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Bruins lose ground in the Pac-12 title chase

UCLA breezes past Arizona State but gets run over by Arizona and now lags behind for the Pac-12 championship.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at UCLA
Lauri Markkanen got the better of TJ Leaf in the matchup of future NBA stretch power forwards.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We all knew what the problem was, even as UCLA racked up wins.

For as special as UCLA’s offense can be, it’s the defense that will ultimately dictate how far the Bruins will go in March, and the problems on that end of the floor were in plain sight this past weekend against the Arizona schools.

On Thursday, UCLA blew out Arizona State 102-80. Bobby Hurley’s gameplan for the Sun Devils was to try and beat the nation’s best offense at the thing it does best: scoring.

It went predictably haywire. Arizona State came into the game giving up over 80 points a game and allowing opponents to shoot over 47% from the field and 36% from three, but it didn’t stop Bobby Hurley from trying to beat the Bruins at their own game.

Isaac Hamilton broke out of his malaise in conference play, scoring 25 of his 33 points in the first half on 9-14 shooting from three point range and tying Bryce Alford’s school record from the previous week.

Hamilton hasn’t been shooting well for about 6 weeks, but even he couldn’t miss when Arizona State left him wide open in the corners all game. The offense clicked on all cylinders, as the Bruins shot an even 60% from both 2 and 3 point range.

We also had yet another nutso Lonzo Ball play as evidenced below:

However, for as well as the offense played, the defense in the middle of the game was nonchalant. The Bruins built a 25 point lead late in the first half, only to watch it shrink down to 8 as the Sun Devils put together a 17-3 run over both sides of halftime and took advantage of lackadaisical effort.

The numbers for Arizona State - 41% shooting - don’t look great, but it was pretty clear UCLA got bored in the middle of the game. With the game looking out of reach, UCLA got stagnant on offense and ran weird sets to get guys shots they usually don’t take. The offensive struggles were compounded by Arizona State getting baskets, and while UCLA did flip the switch to close the game out and win by 22, the middle portion was concerning to watch.

I’m all for working on things in games when it’s decided, but it’s not prudent to do so during a Pac-12 game against a potent offense like Arizona State’s. In the end, it didn’t really matter, and UCLA won at a canter and looked good doing so.

Saturday’s game, meanwhile, was a whole other story.

Arizona, boosted by the return of Allonzo Trier after his suspension, came into a jam-packed Pauley Pavilion and did what Arizona State sought to do: beat the Bruins on the offensive floor. Unlike Arizona State, Arizona brought its stifling defense with them, and the Wildcats came out with a big 96-85 win that pushed them a game and a half ahead of UCLA as the Pac-12 play midpoint approaches.

Bryce Alford got targeted on strings of possessions and got beat on dribble drives every time, and only Aaron Holiday is a consistently quick defender moving side to side. Lonzo Ball can do it, but he’s also prone to gambling for steals and losing out.

Kobi Simmons was very impressive for Arizona, scoring 20 points and outplaying UCLA’s senior guards as a freshman. Lauri Markkanen had himself a fine game as well, scoring 18 points and playing just enough defense to keep TJ Leaf at bay (Leaf also didn’t get many post touches to force Markkanen to guard him down low).

His three point shooting was critical, as it kept Leaf out of the lane and left UCLA’s guards to get roasted on pick and rolls and dribble drives. Leaf finished with a season-low 3 rebounds, and the Wildcats feasted on the glass with 12 offensive rebounds.

UCLA’s defense in this game was bad, yes. Arizona had everything in its arsenal working, and the Wildcats offense rated at 128 points over 100 possessions. Arizona shot 45% from 3 and an even 50% from everywhere else, and no matter what UCLA tried, it didn’t work enough.

But, the real problems on the defensive end for UCLA are magnified because Arizona’s swarming, athletic defense suffocated UCLA’s attack.

UCLA had a poor game offensively. Yes, they scored 86 points, but they also only shot 45% overall and 32% from three, which are really poor numbers for this team. Arizona made a concerted effort to close out on shooters, and it worked, as there were numerous occasions where UCLA shooters passed up looks they’ve taken all season.

UCLA just looked discombobulated. Arizona’s pack line defense gummed up the lane and was active and handsy all game, and UCLA struggled to cope. Only Lonzo Ball, who scored a career high 24 points and had two incredible three-point makes, played well on the offensive end.

TJ Leaf was kept to a quiet 12 points and wasn’t given much room to operate on the low block all game.

Sean Miller deserves a lot of credit for having his team in the top 10 without its best player for half the season even after losing another key cog to retirement. If the Wildcats can shoot it like they did on Saturday with more regularity, there are very few teams who can beat them.

UCLA, meanwhile, can only go as far as their defense can take them when the offense isn’t working. There haven’t been many whole games this season where UCLA’s offense played poorly, as the struggles usually have come in 5-10 spurts before they figure things out. But against a really athletic team like Arizona that can play lock down defense, the Bruins’ defense has to absolutely pick up the slack.

And as the Bruins sit two games behind both Oregon and Arizona with rematches against both to come, the defense better be ready to carry huge weight for the stretch run and into March.