Ball, No. 3 UCLA look to derail red-hot No. 14 Arizona
LOS ANGELES — UCLA and Arizona, the preeminent Pac-12 programs since the league was formed almost 40 years ago, will look to stake the first claim toward 2017 supremacy on Saturday afternoon.
Arizona gets a boost with the return of sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, who has been ruled eligible to return to the court. Trier, who has yet to play this season after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug during the preseason, averaged 14.8 points last season.
A random sample taken by the NCAA detected a trace amount of the banned substance. Trier appealed the suspension and won, after he proved he took a drug to recover more quickly from an injury suffered during a car accident last summer, but denied knowingly taking a banned product, ESPN reported. The NCAA ruled to allow him to play once the substance was out of his system.
No. 3 UCLA (19-1, 6-1) and No. 14 Arizona (17-2, 6-0), each led by precocious and possibly one-and-done freshmen, will meet at Pauley Pavilion with first place in the league at stake. No. 11 Oregon (17-2, 6-0) is also right there.
With impetus from freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, the Bruins won their first 13 games, including a five-point victory at Kentucky, before losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 opener.
Finnish freshman forward Lauri Markkanen and the Wildcats have won 11 in a row, the fourth-longest winning streak in the nation. Arizona posted a 73-66 victory over USC in the first leg of the L.A. trip Thursday.
As Arizona did in previous victories against Texas A&M, Colorado and Arizona State this season, it squandered a big second-half lead before holding on. USC trimmed a 23-point deficit to three with 1:03 remaining before Markkanen banked in a 3-pointer with 41 seconds remaining as the shot clock ran down to secure the win.
“We’re 17-2 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-12, I get it,” Sean Miller said. “But I can only go on what I just saw. It’s a pattern that we have to break. It’s my job to break it. If we have to take a loss because guys have to learn we just can’t pick and choose how hard we want to play, then we’ll do that.
“UCLA may be a team that really teaches us a lesson of how important it is to be in the game for 40 minutes, because they are so good on offense.”
UCLA leads the Pac-12 in scoring offense and Arizona is No. 1 in defense.
With point guard Ball directing the offense, the Bruins are averaging 93.3 points a game and have six players averaging in double figures — including Bryce Alford (17.4), Leaf (16.9), Isaac Hamilton (15.0) and Ball (14.4). Leaf is averaging nine rebounds a game and Ball is averaging 8.2 assists.
The Bruins have made 222 3-pointers while shooting 44.1 percent from distance. Alford made nine 3-pointerss and had a career-high 37 points in a 104-89 victory over Colorado on Jan.12. Hamilton had nine 3-pointers and 33 points in a 102-80 victory over Arizona State on Thursday.
“I love when teams try to run with us because I think we are the best transition team in the country and the best running team in the country,” Leaf said.
Markkanen is averaging 17.0 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, leading five Wildcats in double-figure scoring. Rawls Alkins is averaging 12 points a game, and Dusan Ristic is averaging 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds.
“It’s a big game,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “They’ve done a lot of really good things away from home. You have a chance to play them twice, so it’s about taking care of home.”
Both Ball and Markkanen are projected to be among the top dozen players taken in the 2017 NBA draft if they leave school, and some project either Ball or Washington freshman guard Markelle Fultz to be the first player taken. Neither Ball nor Markkanen has announced his intention.
The Bruins had 30 assists against Arizona for the time in 22 years, and are off to their best start since going 21-1 to begin the 1991-92 season, when Tracey Murray and Don MacLean each averaged 21 points a game.
Arizona has won at least 11 straight games five times in Miller’s seven-plus seasons. The Wildcats’ last 12-gamer was in 2014-15. UCLA has won seven of the last 10 games in the series played at Pauley.