Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE
The Texas Tech Red Raiders under interim coach Chris Walker host the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday.
Time: 6 p.m. MST
Strong schedule, weak schedule or whatever your opinion might be, fact is the Arizona Wildcats haven't yet hit the road this year. Against the Texas Tech Red Raiders Saturday night in Lubbock, the Wildcats will get their first taste of a hostile environment.
Hostile is just what the Red Raiders themselves experienced last year. Head coach Billy Gillespie left in a John Mackovic-like situation, but interim head coach Chris Walker has Tech refocused despite the Big 12 preseason poll expecting them to finish second-to-last in the conference.
The Red Raiders lead the NCAA at 88.8 points per game -- Arizona is tied for seventh with 85.3 itself -- thanks to a fast-paced, frenetic scheme.
While both Arizona and Texas Tech find themselves with those statistics and a 4-0 record because of very weak strengths of schedules, those numbers still hold some weight. The closest game of Tech's opponents of Prairie View, Nebraska Omaha, Grambling State and Jackson State was a nine-point victory for the Red Raiders.
Point being, Walker has talent on his roster. Jaye Crockett, who comes off the bench, is a 6-foot-7 forward who leads the team with 16 points and nine rebounds, and the Red Raiders are 20th in the nation in rebounds per game.
6-foot-11, 240 pound center Dejan Kravic will test Arizona's young big men once again and averages 13.5 points and six boards a game while shooting 60 percent from the floor. And that comes in just 23 minutes per game. Kravic gets help on the front line from sophomore Jordan Tolbert, a 6-foot-7, 225 pound forward who averages 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds an outing.
Walker's team runs out a rotation that, like Sean Miller's, is deep. Six players average more than 20 minutes per game and three more get at least 10 minutes of time. While Texas Tech's size will challenge the Wildcats, it's the pressing defense that has led to the Red Raiders averaging 13 steals per game that could be a problem.
Arizona has yet to face a team that employs such a pressing, trapping defense.
"They play with a lot of energy," Miller said. "Last year they were one of the youngest teams in college basketball, and they've really grown. You can tell in terms of quickness and athleticism. They like to press so taking care of the ball on the road is going to be a great challenge for some of our young players."
Even last week against NAU, short periods of the Lumberjacks' full-court trapping posed issues for the Wildcats, resulting in a couple turnovers in a row.
Likewise, over-dribbling from Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson will result in turnovers. So with Tech's athleticism on the perimeter and the size in the middle, the challenge will be for the Wildcats to play pass-first basketball.
If Miller's team can break the traps with crisp passing from the inbound on, get the ball up the court quickly and force the Red Raiders into rotations, they'll have opportunities. And when they get those opportunities, Arizona will need to hit its jump shots as it has recently been doing.
Arizona's big men could have unimpressive stat lines come the end of the game -- that is, unless Texas Tech's defense is so much in rotation that they're getting dunks and layups thanks to slow rotations. So the Wildcats' veterans must be able to knock down their three-pointers and mid-range shots.
And if it's any reason to believe they can do just that, the Wildcats are currently the most-prolific assist team in the NCAA.
Yes, pace has something to do with that, but against the Red Raiders, that pace will probably be just as hectic.