The Arizona Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) cruised to an easy win on Wednesday night against Cal to open up their Bay Area road trip.
In recent years, playing in Berkeley has been the tough part of the trip so many Arizona fans may be breathing easy. After all, Arizona hasn’t lost in Maples Pavilion to the Stanford Cardinal since 2009, meaning the Wildcats haven’t lost in Palo Alto under Sean Miller. In their last two trips to Palo Alto, Arizona has won by a combined 53 points.
But this year’s version of the Stanford Cardinal (11-8, 5-1) seem a little different from years past, especially in the last few weeks. Winners of five straight, the Cardinal have turned a corner and put a rough non-conference schedule behind them.
Behind the play of Reid Travis (averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds per game), Stanford is out to prove they’re for real.
So what will it take for Arizona to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 on Saturday afternoon?
Here are three keys to a Wildcat win:
Take the crowd out early
When Stanford is having success, they have one of the most raucous crowds in the Pac-12. These Wildcats found out the hard way two weeks ago in Boulder that when they start slow, it can snowball into a deficit very difficult to get out of.
Stanford has been more careful with the ball as of late but they’re guilty of giving up about seven steals per game this season. With Arizona’s length and defensive intensity at its best, the Wildcats need to create turnovers and get out in transition early and often which is one of the reasons Rawle Alkins’ return to the lineup could be so big after he missed Wednesday night’s win against Cal. He leads the team with 1.6 steals per game.
The Cardinal don’t normally have the type of offense that can avalanche opposing defenses and go on massive runs. If Arizona can establish a lead early, they can force Stanford into taking uncharacteristic shots and playing catch-up for 40 minutes. They can’t have repeat their slow start from Wednesday night. That won’t fly against Stanford as the Wildcats don’t want to deal with Maples Pavilion going wild for two hours.
Lean on Pinder
Reid Travis is Stanford’s most prolific scorer as mentioned above and he’s torched many defenses this season. Frankly, Arizona could very well be next. Several big men have taken Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic to the woodshed this season and Travis has the skillset to put on a show on Saturday.
This is why it might be best for Arizona to rely on Keanu Pinder to make a difference for the second week in a row. Pinder is the Wildcats’ most reliable post defender and could cause Travis fits, particularly when he catches the ball on the block and chooses to go face up instead of backing down. Pinder bothers opponents by swiping at the ball constantly and using his large frame to punish the offensive player.
An underrated use of Pinder though is the fact that he can pick up fouls here and there on that end so Ayton and Ristic can get their minutes and their buckets.
Stanford heads to the line a ton, only 12 teams in college basketball draw more fouls. Travis himself shoots nearly eight free throws per contest. Stanford will likely bring the action right at Ayton as he has shown defensive weakness and with the hope that they can get Ayton in foul trouble. Utilizing Pinder for bigger minutes can keep Ayton on the floor during crunch time when his offense is needed most.
Just keep shooting
The Wildcats found some sort of cheat code on Wednesday night, hitting 11-of-19 from 3 to help them crawl out of their slow start and take control of the Golden Bears.
Stanford has done a good job of forcing misses as of late but they haven’t seen an offense like Arizona’s. While they beat Arizona State who do rank higher than the Wildcats in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, with the Devils at number five and Arizona ranked 13th, the Wildcats’ inside-out threat could throw a confident Stanford squad for a loop.
Throwing the ball into Ayton and letting him work will obviously be a key to victory but perhaps more importantly, once his presence is established, taking advantage of opportunities outside can help Arizona to victory. When the defense collapses on Ayton, he’ll need to use his height to pass out of those situations to open shooters.
With Allonzo Trier, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dylan Smith shooting the way they were on Wednesday night along with Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot suddenly earning more minutes, the Wildcats just need a couple guys to get going from deep to pull away from Stanford.