The game of the weekend in college basketball has birthed some interesting new plot lines as we get ready for March.
Steve Alford’s fifth-ranked UCLA team went into Tucson on Saturday night and pulled off a 77-72 victory over No. 4 Arizona. Arizona’s chance at overtime fell short when Kadeem Allen’s 3 went long in the final seconds. Now UCLA’s won seven straight and is primed to be a chic Final Four pick yet again.
Arizona would have wrapped up at least a share of the Pac-12 title had it won. Instead, the Wildcats only got 10 points from Lauri Markkanen, while Allonzo Trier carried Arizona (28 points on 11-of-14 shooting, and five rebounds). I think Arizona will have its doubters at this point. I disagree with that assessment, and I’ll explain why below.
Four Things to Know
1. UCLA has the two best road wins in the sport
UCLA now has a distinct advantage over the rest of college basketball.
No team has two better road victories than the Bruins.
Kansas fans are no doubt eager to claim their team winning at Kentucky and at Baylor trumps UCLA’s wins at Kentucky and Arizona, but I’ll side with the latter. With the Kentucky win being a common opponent, it comes down to preference. Baylor is ranked higher in Sagarin, LRMC and KenPom, but if Arizona and Baylor met on a neutral floor tomorrow, I would lay money on the Wildcats. Baylor has lost five of eight, doesn’t have the shooting Arizona does, and Arizona would have two of the three best players on the floor.
To me, UCLA (26-3) has a very big card to play in the selection committee’s room less than two weeks from now. It also means -- barring a near-impossible implosion -- the Bruins will be, at worst, a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday. A No. 2 is very much on the table for the taking.
And if UCLA runs the table? Then why not keep the No. 1 seed in discussion. Lonzo Ball and Co. remain a tempting team.
2. Pac-12 fallout
Here’s another aftershock from this game: the team that didn’t play in it benefited most. Oregon might win the Pac-12 because of UCLA winning here. Arizona was 15-1 in the league heading into Saturday, but Oregon got out of a road game against Stanford with a two-point winning margin earlier in the day.
So now Oregon and Arizona are tied with two conference losses (UCLA has three), and Oregon owns the tiebreaker because the teams only met once (it was at Oregon) and the Ducks won handily. It’s unfair that Arizona didn’t get the chance to host Oregon, but these are the issues you get presented with when your league has 14 teams and round-robin schedules aren’t doable.
3. UCLA in title mix because its defense is now viable
Ironically, I was of the belief that the first team to 85 in this one would win. But no. A slower-tempo game, and UCLA wins it on the road? With some good defense?
Could things be changing for the better for the Bruins? Seems so. Once upon a time this UCLA team didn’t even have a top-130 defense. Now, though so far from really good, it’s at least in the top 100 on a per-possession basis. And most importantly, UCLA is still the top offensive team in the country. Here’s a stat for Bruins fans: the defense has held opponents to an average of 70.3 points per game over the past six games. On the season, entering the Arizona game, UCLA was averaging 92 points.
You cannot win the national title if you are downright mediocre on one side of the ball. UCLA has just about approached the level of acceptable defensive capacity to qualify them as a reasonable choice to cut down the nets in Phoenix.
4. If you sell on Arizona, you’ll regret it
The Wildcats’ best wins are a sweep of Cal, over Michigan State in the season-opener and a road victory against UCLA. Arizona is just inside the KenPom top 25 because of this. With a home loss to UCLA, there could be the sense that the Wildcats are overvalued. I don’t buy it. Did you watch how good Trier was? That is a top-20 player in America. And Markkanen’s pretty close. Now, if you want to say Lauri Markkanen has hit a freshman wall, I might buy it, but I don’t buy that he’s going to stop being really good. If anything, I’d expect a player like that to come on strong in March.
Consider that Sean Miller is a top-10 coach in America. Remember that Arizona is playing well beyond expectations (no Terrance Ferguson or Ray Smith) and yet the team still has veterans. Is Arizona a top-five team? No. I do think the Wildcats will get to the Pac-12 title game, wind up with a top-four seed and play into the second weekend, though. In checking all of those boxes, it should validate Arizona as a top-12 team in the sport.
That’s something nobody predicted even as late as mid-January.