Arizona visits California on Thursday
Arizona’s road trip to the Bay Area begins Thursday in Berkeley when the Wildcats visit California. The Bears look to snap a seven game losing streak to Arizona, while the Wildcats look to extend their conference winning streak to three games. After dropping their first five true road games of the season, Arizona, according to Head Coach Sean Miller, played its best basketball when the team visited the Washington schools in the Pacific Northwest two weeks ago.
After an insufferable loss at home to UCLA, winning on the road becomes necessary for Arizona.
It won’t be easy.
California (10-13, 4-6 Pac-12), like UCLA, will try and dictate a slow, possession-by-possession game, particularly at home. The Bears are 4-1 at home in league this season, with the lone loss coming to nationally ranked Oregon 77-72 on January. In home wins over the Washington schools, Oregon State, and rival Stanford, the highest point total among the visitors was 67.
Meanwhile, Arizona will bring in its Pac-12 leading 78.8 points per game scoring average, which took a bit of a hit after only scoring 52 points in the loss to UCLA at McKale Center.
The Bears are clearly vulnerable, but so are the Wildcats.
Miller discussed some of those vulnerabilities during his mid-week presser, which is a bi-product of a team led by three true freshmen in every statistical category and a collection of upperclassmen who have been inconsistent in terms of production.
The ‘good’ version of Arizona is really, really good. The ‘bad’ version of Arizona is coming of a 25.4 percent shooting night, at home, has already blown a 22-point lead in a loss to Arizona State, and almost blew a 20-point lead in a home win against USC.
Thursday’s game will mark Cal’s annual “Gold Out” game, with the first 2,500 fans in attendance receiving a gold t-shirt. The Bears should be up for this one following road loss at Colorado and Utah last week. Similarly, Arizona should be a motivated team, looking to put the UCLA loss behind them by winning and staying in the race for a regular season conference title.
To win, Arizona’s needs to push the basketball and score in transition, using defense and defensive rebounding to trigger the fast break. If the Wildcats cannot run against Cal, they need to show greater mental toughness than they have in recent losses to ASU and UCLA, by embracing physical play, scoring through contact, and remaining patient by probing the Bears defense and seeking out easier scoring chances.
A key will be the play of Arizona’s supporting cast of guards.
Miller hinted that there could be a roster shakeup, meaning Dylan Smith may not start. Whether Smith of Jemarl Baker gets the start, both need to play well and contribute on both ends of the floor. Smith has been in a severe shooting slump, primarily because the senior guard has been settling for outside shots. In Arizona road trip to the Washington schools, Smith experienced success in using the dribble drive to get closer looks at the basket. Expect to see Smith more on the attack against a sound Cal defense that closes out well on perimeter shooters.
Similarly, Baker and reserve guard Max Hazzard need to get more involved on the offensive end. Baker did hit three 3-Pointers against UCLA in the first half, but went scoreless after intermission. Hazzard did not score against the Bruins.
If Arizona can get contributions from its role players, the production numbers for freshmen Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green should return to or exceed season averages.
The Wildcats (16-7, 6-4 Pac-12) are nearly double-digit favorites against Cal, but the odds makers have been wrong before. Arizona needs to play smart and be more efficient, offensively and defensively, to get the job done on the road. More importantly, they need to be tough. Mentally and physically tough.
The Bears are averaging just 62.7 points per game on 42.7 percent shooting. A low scoring affair, on paper, will undoubtedly favor Cal. However, Arizona, after last week’s performances against USC and UCLA, might be in a better position to manage a grind-it-out style of basketball than they were a week ago. In fact, Miller, being the head coach that he is, might actually favor a possession-by-possession game on Thursday to not only drive the home the points he and the staff have been making to the team this week, but better prepare his Wildcats for postseason play where extended tournament runs require the ability to win those games played at the opponent’s preferred pace.
Cal will strike if the iron is hot, but otherwise will walk the basketball up the court, set an abundance of on- and off-ball screens, and carry offensive possessions deep into the shot clock. If Arizona is consistently taking the basketball out of the net, it could make for a long night. However, if the Wildcats are moving their feet on defense, harassing ball handlers, chasing shooters off their spot, getting deflections, producing steals (the Wildcats are averaging 6.7 steals per game), and closing out defensive possessions with rebounds or Cal turnovers, it could be the Bears suffering through a long night of basketball.
Tip time is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. MST. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.