It may not have the clout of Arizona-UCLA in terms of west coast pedigree, but Arizona-Gonzaga is quietly becoming one of the better rivalries on the West Coast. Both teams enter the latest contest unbeaten though the Zags enter perhaps a little less challenged to this point than the Wildcats. While many of the same faces from last year's game will be back on the floor Saturday afternoon, Gonzaga in large part appears far more equipped to go toe to toe with Arizona than a season ago when the game was put away relatively early.
Sean Miller lauded the Zags program throughout this week leading up to the game referring to them as perhaps the best program in the west given the past decade. A contrast of styles awaits as Gonzaga enters Saturday with one of the most prolific offenses in college basketball this early in the season while the Wildcats will present the stiffest defensive challenge the Zags have faced to date. While some keys from last year's game are likely still on the table, Arizona will need to be better in a number of areas on Saturday to ensure it remains unbeaten when it walks off the floor.
A few keys stand out in what may dictate the outcome on Saturday:
1) Gonzaga's Offensive Efficiency
It is one thing to be one of the top scoring teams in college basketball yet it is another to do so while also not being one of the fastest paced teams in the country. Gonzaga isn't simply a run and gun team who uses a ton of possessions to score. The Zags are one of the most efficient offenses in all of college basketball who are tied for seventh nationally in points per possession. The Zags rarely waste possessions and are among the best teams nationally in turnover rate. For an Arizona team who prides itself on defense and forcing opponents into tough shots (mainly long two point jumpers), this will be the toughest defensive test yet.
2. Kicking the slow starts
There's not a long list of things in college basketball that seem more certain than Arizona starting slow out of the gate. The Wildcats were notoriously slow starters at times last season and it again has been an issue for the Wildcats through seven games this year. To date it hasn't come back to bite them as the team has always been able to dig itself out of a hole. However against an offense as prolific as the Zags, Arizona likely can't afford another first ten minutes where it sleepwalks through. At some point it is going to come back to bite them and Gonzaga is the best equipped to do that so far of all the early season opponents.
3. Size and shooting
Gonzaga will be able to match most of the Wildcats' front line while also bringing a familiar element to the game seen last year in the Elite Eight vs Wisconsin. Kyle Wiltjer is a 6'10 transfer from Kentucky who can step out to three point range and will challenge the bigs of Arizona to cover the perimeter. Przemek Karnowski is the Zags' big man in the middle who struggled last year vs Arizona on quick traps sent his way. Kaleb Tarczewski who has struggled at times with foul trouble in his career can't afford to pick up early personals or else the Wildcats will be forced to shuffle some lineups and be undersized at a number of key matchups.
Expect a game of runs that will all but certainly be closer than the tournament matchup a season ago. Will the home court edge be enough to keep Arizona undefeated or will a deeper, healthier Zags team get some revenge and hand Arizona its first loss of the season?
3:15 p.m. MST