They say if you’re ever in the Northeast and don’t like the weather – just wait – it will change.
College basketball isn’t much different. One week a blue blood program is being heralded as the “team to beat” and the next week that same team is leading SportsCenter for losing to an unranked opponent with footage of students storming the court, even if it’s only November. It’s one of the things that makes the college game so great.
A month ago (Dec. 19), Arizona was ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll with one loss. It seemed UCLA, ranked No. 13 at the time, and the Wildcats would be the two alpha teams battling for Pac-12 Conference supremacy. Meanwhile, Arizona State made its first appearance of the season in that week’s poll at No. 25.
The next week, the Sun Devils were unranked (again).
Heading into the weekend, only two teams in the Pac-12 are ranked in the AP Top 25: No. 5 UCLA, currently on a 13-game winning streak, and No. 11 Arizona, despite losing two of its last three games.
“The AP (Top 25) is a joke,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after the Bruins’ 60-58 victory over USC on Jan. 5.
All of a sudden, it’s hard to tell which game will be tougher this weekend.
The Bruins (16-2, 7-0 Pac-12) won’t just be playing for victory against ASU in Tempe, they’ll be trying to maintain sole possession of first place in the conference. The Sun Devils (15-3) are in second place at 6-1, eying an opportunity to share the top spot with a victory on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. PT, FS1).
Arizona State is coming off an impressive sweep of the Oregon schools.
“You don’t just go sweep the Oregons the way they did,” Cronin said. “Especially the way (Arizona State) did. They looked like the original Golden State Warriors at Oregon. When you saw the score, you thought maybe Oregon didn’t play well and then you watch the film. I’ve never seen anything like that. Their display of shooting was unbelievable.”
UCLA and ASU split last season’s games, with each team winning on its home court. However, the Bruins have won four of the past five meetings. The one loss came last season, 87-84 in triple overtime in Tempe. Ironically, UCLA was also 16-2 before taking on the Arizona schools last February.
It’s a big weekend for the Bruins, who can create separation at the top with two wins.
“Just remembering who we are, not getting too ahead of ourselves, focusing on one game at a time,” senior Jaime Jaquez Jr. said of the key to winning both games this weekend. “First, we’ve got Arizona State, so that’s our main focus. Listening to the scouting report and just play as hard as we can and have fun.”
Jaquez is averaging 16.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game this season while shooting 51% from the field. Fellow senior Tyger Campbell’s has seen his shooting drop off since last season – he is making 35.7% of his 3-point attempts compared to 41% last season. He was 4 for 15 from the field in UCLA’s 68-54 victory over Colorado on Sunday and just 1 for 6 from behind the arc.
“It was just a tough one,” Campbell said. “It felt like there was a lid on the rim, but of course you don’t want games like that. You want every shot to go in … but we locked in on the defensive end and we pulled out a victory.”
STILL NO BAILEY
UCLA will likely partake in its second consecutive road trip without freshman guard Amari Bailey, who hasn’t played since a Dec. 21 home win against UC Davis due to a foot injury. The injury is similar to the one former UCLA standout Johnny Juzang suffered two seasons ago, according to Cronin, who said Bailey is “day-to-day.”
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“Johnny had it … they call it a stress reaction. It’s not serious but it could be if you don’t let it calm down, so it’s just constant bone scans and all that type of stuff,” Cronin said. “At UCLA, most of our players are going to have a post-UCLA career, so you have to be conservative with stuff like that. So, it’s kind of as he progresses.”
Bailey has been participating in active shooting sessions, but he has not been practicing full speed with the team. Bailey is averaging 9.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 13 games this season.
No. 5 UCLA (16-2, 7-0) at Arizona State (15-3, 6-1)
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. (PT)
Where: Tempe, Ariz. (Desert Financial Arena)
TV/radio: FS1/570 AM