LOS ANGELES —
Steve Alford conducts his postgame media session in a room so small and claustrophobic that you’d swear John Wooden used to sit at the same podium, talking about national championships and 108-64 victories.
Not all of Pauley Pavilion was touched by a recent $140 million renovation, including a large framed Sports Illustrated cover that isn’t more than 10 feet from the UCLA coach’s microphone.
“The Bruins Are Back” it says, still looking shiny and new 22 years after UCLA’s last NCAA title.
But on Saturday it wasn’t about UCLA being back, Part II or Part III or whatever it is. It was about Arizona being back. No matter how loudly the rare sellout crowd pleaded for the Bruins to make a run, the Wildcats did the running and the stunning.
“On film, they look good,” said Alford. “In person, they look better.”
Arizona won 96-85. It was surely one of Sean Miller’s three most meaningful victories at Arizona, joining his 2011 Sweet 16 shocker over Duke and a nervy Sweet 16 triumph over San Diego State two years later.
Where this leads, no one knows, but I cannot remember any Arizona team winning 18 of its first 20 games and getting less of a look nationally than this group. It’s difficult to think of any team in America on an upward trajectory more sure than Miller’s team.
I still think UCLA and Oregon could get to the Final Four and not raise a single eyebrow; that’s how good the Pac-12 is at the top. But now Arizona makes it a Big Three.
On Saturday, the Wildcats were back because Miller’s style prevailed over Alford’s. Defense isn’t sexy, but it was all dressed up and took the Bruins’ 93-points-per game tempo down.
“They had a good game plan and they executed it to a T,” said UCLA guard Bryce Alford.
Miller spent most of Friday at the team’s Santa Monica hotel examining UCLA game tapes until he almost became blurry-eyed. That’s what he does as much as any coach in college basketball. He is not only Mr. X but Mr. O, and if anyone is ever more prepared than Miller, who is it?
Before leaving the JW Marriott for Friday’s 3 p.m., practice, Miller candidly said he wouldn’t know what to expect until he saw the Bruins in real time, with every seat full and a litany of UCLA legends sitting courtside.
“I’m glad we play there first,” he said. “Because the first time there’s still a lot of unknowns, about who can guard who. It’ll be more comfortable when you have them at home, when it’s more to your advantage.”
What Miller discovered Saturday was that his guys can guard all of the Bruins, except maybe wonderful freshman point guard Lonzo Ball. It was as if Miller decided to let Ball get his 24 points, take 15 shots, and elect to chop up UCLA’s three shooting assassins: Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday.
It worked. Those three volume shooters needed 34 shots to get 39 points. On most nights, they’d get 50 or more points on 34 shots.
“They really contested the 3,” said Hamilton. “They ran out pretty hard (on us).”
Arizona won two of the most important statistical battles: shooting percentages and rebounding, and they got seven more foul shots. You almost can’t lose when that happens.
But it was what isn’t in the box score that turned the game. Defense and aggressiveness.
“Our defensive efficiency was awful,” said Alford. “We didn’t defend the dribble at all. We had no rim protection when we needed it.”
Until now, the Bruins’ almost- leisurely approach to team defense didn’t seem to matter much, and that was the big unknown. How far could they go without more attention to defensive detail? They won at Kentucky 97-92 and lost 89-87 at Oregon on two miracle-level 3-pointers in the last minute.
Games on the road don’t get any more difficult than at Kentucky and Oregon this year. Maybe the Bruins could be so effective offensively that they’d be the first team in history to all but yawn on defense and still win the biggest games.
“We’re a very good basketball team,” said Alford. “But if we want to be great, we’ve got to get better (defensively).”
Miller is clearly the NCAA coach of the half-season. Arizona’s schedule has mostly been mushy, but the absences of Ray Smith, Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright forced Miller to remake a team on the run, starting three freshmen and killing time as Dusan Ristic improved significantly.
Through it all, Miller insisted on his two staples: defense and effort. It was the key to playing time, and will remain that way now that he has depth to match any team in the country.
After 20 games, no coach sharpens the scissors and prepares to cut down the nets. But you could tell Saturday’s victory pumped some serious joy into Miller’s system.
“If we would have lost, a lot of people would have been upset,” he said.
What people? Arizona had been 0-15 when playing UCLA teams ranked in the Top 10 in Los Angeles. Did you expect Arizona to win? Maybe Miller and the nine players he deployed Saturday were the only people in Los Angeles who thought they could stun the Bruins.
“It’s Arizona,” said Miller. “There are big expectations.”
Trier’s return didn’t spoil the team’s chemistry. Freshman Kobi Simmons outplayed UCLA’s three perimeter veterans and Lauri Markkanen again made the most important shot of the game — a put-back shot plus a free throw with 43 seconds remaining — just as he did at USC two days earlier. Kadeem Allen, who might be the nation’s best defensive player, added to his résumé.
Because of all that, there now are Arizona-type expectations. Big ones.