After nearly being upset by Cal State Bakersfield last year, the Arizona Wildcats don’t need any extra motivation heading into Thursday’s rematch.
“Our guys are excited and we don’t have to give them a pep talk because Bakersfield pushed us to the brink a year ago,” head coach Sean Miller said Wednesday at his weekly presser.
Arizona beat CSU Bakersfield 78-66 in McKale Center, but the game was much closer than the final score would indicate.
Fueled by a 17-0 run, CSUB cut Arizona’s lead to just 53-49 with 9:04 left in regulation, before the short-handed Wildcats (down Kadeem Allen and Allonzo Trier) finally pulled away.
“They had an older group, an experienced group and like any team that comes into McKale they made things interesting so we fully expect a battle,” said UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
The Roadrunners were an older team, but they lost several key players from last season’s squad that reached the Final Four of the NIT.
CSU Bakersfield has four new starters this season, losing Jaylin Airington who poured in 31 points against the Wildcats last year.
The personnel has changed, but the Roadrunners’ style of play hasn’t.
“The thing that stands about Bakersfield is they play hard,” Miller said. “That’s what I’m really anxious to see because we have to match their intensity and their will. They, at times, can beat you up, they can outscrap you, they can run faster, play harder, make those effort plays that make you cringe as a coach. And that’s what they hang their hat on. They’re a blue-collar team, they try to outwork you.
“On offense they run their stuff, they’re disciplined. On defense, they try to take the game to you. They have a lot of team quickness, so we’re going to have to adjust to that and take care of the ball and use our advantages, and match what they bring to the table because a year ago we had a lead and they kept chipping away at it and put themselves into a position to win a game. Those on our team this year that played in that game watched that game and clearly understand what I mean what I talk about how ferocious they are with their style of play.’”
The Roadrunners were a legitimately good team last year by any standard, finishing 90th in KenPom’s ratings, better than five Pac-12 squads, including ASU.
Most notably, CSUB had the 20th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in college basketball.
It’s early, but the Roadrunners (1-1) appear to have fallen off a bit this season. They were lambasted by Georgia Southern 77-53 last week. CSUB still has a decent defense — 76th in adjusted efficiency — but its offense is ranked 270th.
It might be exactly what Arizona’s struggling defense needs.
Miller said Wednesday that the Wildcats’ defense “has a lot of issues”, namely its effort, concentration, and inability to stop dribble penetration.
No. 3 Arizona (2-0) is allowing 99.3 points per 100 possessions, placing it 188th in college basketball in defensive rating.
CSUB shot 43.1 percent from the field and 9-25 (36%) from 3 against Arizona last year.
“They drove by our team, which has been a problem to this point,” Miller said. “And not just our big guys. All positions. All positions not being able to get into a defensive stance, being able to keep your own man in front of you, do it as a team. Dribble penetration leads to bad things. NAU is a great example. They shot 30 free throws against our defense.”
Thursday’s game is UA’s last until it heads to the Bahamas where it will face stiffer competition in Battle 4 Atlantis.
“My hope is that playing five freshmen, in a brand new season here early in November, that we can make significant progress each week, each day, every game we play,” Miller said Wednesday. “Tomorrow will be a big, big test because we worked on it, we’ve talked about it and then eventually what you come to is you’re no longer going to play because you’re not willing to play defense the way we need to play or you’re going to play less.
“On the contrary, you’re going to play more, you’re going to now start because you’re doing things that we need you to do defensively. Basketball is a two-way sport. You have to play defense and offense and I don’t want to get caught in the world of just trying to outscore people, because I think we all know how that works. You win some, you lose some. We have to good on both ends and I think our commitment to doing that needs to improve."
While its defense has struggled, Arizona hasn’t had any problems scoring this season. The Wildcats posted over 100 points in each of their first two games, playing at their fastest pace since Miller took over the program in 2009-10.
Allonzo Trier became the seventh player in program history to score 30 points or more in each of the first two games of a season.
Meanwhile, star freshman Deandre Ayton has posted two double-doubles, becoming just the second Arizona freshman with double-digit scoring and rebounding games in each of his first two career games.
Arizona is shooting 60 percent from the field, 49 percent from 3, and 83 percent from the free throw line this season.
UA’s point guards — Jackson-Cartwright and Alex Barcello — have 26 assists to just three turnovers.
“I think offensively we’ve done some really good things. Moving the ball, sharing it with each other,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “Obviously defensively we have to take a big leap if we want to continue on and beat good teams in college basketball. I think we will get better on defense. It’s early. we just have to keep listening and learning and doing what coach tells us in practice.”
How to watch Thursday’s game
Time: 8 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Live stream: Pac-12.com/live
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire