The Arizona Wildcats (11-4, 2-0) will head to the San Francisco Bay Area for their first Pac-12 road trip this weekend, starting with a Wednesday night showdown against the Stanford Cardinal (7-7, 0-2).
Tip-off in Maples Pavilion is scheduled for 9 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network. Here are some things to watch for:
Staying undefeated in more ways than one
You always hear about how a successful conference season constitutes winning your home games and splitting your road games. Well, this road trip is the exception. Arizona needs to win both because Stanford and Cal are mid-major caliber teams.
Stanford is No. 132 in KenPom’s ratings, similar to previous UA opponents like Georgia Southern (121), Utah Valley (133), and Montana (112). Cal is ranked No. 202, one of the worst teams the Wildcats will face all season.
Starting 4-0 in this Pac-12 would be a tremendous way for the Wildcats to reassert themselves as the team to beat a conference that is lacking quality teams.
Stanford will be a difficult challenger — the Cardinal are 5-0 at Maples this season — but recent history is heavily in UA’s favor. The Wildcats have won 17 straight against Stanford, the last lost coming all the way back in 2008-09.
Sean Miller, who took over prior to the 2009-10 season, has never lost to the Cardinal. Sure, this isn’t Miller’s most talented team at the UA, but this isn’t exactly Stanford’s best, either.
“We’ve had some really great games at Stanford. A couple of the times the ball’s bounced our way.” Miller said. “Winning isn’t always skill. Sometimes it’s good fortune and we’ve been blessed with a lot of good fortune. A couple of those games could have certainly gone either way. But for the most part we’ve taken some really good teams to Stanford as well and this year’s gonna be a really tough battle for us.”
A new alpha dog
Reid Travis is no longer with the Cardinal, opting to spend his final year of eligibility at Kentucky, so Stanford’s new No. 1 option is KZ Okpala, who has taken the freshman-to-sophomore leap.
The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds this season. He has always been a good slasher, but now he is a darn good 3-point shooter too, connecting on 46 percent of his attempts this season.
“I think Okpala as a freshman a year ago was one of our conference’s overall best freshmen,” Miller said. “Such a unique player because he’s a perimeter player, but he’s 6-8. And a year ago, although he could really drive the ball and score, he really didn’t shoot the 3-point shot. To his credit, you can tell he’s put a lot of work in.”
Free throw battle
Another one of Okpala’s strengths is getting to the free throw line. The Orange Country native is averaging 5.6 trips to the stripe and making 74 percent of his foul shots.
“A lot of the times he gets get fouled, he just has a great ability to drive the ball and Stanford does an incredible job of isolating him,” Miller said. “Daejon Davis (does) the same thing.”
Ah, yes. Daejon Davis. The sophomore point guard is Stanford’s second-leading scorer at 11.9 PPG. He averages 3.9 free throw attempts per game. He got injured when Arizona faced Stanford in Palo Alto last season, which limited him to 15 minutes in a 73-71 loss, perhaps a turning point in that game.
“He’s not a small guard,” Miller said. “When he starts coming at the basket, a lot of good things happen for them.”
As you can probably tell, Stanford is not a good offensive team (No. 167 in the nation), but its greatest strength is getting to the free-throw line, ranking 97th in free throw rate.
The problem is they only shoot 67 percent. Still, Arizona has had trouble getting to the line at times this season, and it could be the great equalizer for the Cardinal in this game.
Among the trees
The Cardinal are, on average, the third-tallest team in college basketball, per KenPom. In their game against USC on Sunday, they used five players who were 6-foot-9 or taller.
Stanford has more traditional big men like Josh Sharma and Trevor Stanback, but then also stretch bigs like Oscar Da Silva, Jaiden Delaire and Okpala.
Stanford does not shoot the 3 well (33.6%) but it does take a lot them, partly because it starts Okpala and Da Silva, giving them five guys on the court who are capable of stepping out to the perimeter at anytime.
Interestingly, Stanford is a rather bad rebounding team despite its size, especially on defense where it ranks 271th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. That is good news for a Wildcats team that struggles to rebound itself.
Arizona’s bench has been a weakness this season, but it has been solid in Pac-12 play so far, scoring 18 points against Colorado and 27 against Utah.
Ira Lee has quietly been productive lately, averaging 6.5 PPG in his last four games. He has not turned the ball over in the last three games and has only committed two fouls in that span, both coming against UC Davis.
Ryan Luther scored eight points against Utah, going 2 for 2 from 3. He is 6 for 9 from distance in his last four games.
Dylan Smith is 5 for 8 from 3 in Pac-12 play, averaging 9 PPG while also earning the “defensive stopper” label from Miller.
Devonaire Doutrive had eight points and four rebounds in just 12 minutes against Colorado, though his playing time will fluctuate based on the matchup.
We’ll see if the unit can keep building on its recent hot streak.
Coleman back to normal
Justin Coleman (dislocated shoulder) appears on track to have a full workload in the Bay Area. The senior point guard practiced fully Monday after playing 32 minutes against Utah on Saturday.
“We’ll take it one day at a time,” Miller said when asked if he is optimistic about the point guard’s status for the Bay Area road trip. “He played (against Utah) so ... he got a lot of repetitions, and every day that goes by he gets healthier and I think becomes more of himself, but I credit Justin for giving us all that he had. I mean, you look around the country certain guys sit out different games and they bounce back. The fact he didn’t sit out this weekend is a real testament to his leadership, how tough he is and how much he cares about winning.”
Coleman is searching for his first double-figure scoring outing since Dec. 6 against Utah Valley.
The NBA schedule just so lays out that Lauri Markkanen (Bulls), Rawle Alkins (Bulls) and Allonzo Trier (Knicks) will be in the Bay Area this weekend. The Knicks face the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Tuesday night. The Bulls play the Warriors on Friday.
Miller did not seem to be aware of that, and is unsure if they will pay a visit to their former team.
“I mean, if we could ever do that, that’d be great,” he said. “But sometimes it’s not in the cards based on the time we leave and travel, shootarounds, games, etc.”