UCLA is banking on renewed defensive effort as it continues to chase the Pac-12 regular-season championship when it plays Arizona on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
The Bruins (14-5, 10-3 Pac-12) are one game behind first-place Southern California after winning 64-61 at Washington on Saturday. But playing defense will be a tougher task against Arizona (14-7, 8-7), which leads the conference in scoring at 76.5 points per game. Washington is last in the league at 66.6.
“Especially in conference play, you’ve got to play defense,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose team had lost three of four games before beating the Huskies.
“I’m a big believer that 75 percent of this is the way you compete. You’ve got to teach your kids what championship effort is. There’s a difference between effort, winning effort, championship effort. You can give effort, but there’s NIT effort.
“What I’m trying to teach these guys is championship effort. That’s going to be the staple of what we’re about.”
UCLA needs all the effort it can muster to make up for current deficiencies in the frontcourt.
Jalen Hill, who has missed the past three games because of undisclosed personal reasons, will not be available this week, Cronin said. Cody Riley is coming back from an ankle injury and is “not himself, clearly,” Cronin said.
Riley has nine points, five rebounds and nine fouls in the past two games, spanning 34 minutes.
Arizona counters with 7-foot-1 Christian Koloko, 6-11 Azuolas Tubelis and 6-11 Jordan Brown. That frontcourt rotation combined for 30 points and 16 rebounds when the teams met Jan. 9 in Tucson, Ariz., but the Bruins held on to win 81-76 behind 22 points from point guard Tyger Campbell.
UCLA is riding a four-game winning streak over the Wildcats in what has been the best rivalry in the conference since the mid-1980s.
Arizona has an X-factor it didn’t have in the January meeting: freshman guard Kerr Kriisa, who was not yet eligible. He has played in four games, starting the past two, and is coming off his best outing. He scored 12 points against Oregon, making 4-of-9 3-point shots to go with five assists.
“I’m really far from my game shape, for sure,” Kriisa said. “Still, game by game I get better and more confident.”
James Akinjo leads Arizona at 14.3 points and 5.3 assists per game. UCLA sophomore Johnny Juzang averages a team-high 14.2 points and is coming off a career-best 32-point effort against Washington.
–Field Level Media