Arizona can with the Pac-12 regular season championship outright with a win or a USC Trojans loss to UCLA. The Wildcats clinched at least a share of the title in their Thursday night win over Stanford.
Even though Arizona’s win streak only stands at one, they certainly feel like a team that’s on a roll.
They have won four of five and their one loss in that time came without Sean Miller on the sideline and Allonzo Trier on the floor.
In a six-hour whirlwind on Thursday afternoon, Allonzo Trier was cleared for competition after missing two games and Sean Miller pleaded innocence, challenging ESPN’s report and turning Arizona basketball into the antihero of college basketball.
Things seemed bleak after the loss to Oregon last Saturday. Now, once again, everything has been completely flipped on its head.
On Saturday, Arizona will look to be the lone Pac-12 regular season champ for the fourth time in Miller’s tenure (they shared last year’s title with Oregon) and they could be playing the perfect opponent to get the job done.
Cal has clinched dead-last in the conference with only two wins, they’ve lost six straight and their last two road games ended with the Golden Bears losing by at least 31 points both times, including Thursday night’s loss to Arizona State.
The Wildcats will be a heavy favorite when the teams meet in McKale on Saturday afternoon. Let’s take a look at three keys that will ensure an Arizona win:
This is really the one area that can put Arizona in trouble against Cal. The Wildcats have been a mess the last two games, turning the ball over 32 times in those games. It was a major part of the loss to Oregon and the main reason Stanford hung around as long as they did on Thursday.
The Golden Bears don’t have much going for them but their strong suit has been getting opponents to turn the ball over in conference play. Cal has the second most steals in the conference, averaging 7.1 per game and their opponents have averaged 14 giveaways per contest.
This is not an opponent that the Wildcats should struggle with but if they lose the turnover battle for the third straight game, it could be interesting. If Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier manage the game and keep the giveaways in check, Arizona will cruise.
The defensive glass
Cal does not shoot the ball well and that’s putting it mildly. They rank last in field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage in the Pac-12.
The Golden Bears do lead the conference in offensive rebounding but, to be fair, nobody in the Pac-12 has had near as many opportunities on the offensive glass. Cal misses so many shots, their guys are bound to pull them down every once in a while. Still, their second chances have often kept them in games even if they haven’t ended up winning many.
If Deandre Ayton, Dusan Ristic and Rawle Alkins can control the defensive glass, California will struggle to score in a big way. If the Bears are limited on the boards, they may not reach their scoring average in league play which only sits at 62.7 points per game.
Utilize the bench
While this isn’t necessarily a key to winning this specific game, it’s a key to winning more games in the next couple of weeks.
This will be the final home game for Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright and it’s likely to be the last for Ayton, Trier and Alkins as well. It’s important for those guys to get their minutes, of course, but this one could very well end up a blowout.
If it is, it’s crucial to get Dylan Smith and Brandon Randolph in a rhythm heading into the postseason. Emmanuel Akot and Keanu Pinder looked ready for March in the win over Stanford but they should certainly get some run in this one. And if Ira Lee is cleared to play after dealing with concussion symptoms the last three games, he can get some time on the floor before being thrust into the Pac-12 Tournament.
With a starting five that rivals just about any other in the country, the Wildcats finding their depth at the 11th hour can set them up as a serious contender.