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January 8, 2014

Bruins ready to battle with No. 1

UCLA has little time to relish its blowout win over USC to open Pac-12 conference play.

As cathartic as a trouncing of its crosstown rival may have been on Sunday, it's back to work for the Bruins in the coming days as they prepare for their biggest challenge yet against undefeated, No. 1 Arizona on Thursday.

The Bruins took Monday off as they returned to school from winter break, but will be grinding in the gym and the video room on Tuesday and Wednesday in preparation for the nation's top-ranked team.

The Wildcats, who have fended off the likes of Duke and Michigan to attain their pristine No. 1 ranking, swept the Washington schools in their first two conference games, holding Washington State to a mere 25 points in the entire contest.

"This is a very good basketball team," UCLA head coach Steve Alford said of the Bruins' toughest opponent yet. "They're athletic, they can score off the bounce, they can score in the post, they shoot the ball pretty well. But, they hang their hat at the defensive end. They make things very difficult. … We've got to figure out ways of scoring and then we've got to do a good job on the backboard."

Scoring has been sparse against Arizona this season. Through their first 15 games, the Wildcats are third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 55 points per game, and fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage allowed at 36.6 percent.

Arizona's defensive scheme has thrived on effective help defense and controlling the boards. While the team's rebounding average (40.1) isn't an eye-popping statistic, the Wildcats have out-rebounded their opponents by an average of 12.1 rebounds, which slots them fifth in the nation.

That's a concerning stat for UCLA, which has struggled to assert itself on the glass this season, starting fifth-year seniors Travis Wear and David Wear, who average a collective 6.9 rebounds per game. They will be facing 7-foot sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, who has averaged 11.6 rebounds over his last five games.

"They do have a great frontline, but I think we have a good one, too," said sophomore center Tony Parker, who played against Tarczweski growing up in AAU ball. "I think that's going to be one of the key matchups in the beginning of the game, is their frontline versus ours."

Alford also downplayed Arizona's advantage in the frontcourt, but emphasized his game plan of maintaining a fast-paced game.

"We want to play fast," he said. "I think we do have good size. … I don't think size is a big issue. We would like to speed the game up as much as we possibly can but still be patient enough to do the positive things that we want to do offensively."

While UCLA toppled its historically-loathed rival USC in its Pac-12 opener, the Bruins have been forming an increasingly tense rivalry with Arizona over the past few years, as both programs have reestablished their prominence.

The Bruins upset the Wildcats twice last season, first in Tucson when Arizona was ranked No. 6 and then in Westwood when it was ranked 11th. UCLA preserved its perfect record against the Wildcats last season when it beat them a third time in the semifinal of the Pac-12 Tournament.

Nonetheless, UCLA brushed off the notion that last season's success has brought any added confidence for the Bruins entering the teams' ensuing matchup.

"They're coming in here with a chip on their shoulder," Parker said. "They probably have a bigger chip on their shoulder than any other team has coming into Pauley 'cause they really have something to prove: that they can beat UCLA. We have something to protect: that we can beat Arizona."

Whereas UCLA's lineup is hardly unchanged from last season, Arizona has only two returning starters (Tarczewski, Nick Johnson) and has added one of the top freshmen in the nation in forward Aaron Gordon, brother of former UCLA castaway Drew Gordon.

"He plays hard, he's very athletic, he never stops going, and I feel like that's what makes him a great player," Parker said of Gordon, who is averaging 12.4 points and eight rebounds in his freshman campaign.

UCLA has a freshman of its own who averages 12.4 points a game: electric guard Zach LaVine, who is one of four Bruins averaging double figures in scoring. Through their first 14 games, the Bruins averaged 87.1 points per game at a 52.7-percent clip, which ranks them eighth and second in the nation, respectively.

UCLA's ability to sustain its free-flowing offense against one of the best defensive teams in the nation will be paramount for the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion on Thursday.


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