This is it for the 2011-2012 Arizona Wildcats; at this point in the season, it's win or go home, even if the venue isn't the NCAA Tournament. Most had the UA squarely on the bubble heading into their very winnable game against Arizona St., but a pathetic defensive showing led to an embarrassing road loss that all-but-ended their at-large bid chances.
Now, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Wildcats likely have to win the Pac-12 Conference Tournament if they hope to go dancing next week. Their first opponent: the UCLA Bruins, who nearly swept Arizona in the regular season.
The Bruins feature size in the paint with Josh Smith, Travis Wear and David Wear, and their guards have started to play much better as of late. UCLA knocked off the USC Trojans in the first round on Wednesday, and they will be about 21 hours removed from last playing.
A key question to watch for: will the Bruins come out fatigued, or does their hot shooting continue over from the second half of the USC game? Arizona has a tendency to start games slowly and they cannot afford to dig themselves into an early hole.
Josiah Turner has been suspended for the tournament and will likely be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Jordin Mayes. While not the electric playmaker Turner can be at times, Mayes is solid running the point, assuming his foot is healthy. The young guard has had injury problems throughout his career in Tucson and missed most of the last month with a stress reaction in his foot. Other than Mayes, look for freshman Nick Johnson and senior Brendon Lavender to handle the ball handling duties.
If the Wildcats hope to win, they must protect the glass. The Bruins are relentless when crashing the boards and will have the UA seriously out-sized in the paint. Guys like Jesse Perry and Angelo Chol have to play well in order for the 'Cats to have any chance of advancing.
I'm expecting a closely contested game, but the size and talent that UCLA brings around the rim terrifies me. The game is closely contested throughout, but I see the Bruins winning 68-64 as a disappointing season in Tucson comes to an end.