, one thing that UA wants to show off for a “white-out,” and it also means almost nobody would be watching East of the Rockies.
Then there’s the fact that the Huskies are averaging just 64.8 points in Pac-12 games this season, not quite the high-flying bunch that lost to UA 87-86 during the 2010-11 white-out and beat the Wildcats 69-67 in last season’s white-out.
3. The freshmen are blooming.
UCLA and Arizona had two of the nation’s top three 2012 recruiting classes, and the resulting freshmen have mostly lived up to expectations so far this season.
While UA’s three freshmen big men have alternately made impacts while sharing minutes up front, the Bruins have relied heavily on freshmen starters Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams.
Anderson is a dizzying boxscore filler who plays both power forward and backup point guard. He’s tied with Colorado pogo stick Andre Roberson for the conference lead in rebounding at 10.3 in Pac-12 games and he’s fourth in free-throw shooting percentage at 91.7.
Adams has scored 20 or more points four times and is first in steals in Pac-12 games with an average of 2.7.
And Muhammad, who struggled with the ineligibility and then a resulting lack of conditioning, lately has been looking every bit like the top recruiting target that UCLA, Arizona and nearly everyone else chased out of Las Vegas over the past few years.
Now projected as the No. 1 NBA pick in June’s NBA draft by Draft Express, Muhammad is tied for 11th in conference scoring at 15.0 in league games and had 27 points in UCLA’s overtime win over then No. 7 Missouri on Dec. 28.
“Shabazz is a warrior,” Miller said. “He plays like an older player, lets the game come to him. … He’s very physical. Like Solomon (Hill), he can hurt you on offensive rebounds and he’s real good in transition. He’s a great, great player.”
4. Both teams can score in bunches.
With his new dose of athleticism, UCLA coach Ben Howland opened up the Bruins’ offense this season. UCLA will look to run even off an opponent’s made shot, and the result is that Bruins have joined Arizona and Oregon as the top three scoring teams in Pac-12 games so far.
“They have a number of players who thrive in transition,” Miller said. “They probably didn’t get enough credit for pushing the ball and creating easy baskets (before) but they’re more committed to it this year.”
Making UCLA even more effective offensively are big guys with perimeter skills, such as Anderson and twins Travis and David Wear, plus a point guard in Larry Drew II who leads the nation in assist-turnover ratio at 4.7-1.
“They’ll have the Wears, or one of the Wears and Kyle Anderson in (the post) and those guys are so much more like face-up forwards and guards — almost wings in the low post,” Miller said. “Even in the halfcourt, you’re finding yourself surrounded by a number of players who can make shots and are really gifted around the perimeter.”
5. The Bruins are fun again.
After some early season turbulence that saw big man Josh Smith and guard Tyler Lamb transfer, while the NCAA did not clear Muhammad to play for three games because of eligibility issues, the Bruins pulled off 10 straight games before Oregon beat them 76-67 on Saturday.
The player losses effectively meant the Bruins no longer had to wrestle over minutes, and UCLA now is running a tight seven-man rotation in conference games.
“I think our players have improved,” Howland said. Against Oregon “we obviously took a step back, but from where we were in November, this team is making strides.”
“They went through a lot of difficult things,” Miller said. “They were very much a work in progress at the beginning of the year. They progressed into December and you could sense around Christmas that they started to play better. After Christmas, especially on their trip to Utah and Colorado, they really put it together.
“We completely respect UCLA — how talented they are, how well-coached they are, and how much better they’ve gotten.”着