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Cal Basketball: A Visit With Arizona Beat Writer Bruce Pascoe on Surprising Wildcats

Third-ranked U of A travels to Cal on Sunday after playing Thursday at Stanford.

Arizona is ranked No. 2 by the NCAA’s NET computer and No. 3 in the AP Top-25. But in the preseason Pac-12 Conference media poll, the Wildcats wound up no better than a tie for fourth.

Cal is back in action on Sunday afternoon at Haas Pavilion against what appears to be the best team in the conference, certainly the biggest surprise.

Arizona is 14-1, 4-0 in the Pac-12 heading into its game Thursday night at Stanford. Cal (9-9, 2-5) will try to halt a four-game losing streak against the Cats.

To get a better understanding of the team visiting Berkeley on Sunday, we talked with Bruce Pascoe, who has covered Arizona hoops back to the Lute Olson era for the Arizona Daily Star.

Even Pascoe admits the Wildcats are better than he expected.

“I picked ‘em sixth,” he said of his vote in the preseason media poll. “There were questions about point guard, questions about their depth up front and there were questions about Tommy Lloyd, who had a great reputation, but you never know how that jump’s going to be from assistant coach to head coach.

“I thought there was the potential to have this kind of ceiling, but I didn’t see it happening right away.”

Lloyd, who was Mark Few’s top aide at Gonzaga, has the Wildcats and their fans believing they can win the Pac-12 and go deep into the NCAA tournament.

Pascoe talks in the video below about star sophomore wing Bennedict Mathurin, the improvement made by virtually every key player and whether or not this team can become the first at Arizona top reach the Final Four since 2001.

Pascoe isn’t convinced the Wildcats will reach the final weekend of the season, but he isn’t ruling it out, either.

“Everything kind of has to go right, but certainly they have the talent and the style and, frankly I think, the mentality, Tommy Lloyd kind of brought a loose but confident mentality that has worked for these guys,” he said.

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The progress made by the team’s top four players is impressive:

Mathurin has bumped his production from 10.8 points to 18.0 and looks like the Pac-12 Player of the Year right now

Power forward Azuolas Tubelis, a 6-11 sophomore, has gone from 12.2 points to 15.9

Center Christian Koloko, a 7-1 sophomore, has soared from 5.3 points per game to 13.3 (and has 50 blocked shots)

Point guard Kerr Kriisa, a second-year freshman, has more than doubled his output, from 5.5 points and 2.4 assists to 11.7 and 5.4

Backup center Oumar Ballo, a 7-foot, 260-pounder from Mali who spent his first two years at Gonzaga, followed Lloyd from Spokane to Tucson, and is beginning to make an impact.

Pascoe talks about how Lloyd took just one recruit during the early signing period — four-star 7-footer Dylan Anderson of Gilbert, Ariz. — because he’s waiting to see who stays or leaves, and because he can find talent on the international market or through the transfer portal.

Arizona and Gonzaga originally were scheduled to play in December, but that game was scratched by mutual agreement.

Even so, if both work their way through the NCAA bracket, maybe they collide in the Final Four.

“That would be crazy,” Pascoe said.

Cover photo of Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd by Ron Johnson, USA Today

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo