UCLA’s midseason resurgence may have been interrupted by its loss to Oregon on Saturday, but Sean Miller can relate to that.
Both UCLA and Arizona have only lost to the Ducks so far in Pac-12 play.
“Although they had a tough loss with Oregon, I think it’s pretty well-documented that’s a pretty good team right now,” the UA coach said.
Speaking during his McKale Center news conference today, Miller said the Bruins have progressed well despite the early setbacks of Shabazz Muhammad’s initial NCAA ineligibility, and the transfers of Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb.
“Like us, with freshmen sometimes it takes a while especially on defense,” Miller said. “When you watch them, 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 and hit their stride more. After Christmas especially on their trip to Utah and Colorado, they really put it together.”
Noting that Larry Drew’s nation-leading assist-turnover ratio of 4.67-1 “shows that the players he passes to are all capable of making plays and shots,” Miller said the Bruins have been particularly effective when running a fast-paced offense.
“They’re pushing the ball more this year than they have in my previous three years here at Arizona,” Miller said. “Whether its the Wears (David and Travis), whether it’s Jordan Adams, Shabazz or Kyle Anderson, they have a variety of options and the faster the ball is put in transition to me, the better they are. That’s my biggest concern, that and their offensive firepower in general.”
While UCLA is running more, Miller noted that the Bruins are still good at taking advantage of turnovers or steals.
“They were opportunistic, especially on missled field goals,” Miller said. “They probably didn’t get enough credit for pushing the ball and creating easy baskets that way but they’re more committed to it this year. They shoot quicker, possessions don’t last as long and once they’re in the halfcourt, it’s the same and they try to execute.”
The loss of Smith, who transferred to Georgetown, also changes things a bit.
“They usually had that back-to-the-basket low post scorer, although Tony Parker is capable of it and his role is not as big now as maybe it will be,” Miller said. “They traditionally have the Wears or one of the Wears, and Kyle Anderson in together and those guys are so much more like face-up forwards and guards -- almost wings in the low post. So 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.”
On the Pac-12 teleconference call earlier today, Howland said the Bruins took a “step back” with the loss to Oregon but have rebounded early this week.
“We didn’t play particularly well on Thursday (against Oregon State) and that carried over on Saturday,” Howland said. The Bruins talked about what they needed to improve and Howland said “we had a good, spirited practice” on Monday.
Neither UCLA nor Arizona will play Oregon again during the regular season, meaning the Ducks have an early edge in the conference race and will likely will own most tiebreakers involving UA and UCLA for the conference tournament seeding if there are ties.
But Miller said it was too early to worry about that, and Howland said it didn’t bother him.
“What this does is put more emphasis on the conference tournament,” Howland said. “Oregon’s really good…. And we don’t have to play them up there, and they’re going to be hard to beat up there. It’s still an interesting race.”
Miller said it was the “right thing” that the Pac-12 awarded a UA player its weekly Player of the Week honor for the first time, giving it to Mark Lyons on Monday.
“I’m sure that there were a number of other players in our conference that you could have voted for but Mark was certainly one of them,” Miller said.
Miller had asked a Pac-12 official on Jan. 8 why the conference had not awarded the weekly honor to any UA players yet eventhough the Wildcats were undefeated at that point. He said today that he felt that way because players deserve the most credit for winning teams.
“I believe we played some of the best nonconference games of the season and I want our players to be rewarded,” Miller said. “We had some weeks here in November and December that you could make the argument that one or two of our guys could have (received it). I’m glad Mark got it and hopefully, Solomon (Hill) will break through as well.”
The problem, of course, for UA has been that the Wildcats are typically balanced in their offensive attack while other Pac-12 teams have had dominant individual performances.
After the Wildcats beat Florida on Dec. 15 and nominated Lyons for the award, Colorado’s Andre Roberson was given the honor because he had 17 points and 20 rebounds at Fresno State. And after Solomon Hill was named the MVP of the Diamond Head Classic, the Pac-12 gave its weekly honor to Muhammad, who had 27 points that included several key shots in the Bruins’ win over Missouri.
That same problem also struck Oregon this week, when the Ducks were led by a balanced attack in wins at USC and UCLA.
One note the Wildcats and Ducks might want to keep in mind: Cal's Jorge Gutierrez earned the Pac-12's Player of the Year award last season despite not winning a single Player of the Week award.