UCLA’s heralded freshman class is a major reason why coach Ben Howland’s team is competing for its first conference championship in five years.
Arizona has seen firsthand how dangerous it can be.
The Bruins can move into a tie atop the Pac-12 on Saturday night by sweeping the season series with the visiting 11th-ranked Wildcats, who are coming off a lackluster performance coach Sean Miller knows they can’t repeat.
Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson came to UCLA with high expectations and have overcome periodic struggles to play key roles in helping the Bruins (21-7, 11-4) near the top of the conference standings.
Adams scored 22 points, Muhammad added 21 and Anderson grabbed a season-high 15 rebounds to go along with his 21 points in Wednesday’s 79-74 overtime victory over Arizona State.
Muhammad ranks second in the conference averaging 18.3 points, Adams averages 15.4 and is among the league leaders with 54 steals, and Anderson is among the nation’s best rebounding guards grabbing 9.1 per game.
“The media got it right,” Howland said. “They are the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. These three kids are not playing like freshmen in November. They’re improving a lot in all different respects.”
A victory over the Wildcats would push the Bruins into a tie with No. 24 Oregon at the top of the Pac-12, and they’ll likely have starting forward Travis Wear back from a two-game absence due to a right foot injury.
UCLA hasn’t won a conference title since winning the last of three straight in 2007-08.
“Being so deep in the season, we were more ready for this,” Anderson said. “Down the stretch (Wednesday), I told the team to stay calm through the storm and we were going to pull it out.”
Muhammad scored 23 points, Adams added 15 and Anderson finished with 12 rebounds in an 84-73 victory at then-No. 6 Arizona on Jan. 24, helping UCLA avoid a third straight loss in the series.
If the Wildcats (23-5, 11-5) are to ruin UCLA’s home finale, Miller believes they’ll need to show a much better effort than during Wednesday’s 89-78 loss at Southern California that ended their three-game winning streak.
Arizona allowed its most points of the season and could have a tough time slowing UCLA, which leads the Pac-12 averaging 76.1 points.
“When you did what we just did, it’s not about winning (the) conference, it’s about winning a game,” said Miller, whose team is one spot behind the Bruins scoring 73.6 points per contest. “We are faced with an immense challenge on Saturday, and if we don’t play harder on defense I don’t think we will win the game, but it will be close.”
Solomon Hill scored 21 points Wednesday but Nick Johnson, who tied his season high with 23 points in the first meeting with UCLA, finished with four and is averaging 6.5 over his last eight games.
Johnson averaged 14.5 points in the first eight Pac-12 contests.
“We have picked and chosen at times our effort level,” Miller said. “You have to be extremely talented to pick and choose the effort level you have to play on the defensive end, and we are just not that good.
“What makes us a good team is when we are clicking on all cylinders on both sides of the ball.”
Arizona has lost six of the last seven meetings at Pauley Pavilion.