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Arizona vs. Gonzaga: Three things to watch as the Wildcats take on the Bulldogs at STAPLES Center

Gonzaga is the best team Arizona has faced this season. Arizona is as short-handed as it’s been all year. So how can the Wildcats pull out a victory?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi Valley State at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the short-handed Arizona Wildcats face off against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.

With a very short bench, how can the Wildcats pull off a win over the Zags? Let’s take a look at three things to watch for in this match-up:

Can the Wildcats keep Gonzaga off the line?

Gonzaga is good at almost everything offensively. They’re a great 3-point shooting team, averaging 38.7 percent from deep; they crash the offensive boards, grabbing 35.5 percent of their misses; and they rank 12th in all of college basketball in offensive efficiency. The Zags’ offense is solid.

Their Achilles heel, though, may be getting to the line. The only area of Gonzaga’s offense that is below average is its ability to generate free throws, as they are 238th in all of college basketball in FTA/FGA (essentially the rate at which the Zags are able to generate foul shots compared to their field goal attempts). Arizona is good at keeping opposing teams off the line, too, ranking 10th in college basketball in opponents’ FTA/FGA.

Winning the free throw battle, then, is crucial for the Wildcats. With only seven scholarship players, Arizona can’t afford to get into foul trouble and giving the Zags free points, particularly when Gonzaga is typically bad at getting to the line in the first place. It’ll be a lot easier for the Wildcats to pull off the win if they can keep Gonzaga off the foul stripe.

Why are the Zags only 3.5 point favorites?

As a general rule, Vegas knows everything. When a spread is lower or higher than I expect, I assume that there is some injury, weakness, or other factor that I’m not accounting for. Brent Musburger’s friends in the desert know better.

This match-up between the Wildcats and the Zags is one of those games. I would expect the Zags to be significant favorites in this game, but the line is only 3.5.

That doesn’t make much sense to me. The Wildcats are probably down to seven scholarship players. They have to play a talented Gonzaga team that features two very good Pac-12 transfers in Jordan Mathews and Nigel Williams-Goss. And, to top it all off, the Zags are one of he few teams in all of Division I that have the size to compete with Arizona, thanks to 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins.

So why is Gonzaga only favored by 3.5? What am I missing? Is Allonzo Trier going to return? Do the Zags lack chemistry given their heavy reliance on transfers? Or are the Wildcats just more talented? I don’t know the answer. I assume, though, that Vegas is right and this game will be closer than I would otherwise expect.

Who is Arizona’s eighth man?

After Parker Jackson-Cartwright was injured against the Texas Southern Tigers on Wednesday, the Wildcats were left with seven scholarship players. When Sean Miller was asked who the eighth man was, he didn’t have an answer. This question gets a lot easier if Allonzo Trier returns, but at this moment, Arizona’s walk-ons are going to have to see the floor. Is Tyler Trillo the guy who will see additional playing time? Paulo Cruz? Someone else? Sean Miller needs to answer that question Saturday afternoon.

Arizona is a clear underdog in this game, but if the Wildcats can win the free throw battle and get some unexpected contributions from their walk-ons, they have the potential to pull off the upset.