Both teams enter at 10-1, though the Wildcats open as slight favorites, likely thanks to what is expected to be a raucous atmosphere in McKale Center.
Here are some things to watch for.
The rebounding battle
Arizona coach Sean Miller made it clear that rebounding will decide this game.
Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country at controlling the glass. Arizona is not. The Wildcats are 113th and 155th in the country in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, respectively.
“Our Achilles heel is rebounding,” Miller said plainly.
And if Arizona gives Gonzaga loads of second shots, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which they can generate enough stops to keep pace with a Zags offense that ranks No. 6 in the country.
“When you play a team like Gonzaga, who’s very good at getting second shots, they can really win the game and break your back when they can get those big second shots,” Miller said.
“Because when you get a second shot, it’s going to either be a high percentage 3 or 2. A lot of times you’re going to get fouled. And then the team who gets the most good shots wins. That’s a big advantage. So how many second shots teams get against us, I hope we can point towards less and less and less, but there’s no bigger key for our team on Saturday than to keep those guys off the offensive glass. I don’t think they get enough credit in that area.”
Undersized for once
Possibly compounding on Arizona’s rebounding woes is that Gonzaga is the fourth-tallest team in the country and the biggest the Wildcats have faced this season.
Gonzaga’s Filip Petrusev is 6-foot-11 and Killian Tillie is 6-foot-10. The Bulldogs third big, Drew Timme, is 6-foot-10. Petrusev is averaging more than three offensive rebounds per game. Timme isn’t that far behind at 2.3, despite only playing 22.5 minutes per game.
“They can beat you up and they have two bigs in the game, they have wings who run in from the 3-point line and everybody on our team has to know that for us to have a chance, regardless of where we’re playing this game, we have to rebound the ball,” Miller said,
With Stone Gettings likely out for another game due to a concussion, Christian Koloko and Ira Lee should continue to get more playing time for the Wildcats, which could actually be a really good thing in this game since they are arguably the team’s top rebounders.
Regardless, the Wildcats will need all hands on deck if they are going to outrebound Gonzaga.
“Everybody who plays basketball can block out,” Miller said. “Our guards have to rebound better, but so do our bigs. Our starters as a group have to do a better job, so does our bench. It doesn’t fall blame on anybody. It’s the weakness of our team.”
Will Gonzaga make its free throws?
One of the Wildcats’ biggest problems on defense is that they foul a lot. Arizona’s defense ranks 244th in the country in free throws attempt per field goal attempt and is conceding roughly 20 foul shots per game.
Whether or not Gonzaga, the best offensive team Arizona has played, will be able to capitalize remains to be seen. The Bulldogs are a terrible free throw shooting team, converting just 66 percent of their foul shots this season.
Arizona, at 73.8 percent, isn’t that much better, but if this is a close game, Gonzaga’s free-throw shooting woes could loom large.
The Jemarl Baker game?
When I was leaving the women’s basketball game late Thursday night, Jemarl Baker Jr. was getting shots up in McKale Center with Justin Coleman.
In a game between two pretty evenly matched teams, it could be a role player who turns the tide one way or another. Perhaps Baker, who’s clearly locked in, will be that guy who comes off the bench and sinks some big shots.
Arizona has a huge game Saturday vs. No. 6 Gonzaga, so naturally Jemarl Baker is spending his Thursday night in the gym, getting shots up. pic.twitter.com/zOxPMSbgd8— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) December 13, 2019
Or maybe it will be Max Hazzard, who has plenty of big-game experience but has been slumping lately. In his last five games, Hazzard has scored 15 points and missed nine of his 11 3-point attempts.
This game is important for many reasons. Come March, it could be used to determine whether Arizona or Gonzaga gets a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament and/or which team gets to stay in the West region of the bracket.
A loss could prove that Arizona, which already lost to Baylor, is a tier below the nation’s elite teams. A win would prove the Wildcats can beat anyone on any given day and lend a lot of credibility to the idea that this team is the one that will end UA’s long Final Four drought. It’d also allow Arizona to stake a claim as the best team in the West.
Oh, a couple more things: There will be two dozen NBA scouts at this one, making this a prime opportunity for Nico Mannion, Josh Green, and Zeke Nnaji to have a signature game and improve their draft stock while leading the Wildcats to a win.
Meanwhile, Georgetown transfer James Akinjo, the reigning Big East Player of the Year, will be attending on official visit. You don’t think winning would leave a favorable impression on him?