When the UCLA Bruins step on the court at McKale Center on Thursday night, it will be the first time that the Arizona Wildcats have played any team other than Washington in the annual white out game started three years ago. The Huskies split the two games in Tucson over the past few years, but the home team is hoping for different results playing against the Bruins.
UCLA is coming into the game having lost its last game to conference leader Oregon. It was a hard fought game, but the Bruins ultimately fell, leaving the Ducks undefeated in Pac-12 play. Before that, UCLA was riding a ten game winning streak, which started against Texas and included victories over Long Beach State, Missouri, and Colorado.
The Bruins were off to a rocky start at the beginning of the season, heating up Head Coach Ben Howland’s seat in Westwood. They lost three of their first eight games, with the low point coming in a eighteen point home blowout by Cal Poly.
UCLA started to turn things around after a loss to San Diego State and one of the main reasons is the play of Shabazz Muhammad. The highly-touted freshman was suspended by the NCAA for the first three games of the year for accepting illegal benefits. Since his return, he has been one of the most productive players for the Bruins, averaging nearly eighteen points and five rebounds per game.
“Shabazz is a warrior,” Miller said of UCLA’s star freshman. “He plays like an older player and lets the game come to him. A very deceptive stat is when he shoots from three. He shoots forty-five percent from three. At one point, that would’ve been something you wouldn’t have said is his strength.
“He is very physical like Solomon (Hill) and he can hurt you on offensive rebounds. He’s real good in transition. They can post him up and the way he’s shooting, he’s one of the best players we will play against.”
Muhammad is complemented on the court by the stellar point guard play of Larry Drew II. The senior transfer is arguably the best point guard in the Pac-12 up to this point in the season. He leads the conference with an outstanding 4.67 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is significantly higher than the second place Jared Dubois of Utah, who is sitting at 1.93.
“When you look at his assist totals and then look at his turnover ratio, that’s an ungodly statistic,” Miller said of Drew. “I think it shows that the players that he passes to, all of them are capable of making plays or shots.”
Drew is joined in the backcourt by freshman guard Jordan Adams. As the team’s second leading scorer with 15.2 points per game, Adams has steadily earned the trust of his coach and teammates. His job is to score, but he is also a quality defender, racking up the most steals on the team with 34.
Kyle Anderson is a big body for the Bruins, but plays like a guard. Another freshman that has been contributing for UCLA, he is scoring just under ten points a game, but holds the team lead in rebounds with nine a night. In addition, Anderson is a player that can play inside and kick it back outside to open shooters, as he has seventy assists so far this season.
“The fact that he’s six-foot-nine, but he can handle the ball at point guard is different,” Brandon Ashley said of Anderson. “He can run plays at the point forward position. It’s different, but nothing we haven’t seen before.”
Rounding out the starting lineup will be Travis Wear. One of two Wear twins that transferred from North Carolina to UCLA, Travis has been the better of the two throughout their careers. On the season, he is averaging 12.5 points and 5.9 rebounds. He hasn’t been the presence that he was last year, but part of that can be attributed with more height in the conference.
“There aren’t too many people in the country that are better than (Travis Wear),” Miller said. “What he does for their team and how skilled he is, how unselfish both of (the Wears) are. They’re winners, too.”
Travis’ brother David will see quality minutes off the bench for the Bruins. He is playing over twenty minutes a game, backing up his brother for the most part, but will also see the court next to him at times. David is averaging seven points and four rebounds per night. Defense has been a factor for him in the past, but it has dropped off slightly this season.
Sophomore Norman Powell is the other Bruin that should see significant minutes off the bench. The guard does a little bit of everything for UCLA. He is a solid defender, but can also score as he is getting 7.8 points a night. He has been coming in to relieve Adams and Muhammad, though his action can also be effected by foul trouble amongst the guards.
The Bruins should also send out freshman Tony Parker, though he is only playing about six minutes a game. He has committed more fouls (28) than he has rebounds (22) despite being a 6-foot-9 forward.
UCLA has been left shorthanded this season as two players left the program early in the year. Josh Smith, saw thirteen minutes of action on average in the six games he played and Tyler Lamb played fourteen minutes in a single game before deciding to leave Westwood and restart somewhere else.
The last time the Bruins were in Tucson was the 2012 senior night. Arizona wore special edition silver jerseys and hung on to beat a surging UCLA squad late in the game. If this season’s white out game is anywhere near as exciting as the last two, this matchup is one that college basketball fans won’t want to miss.