Arizona (7-3) is looking to bounce back from last Sunday’s road loss to Alabama. The Bears (5-3) are coming off a Dec. 1 loss to Wichita State.
Here are some things to watch in the contest:
One last chance
This is Arizona’s last non-conference game against a decent opponent, so it is a big opportunity for the Wildcats, who project as a bubble team, to strengthen their résumé.
And there might not be many more after this.
The Pac-12 is in dire condition this season, with only one squad currently ranked in the Top 25. What that means is Arizona will have a hard time picking up quality wins once conference play begins, yet several opportunities to damage their résumé with bad losses.
Beating Baylor wouldn’t even be that impressive since the Bears don’t figure to be a tournament team this year, but any victory over a major-conference team would help the Wildcats right now.
And if Baylor ends up struggling in the Big 12 — KenPom projects they will finish last — a loss to them at home would be a major blemish on UA’s résumé.
Sean Miller talked a lot this week about how poor transition defense and rebounding doomed Arizona against Alabama and how the Wildcats are going to use the extended week of practice to sharpen up.
Well, like Alabama, Baylor is a solid offensive rebounding team (39th in the country) and likes to push the ball in transition, so Saturday will show us just how much the Wildcats have learned.
Miller also said those problems were compounded by the fact the Wildcats settled for too many jumpers and need to do a better job driving to the lane.
While, yes, Arizona needs to drive more, that will be much easier said than done against a Baylor team that ranks second in the entire country in shot-blocking percentage.
Baylor’s Tristan Clark is averaging three blocks per game himself, so if Arizona is getting into the paint in this game, it has to go to the rim with conviction. Any soft stuff will be promptly sent into the third row.
As we outlined this week, Arizona usually goes as its bench goes. The second unit is averaging 23.3 points per game in wins, but just 6.3 points in losses.
So will Ryan Luther be aggressive Saturday? Will Dylan Smith hit some shots? Will Ira Lee stay out of foul trouble and stop turning the ball over? Will Alex Barcello or Devonaire Doutrive see extended minutes?
As our Brian Pedersen dove into this week, Arizona has been getting brutalized after the first media timeout in the first half recently:
Arizona was outscored 24-4 by Alabama between the first media timeout at the 15:35 mark of the first half and the third with 7:41 left before halftime. Against Utah Valley, the Wildcats led 15-9 at the first media break (15:25) but when play was stopped for commercials with 7:24 to go the Wolverines were up 27-22.
For those scoring at home, that’s a 42-11 edge for Arizona’s opponents.
Arizona’s starters have played well, but what we uncovered is that they do not play together a lot, and that the Wildcats get blasted anytime they have two or more reserves on the court.
Look for that to be addressed against Baylor.
“We tend to sub like a wholesale sub at that time, two, three guys,” Miller said. “Sometimes not doing that at that point could be part of the solution and we’re working at that for sure. That starting group in the first four-minute segments of both halves have been good. I would even say in throughout the year it’s that 16- to 12-minute mark that we got our eye on.”
Game of Zones
Remember when the words “zone defense” used to strike fear into the hearts of Arizona fans?
The Wildcats have not faced a ton of it this year — likely because of how many 3s they shoot and because they simply do not have players that are too much for man-to-man defenses to handle — but they expect to see some of it Saturday.
“They have a way of blending both zone defense and man,” Miller said.
Gonzaga switched to zone for parts of the second half in its win over Arizona, and it proved effective. The Bears’ are capable of doing the same.
“They have great length in their zone,” Miller said. “They’re not there one of those zones that you can see over them. They’ve historically done a good job with their zone.”
A long wait
The Wildcats had an 11 a.m. tip-off the last two weekends, but this time they are moving to a different extreme, with their game against Baylor set to begin at 9 p.m. MT. That is 10 p.m. back in Waco, Texas, where the Bears will be traveling from.
Does that matter?
“I don’t think it means a whole lot to our players,” Miller said. “I feel bad for our fans because it makes for a late night. But it’s home game, it is a Saturday night. it’s not a weekday, and hopefully we’re going to have our best crowd of our early season.”
That is just one of the weird factors in this game. The other is that Baylor has not played a game for two whole weeks. Does that mean the Bears will be rusty or extremely sharp come Saturday?
“I‘m sure they’re healthy and really putting things together,” Miller answered.
A potential brick-fest
Arizona shoots 33.5 percent from 3. Baylor shoots 30.1. Enough said.
If you are going to watch this game from home, you are in luck because Bill Walton will be on the call with Roxy Bernstein on ESPN2.