LAS VEGAS – In a tournament of few surprises, of course it all comes down to this:
Arizona and UCLA.
The teams that finished a three-game series last season on a hotly contested note in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, the teams that were picked to finish 1-2 this season, and the teams that did exactly that.
“It’s like a prize fight,” UCLA guard Jordan Adams said. “One and two seeds. Everybody will be watching. So we just have to play our best basketball.”
That’s pretty much what UCLA coach Steve Alford indicated, too, after the Bruins beat Stanford 84-59 in Friday’s late semifinal game.
“I think they’re the best defensive team we’ve played all year,” Alford said of Arizona. “It’s great preparation for us going into the NCAA tournament, and there’s a 40-minute game left for a championship, and I know our guys are going to fight. We know we’re going to have to play awfully well for 40 minutes because this is a very good team we’re playing.”
The Wildcats beat UCLA 79-75 on Jan. 9 at Pauley Pavilion in the only meeting between the two teams, and the Bruins were no happier than UA fans that they didn’t get to make a return date at McKale Center this season.
“We missed going to Arizona; that’s a fun environment to play in,” UCLA forward David Wear said.
Added guard Jordan Adams: “Thankfully, we get to the see them in the championship. They’re the No. 1 team in the conference, so you always want to play against the best competition. That’s who we want to see.”
That may be true, but Pac-12 Networks analyst Kevin O’Neill said on air that it won't be easy.
“UCLA has enough ability and enough talent, they have the same level talent and offensively they’re really, really good,” said O’Neill, the former UA interim and former USC coach. “My question is can they stop Arizona at all. Sean (Miller) won’t let it be a track meet. He’ll slow it down with their defense, and offensively UCLA had better be able to get some stops or they can’t win the game.”
“UCLA wants a piece of Arizona. They may not want it when they get there, but they do want it.”
UCLA ended the regular season with a puzzling 18-point loss at Washington State, but Alford treated it like a one-off that wasn’t to be worried about going forward.
“I think we put the Washington State game before we even got on our airplane,” Alford said. “It was one game. The second seed (in the Pac-12 Tournament) was already wrapped up. That game wasn’t going to all of a sudden put us in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t play well. But in all due respect, Washington State played really well.”
Alford said his players didn’t see any of the game video from WSU, and played this week as if it was forgotten, pounding both Oregon and Stanford to reach the final.
“Our team did a lot of good things to go 23-8, to go 12-6 (in the Pac-12). So there were a lot of other teams that struggled more than we did. We felt very confident about coming into this tournament, and we wanted to forget about that game and move on.”
Even with over two months since they last played each other, neither UCLA or Arizona will likely be suffering from a lack of familiarity.
“We may have only played them once, but we watched them closely throughout the year,” UA guard Nick Johnson said before the UCLA-Stanford game. “We’re pretty familiar with them.”
Likewise, Alford said.
“We only played Arizona once, but we’ve seen them enough,” Alford said. “We know them; they know us. You’re not going to change anything. We’re not putting any secret offense or defense in. We’ve got to be who we are and they’ve got to be who they are. The best team that executes their own thing is going to win.”