This is final leg of a home-and-home series between the two schools. Arizona (7-2) edged Alabama (5-3) in Tucson last season.
The Wildcats are 10-1 in their last 11 road non-conference games, and here are some things to watch for in Sunday’s game.
To quote the late Yogi Berra, this is déjà vu all over again. For the second straight weekend, the Wildcats will practice Saturday in Tucson, then board a cross-country flight to take on a major-conference opponent at 11 a.m. MST on Sunday.
“We do the same thing no matter where we play the game, whether we play a conference game in January or February that’s on the road or a non conference game,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “Everything is identical from how we practice, to what we do in the hotel, the time we leave for the game.”
Arizona hopes this road trip produces the same result as the last one. The Wildcats handled their first road test nicely at UConn last weekend, leading nearly the entire game and escaping with a 76-72 win in Hartford.
It was hard to not be impressed.
“That was our first road game of the year and you really don’t know as a coach and as a team how that’s going to go, especially when that first road game is about as far away from Tucson as we can make it in and playing in front of a very hostile, eager crowd against a very good team and a tremendous program in UConn,” Miller said.
“So it had all the makings of a tough game for us, especially considering the time of the game. It’s really mid-morning for our guys. But we prepared, we had a real focus about us leading up to the game, and I think if you’re going to go and take on that type of challenge, you really have to have the wherewithal from everybody who makes the trip that you go in there to be at your best and you’re going to compete to win.
“I really, really just liked the way that it felt. Even If we would have lost the game, our intent was really good. Our preparation was very good and we had a lot of great moments in the game that I think gives us a lot of optimism that we can play some very good basketball this year.”
There were some dicey moments in that game — like Arizona not making a field goal in the final six minutes — but the Wildcats kept their composure and iced the game at the free throw line by going 12 for 13 in the final two minutes.
Underclassmen Brandon Randolph and Brandon Williams sank a bulk of them in front of UConn’s student section.
“We didn’t play well, we didn’t shoot the ball well and the fact a lot of guys stepped up .... we persevered in that game and came out (on top) in the end,” said senior Justin Coleman.
Sunday will be a homecoming for Coleman and Dylan Smith, as both hail from Alabama.
Smith grew up in Mobile; Coleman is from Birmingham. Both are expected to have plenty of friends and family in the stands.
“Whether I play good or bad, as long as they’re there, I’m fine,” Smith said.
Coleman has played in Coleman Coliseum many, many times before. (No, it is not named after him, though that would be pretty cool.) The senior spent his first two collegiate seasons with the Crimson Tide, appearing in 67 games (16 starts) before transferring to Samford to be closer to home after his younger brother was diagnosed with cancer.
“I feel like I’ve been away from home for a while, so I’m excited to see my mom, my little brother, my grandparents and some of my closest friends,” Coleman said.
Coleman is also looking forward to suiting up against some his old teammates, including Donta Hall, Dazon Ingram, and John Petty, who make up a big part of Alabama’s rotation.
“I don’t feel like it will be weird,” Coleman said. “I have played against them plenty of times growing up, in open gyms, or rec league or whatever the case may be. But just the opportunity to play with teammates against some of my old teammates will be a blessing.”
Meanwhile, Smith hopes his return to Alabama inspires kids in his home state to dream big. Outlined in the feature I wrote about him Friday, Smith never thought he would play college basketball, let alone at a prestigious program out west like Arizona.
But if he can do it, so can they.
“Us two being a part of that, it’s going to be good for kids back home,” the Arizona guard said. “Alabama is a big football state, but you don’t have to play football. You can play basketball. There’s other sports. Whatever dream you have, you can follow it. That’s just being a role model for the kids in both of our cities back home.
“And if you tell some kids back home that they’ll play basketball at Arizona, they’ll laugh at you. So just showing them that they can do it and everybody can, it’s big for me.”
Turn the tide
The Crimson Tide are great at controlling the glass, logging a +7.4 rebounding margin, which ranks 33rd in the country. They have outrebounded their opponent in every game this season.
They do it on both ends, too. Alabama is 29th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and 31st in offensive rebounding percentage.
Arizona has not been particularly good at either one, and rebounding can often be the great equalizer in basketball, so the Wildcats will have to use all their might to tip the scales in their favor.
As always, Chase Jeter staying out of foul trouble will crucial since he is far and away Arizona’s top rebounder.
Who will make some 3s?
3-point shooting is often another great equalizer (turnovers being the other) and this game could be a war of attrition in that regard.
Arizona shoots 33 percent from 3, ranking 202nd in the country. If you think that is a bad mark, consider that Alabama is shooting 31.7 percent from behind the arc.
If one of these teams can have an uncharacteristically hot shooting night, it’s hard to imagine them coming out on the losing end.
The Wildcats are entering with the hot hand, seeing that they just shot 55 percent from 3 in their last game against Utah Valley, and Alabama is 20 for 70 (28.6%) in its last three games.
Will Brandon Randolph provide an encore after he sank four threes in less than four minutes last game?
Young, but good
Alabama point guard Kira Lewis Jr. is the second-youngest player in college basketball, but he sure doesn’t play like it.
The freshman, who reclassified so he could begin college a year early, is Alabama’s leading scorer at 14.9 PPG with an impressive .488/.368/.885 shooting line. Lewis is averaging 19.3 points the last four games, as he seems to be getting more and more comfortable at the collegiate level.
At 6-foot-3, he could be a difficult matchup for Coleman, who is listed at 5-foot-10. Arizona’s best bet might be to be physical with the 167-pound Alabama point guard.