With the Oregon Ducks losing to the UCLA Bruins on Thursday night, the Arizona Wildcats have retaken first place in the Pac-12 as they get set to host the California Golden Bears on Saturday night.
But the ninth-ranked Wildcats (22-3, 11-1 Pac-12) have not been playing like a first-place team lately.
Since knocking off UCLA on Jan. 21, Arizona has strung together five relatively unimpressive performances.
The Wildcats are 4-1 during that stretch, but their loss was by 27 points to the Ducks, and their four wins were against four of the worst teams in the conference in Washington State, Washington, Oregon State, and Stanford.
On Wednesday, Arizona squeaked past Stanford, which had the game tied with under two minutes to play.
The Wildcats had problems defending and protecting the paint. Plus, leading scorer Lauri Markkanen had one of the worst games of his career, shooting just 2-of-9 from the field (though he did hit a key 3 down the stretch) and grabbing three rebounds.
“We have big guys that aren’t blocking out,” Miller said after Stanford earned 17 second-chance points, “and it’s not about your offense. It’s about you have to hit your man in the chest. You gotta turn. You gotta keep people off the glass. And the same thing with guards. Guards have a responsibility to rebound and when you let teams get 17 second-chance points, it really puts a lot of pressure on your ability to win.”
Part of Arizona’s struggles in that department can be attributed to its perimeter players continually getting beaten off the dribble.
“I just know that it’s one guy after another that’s being beaten off the dribble and we have to solve it,” Miller said. “You can only help so much. The more you try to help off the ball, the more it leads to 3-point shots, which happened a couple times. The more it leads to offensive rebounds and that was part of the problem. But it’s the determination, it has to be really important and if you don’t guard the basketball, then you’re not going to play. The guys that are in the game, if they do that better, that’s the group we have to go with for sure.”
Miller warned that if the same problems arise against Cal on Saturday, the Golden Bears will be a team that comes into McKale Center and “smashes [Arizona] all over the floor.”
Miller’s claim isn’t just coach-speak either. The Golden Bears (18-6, 9-3) are one of the hottest teams in the conference, as they have won five in a row, and eight of their last nine.
They are led by sophomore forward Ivan Rabb, who is averaging 15.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game.
Rabb, who chose Cal over Arizona during the recruiting process, has 13 double-doubles this season. He had 16 points and 16 rebounds in Cal’s 67-62 loss to Arizona earlier in the season.
The 6-foot-11 forward is projected to be selected 14th in the 2017 NBA Draft.
“Ivan Rabb is understated somewhat because he came back for his sophomore year, which isn’t right,” Miller said. “He’s having a great year. ... He’s one the best low-post forwards in the country. His rebounding, his scoring, his versatility, the type of kid he is, he’s going to be a really high pick whenever he decides to leave college.”
Cal has two other double-figure scorers in senior guard Jabari Bird (14.2) and freshman point guard Charlie Moore (14.2). Senior guard Grant Mullins is nearly there, too, as he is averaging 9.9 points per game.
All three guards are formidable shooters, as Bird, Moore, and Mullins shoot 34, 40, and 43 percent from 3, respectively — and at a high volume, too.
As a team, though, the Golden Bears shoot 34 percent from 3 and rank as the 154th offense (of 351) in college basketball, scoring an estimated 105.2 points per 100 possessions, per KenPom.
They are also a weak free throw shooting team, as they hit just 64.5 percent of their attempts at the charity stripe.
However, the Golden Bears are dominant on the other side of the floor. Cal ranks as the eighth-best defense in all of college basketball, allowing an estimated 90.8 points per 100 possessions (adjusted for opponents), per KenPom.com.
Part of that can be explained by the Bears’ massive frontcourt of Rabb, Kingsley Okoroh, and Kameron Rooks. All three stand at 6-foot-11 or taller and have a penchant for erasing shots.
Okoroh leads the team in blocks, averaging 2.5 per game (in just 22 minutes), while Rooks and Rabb each average 1.2.
Kameron Rooks, the son of former Wildcat Sean Rooks, did not play in the first matchup between these two teams due a knee injury.
Cal’s size also lends it to be a solid defensive rebounding team, as it rebounds 75.6 percent of its opponents’ misses, the 15th-best mark in college basketball.
The Golden Bears are usually a man-to-man team — and a good one at that — but they mostly played zone in their 68-43 win over ASU on Wednesday, likely foreshadowing their plan to use zone against Arizona.
The Wildcats notoriously have issues scoring against zone defense but, in this case, Cal going to a zone may actually benefit Arizona, seeing how effective the Golden Bears’ man-to-man defense usually is.
In the first matchup between these teams, Arizona trailed by 13 at one point before rallying to win by five. The Wildcats shot 44 percent from the field and just 2-of-11 from 3 in the win.
Arizona did not have Allonzo Trier for that game, though. The sophomore is averaging 15.5 points per game in six games since returning from a suspension. Trier made his first start of the season on Wednesday, pouring in 22 points in the win over Stanford.
Arizona has won two games in a row against Cal and five of the last six matchups between the schools.
The Wildcats have won 19 games in a row in McKale Center, and 68 of their last 69 at home.
How to watch Saturday’s game
Time: 8 p.m. MST
Live stream: WatchESPN
Announcers: Dave Pasch & Bill Walton (!)
How they match up
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