Arizona is coming off a tough and, frankly, embarrassing home loss to the Baylor Bears, in which they were outrebounded 51-19.
It snapped the Wildcats’ 52-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents, but they will have a chance to start a new one against the reigning Big Sky champions.
Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. MT on the Pac-12 Networks, and here are some things to watch for.
Rebounding from the loss
Arizona is hoping it can rebound from Saturday’s loss to Baylor — quite literally. The Wildcats posted their worst defensive rebounding percentage in over a decade when they allowed the Bears to corral 19 offensive boards.
Sean Miller said on his weekly radio show that it might have been Arizona’s “final wake-up call.” Already armed with four losses and a weak Pac-12 schedule ahead of them, he is probably right. This team cannot afford any more bad losses.
But how it responds remains to be seen. The good news is Montana is not a dangerous rebounding team. The Grizzlies rank 145th in offensive rebounding percentage and a dismal 340th in defensive rebounding percentage.
The bad news is if the Grizzlies do wind up controlling the glass, that will be a serious red flag for the Wildcats, as if the loss to Baylor wasn’t already bad enough.
Don’t take these grizzled (get it!?) veterans lightly
The Grizzlies might not rebound well, but they were picked to repeat as Big Sky champions for a reason. They are ranked 115th in the nation by KenPom — better than Utah, Washington State and Cal.
Montana returned six of its seven rotation players from last year’s team. That group was responsible for the majority of Montana’s production, including more than 86 percent of its scoring. Only 20 teams in college basketball returned more production.
Guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine were picked to the preseason all-conference team. Both are averaging roughly 14 points per game.
But Jamar Akoh is actually Montana’s leading scorer, averaging 15.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward has only played in three games this season, as he recently returned from an injury.
The senior is one reason why the Grizzlies rank 16th in the country in 2-point field goal percentage. He is shooting 65.4 percent from the field.
Montana also shoots a respectable 36.8 percent from 3, giving it a nice balance offensively. Montana’s 49.0 field-goal percentage ranks 25th nationally.
The Grizzlies also rank near the top of the country in another important category: experience. Nearly their entire rotation consists of juniors and seniors.
“Looking at their personnel, not only they have talented group but they’re fourth-year players, several fifth-year players, many transfers, I think they have three transfers who started their career in the Pac-12,” Miller said.
“They have an all-conference backcourt that returns intact and both of those guys are athletic and can score, do a lot of things. They’re a team that has confidence and I’m sure they look at this as a great opportunity to come to McKale Center and play us and get a road win.”
Those three Pac-12 transfers Miller is referring to are Rorie (Oregon), guard Kendal Manuel (Oregon State), and wing Donaven Dorsey (Washington).
Manuel, one of Montana’s best 3-point shooters, is averaging 8.1 points per game off the bench. Dorsey has made two starts this year, averaging 5.3 points per contest.
The Grizzlies are a little turnover-prone and Arizona has done a pretty good job forcing and limiting turnovers this season, so winning that battle seems like a key to this game.
Grinding it out
The Grizzlies play at one of the slowest paces in the country, ranking 317th in average possession length. But, given their offensive efficiency, they clearly know how to operate in the half court.
Arizona? Well, we saw against Baylor that UA looked lost against zone defense. And while the Grizzlies generally play more man than zone, you can probably expect them to use zone against the Wildcats once they review tape of Saturday’s game.
And if this becomes a grind-it-out game, it could get dicey for Arizona.
Will somebody make a shot?
As we have outlined several times in the last couple weeks, Arizona is shooting more 3s than ever this season but making them at a lower rate than ever — a bad combination.
Maybe the Wildcats will start to turn things around this game.
Opponents are shooting 38.2 percent from 3 against Montana this season. That ranks 315th in the nation from a defensive standpoint.
Brandon Williams is the guy Arizona needs to get going. The freshman is second on the team in 3-point attempts (57) but has only made a paltry 16 of them, a 28.1 percent clip.
Williams had his best shooting game against Alabama by going 4 for 7 from distance, but then regressed to a 1-for-7 mark against Baylor.
Either he needs to start making more 3s or he needs to shift his focus toward getting into the lane. Which brings me to my next point...
Season of giving
Arizona has only taken 15 free throws in the last two games combined. For a team that shoots so poorly from the perimeter, that is a problem. A big problem.
Arizona only made six trips to the charity stripe against Baylor, despite being in the bonus for almost the entire first half. That pretty much sums up how much they struggled against the zone.
“We had our moments where we’ve moved the ball well, took some good shots and missed them. We had a few bad shots go up, especially in the first half. And there are times when I almost think our defense and lack of rebounding led to the offensive end,” Miller said.
“But being able to get to the foul line and doing it in different ways this year — perimeter players driving, us trying to get better get the ball inside to Chase (Jeter) — are things that will keep (our free throw rate) around 20 (per game). And I think that if you look at our team, if we average about 20 free throw attempts per game, and we convert them, that’s a really good thing for us.”
The Grizzlies have had trouble defending without fouling, ranking 336th in the nation in opponent free throw rate, so there is no excuse for the Wildcats to not get to the line in this game.