Arizona Wildcats look for toughness at Cal

Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Gimino

The tougher team wins.

Arizona has not been that tougher team. This season. Last season. In at least a few seasons.

The Wildcats, who appeared to be on the start of a roll -- a road sweep at the Washington schools, followed by a home win against USC -- were stopped dead in their tracks with an historically bad 65-52 loss to UCLA on Saturday night.

Frustrated by a slow pace and a Bruins team buying into the physical brand of basketball first-year coach Mick Cronin imported from Cincinnati -- ahem, the kind of ball Sean Miller played at Arizona after coming from Xavier -- the Cats shot 25.4 percent, their lowest ever at McKale Center.

"When you play against a team like UCLA, they play hard," Miller said after that game. "I thought they were the tougher, stronger, harder-playing team -- on drives, around the rim."

Miller summed it up:

"It's a man's game."

Now, comes another challenge -- at Cal on Thursday night. If Miller didn't like how his team fared against the grind-it-out Bruins, he might not like what he sees at Haas Pavilion. The Bears play with the slowest tempo in the Pac-12 and rank 325th out of 353 teams nationally, according to kenpom.com

Arizona, with its freshman greyhounds, has wanted to push the pace more this season, but the Wildcats have been susceptible to teams that either slow it down (Oregon State, UCLA) and/or are pesky defensively (Baylor, St. John's, Arizona State).

Toughness is needed.

Or, as a smart coach once said, "Nastiness is required."

This collection of Cats has eight more regular-season games to show it has nastiness in its DNA.

"When you've got a new group, and especially when your youngest players are your most talented guys on your team, it's almost like the other team is not cooperating if they're not running with you," Miller said at his Tuesday press conference.

"You cannot speed up a good team that is going to rebound, play solid defense, take care of the ball and walk the ball up."

Other thoughts:

--Arizona is only 7-7 in its past 14 games and was bounced out of the Top 25 again this week. The Wildcats just don't have the margin of error I thought they had at the beginning of the season, but don't take my word for it:

"When our team plays well we can beat anybody," Miller said. "When our team is mediocre, or we're not locked in, we're very vulnerable and I think the next eight games will be the same for us."

--Under first-year coach Mark Fox, Cal is a much tougher out than expected after being picked last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. The Bears are 4-1 at home in league play -- losing only to Oregon -- and sophomore guard Matt Bradley is averaging 21.0 points in those games. He's an All-Pac-12 talent, but the Bears don't have other reliable offense. In a 60-45 loss at Utah on Saturday, Cal had more turnovers (17) than made field goals (16).

--Arizona has swept the Bay Area road trip in each of the past three seasons, last losing in Berkeley on Jan. 23, 1016.

--Miller hinted at a lineup change, which can mean only one thing: Cold-shooting Dylan Smith is out. Miller likes Smith's defense and he was contributing with his jump shot before missing his past 17 3-point attempts and going 4-for-27 overall from the field in the past four games. Inserting sophomore Jemarl Baker, who has an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 5-to-1, might be a good change of scenery for both players -- and the team at this point.

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