The No. 12 Arizona Wildcats (9-0) played their first games away from McKale Center last week at the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim. Now it’s time for them to play their first road game and their first ranked opponent all in one.
The Wildcats will visit the No. 18 Baylor Bears (6-1) on Saturday in Waco, Texas.
“It’s great to be 9-0, we were thrilled to have won the tournament that we just played in, but it’s just nine games,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “Our schedule will strengthen, we’ll be in conference play before you know it. I think these four remaining non-conference games are going to challenge us in a big way. Not until you fail or you really get that true test of what it feels like to play a great team that you have everybody’s attention. Our team, right now, might need that.”
Tip-off is at 10 a.m. MST on ESPNU. Here are some things to watch for.
Who’s in, who’s out?
The Wooden Legacy took its toll on the Wildcats. Backup forward Stone Gettings suffered a facial fracture and concussion against Penn and is out indefinitely including the Baylor game. Ira Lee and possibly Christian Koloko are expected to see their minutes increase in his stead.
Meanwhile, freshman point guard Nico Mannion is dealing with lower back stiffness and had not practiced this week as of Thursday.
If that isn’t enough, freshman wing Josh Green came down with strep throat and hasn’t practiced this week either. It makes both wunderkinds game-time decisions for Saturday, though Miller said he anticipates Mannion playing. What kind of role he’ll have remains to be seen.
Obviously they are arguably Arizona’s two best players, so it will be a crushing blow if they cannot play.
“I’m hoping the next couple of days those guys can practice but you have to certainly practice to play in the game, certainly to start, because it’s a team sport,” Miller said. “Especially (because) it’s not one or two days, it’s been the entire week. So we’ll learn more today. We haven’t practiced today (Thursday) yet so we’ll see how those two guys are. And we’ll see how they are tomorrow. We don’t have a shootaround on Saturday because it’s an early game, so today and tomorrow are really important. But sometimes that’s what happens in these exempt tournaments—you play three games in four days, especially for young guys it’s not easy to play three college games in four days. So I think it’s taken its toll a little bit on our team.”
Rebound from last year’s embarrassment
When Arizona hosted Baylor last December, the Bears snapped UA’s 52-game home non-conference winning streak. That’s not what Lee remembers. He remembers the Bears’ 51-19 rebounding margin.
“That’s a stat you can’t forget,” he said. “So that’s definitely an emphasis all week in practice—rebounding and the fact that we have to do it together because they have multiple guys that can attack the offensive glass.”
Baylor enters as the No. 11 offensive rebounding team in the country. Arizona is 122nd in defensive rebounding, the worst it has rated since 2009-10, Miller’s first season.
Baylor’s 6-foot-9 senior Freddie Gillespie is the No. 12 offensive rebounder in the country and the Bears still have 6-foot-5 Mark Vital, who had nine offensive (and eight defensive) rebounds in the win over Arizona last season.
“It wasn’t just last year, or even this year, it’s really been the last decade they’ve been one of America’s best offensive rebounding teams,” Miller said. “They recruit to it, they do it well. They’re incredibly physical. They don’t just do it with their bigs. They do it with their wings and bigs. And I think they beat you up on the glass. Last year, the rebound differential was, was embarrassing. ... Although it’s a brand new year, clearly we have a number of players that were in that game, and I don’t even think we have to remind them of what happened. They clearly know. So any team that plays against Baylor, first and foremost has to keep them off the offensive glass. And it’s not just the bigs, it’s going to be our entire team. And it’s not just our starting five, it’s going to be our bench as well.”
The 3-point battle
Baylor is capable of exploiting another one of Arizona’s weaknesses—3-point defense. The Bears are connecting on 39.6 percent of their 3s this year, the 20th-best mark in the country.
Arizona is coming off a Wooden Legacy tournament in which it allowed its opponents to shoot 40.3 percent from distance.
“The guys who have practiced, that’s clearly something we’re working on,” Miller said. “Baylor, man, they challenge you from the 3-point line.”
It all starts with Jared Butler, a 6-foot-3 guard who is averaging a team-high 19.4 points per game and shooting a scintillating 26-for-50 from 3.
“I saw him this summer in USA Basketball,” Miller said. “Offense comes easy, he’s also an outstanding defensive player. I love him, he’s tough. They have four guards that they play, they rotate in at those three spots. They don’t really have a weak spot. Five different positions they can all play, they can all score. I think the narrative is out there, they may be the best collective group of guards in college basketball. It will be a real big challenge.”
As Miller alluded to, the other 3-point shooter to know is Butler’s backcourt mate, MaCio Teague. The UNC Asheville transfer is shooting 40 percent from distance this season, which is actually a few ticks below his career average.
“It has to be more urgent,” Lee said of Arizona’s 3-point defense. “It has to be something we want to do. You gotta get down and chop your feet, close out with high hands. You gotta do it every time. You can’t jump, you can’t go for ticky-tack fakes. You gotta be on point.”
Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone
Under longtime coach Scott Drew, the Bears are known for their 1-1-3 zone defense, which likes to trap and use its length and athleticism to disrupt the flow on the perimeter.
And, as usual, the Bears have a shot-blocker roaming the middle in Gillespie. Arizona did a nice job limiting turnovers against Baylor last season (10) but was held to 36 percent shooting, albeit that was a much less talented team.
“We had that deer-in-the-headlights look and guys have to make people better,” Miller said after last year’s loss. “The way they chose to play zone, it’s not about carving it up with plays. It’s about putting players in the right position and driving to pass and moving the ball quickly and moving it into the middle, allowing those guys to be able to turn and face. You learn more and more about your team as the season goes, but we didn’t make good plays when we got it in the middle.”
Handling the early start
This is the second straight season Arizona has played an early game on the road. Last year’s game went well. The Wildcats beat UConn 76-72.
Knowing that, and that Arizona now routinely has 7 a.m. team breakfasts, Miller doesn’t view Saturday’s early tip-off as a major obstacle.
“We want to be a good team on the road. However, this year’s team, we haven’t been on the road,” he said. “This is a big, big test. I don’t think we clearly understand how hard it is. We’re going to find that out on Saturday.
“The one thing about guys that are playing in college basketball today, they’re used to playing more than one game on a particular day. They’ve played early games. I could make the case that 9 p.m. games are equally difficult. For us, we’ll be home on Saturday, early evening. Wherever the time the game is, we have to be ready. We have to play our best. It’s up to us to be the most ready we can be. If we’re not ready, they’ll kill us. They’ll blow us out of the arena.”
A tame atmosphere?
If you’re a Baylor fan, this game could not start at a worse time. When Baylor basketball tips off against Arizona, the Baylor football team will be kicking off against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game in Arlington, a 90-minute drive from Waco.
The Bears do not draw big crowds as it is—their average attendance last season was 6,218—so it makes sense why they are handing out free tickets to Saturday’s basketball game.
“Good for them, I guess,” Lee said. “We don’t really care about the crowd.”
A senior encore
Seniors Dylan Smith and Chase Jeter played the best basketball of their UA careers in the Wooden Legacy, each averaging 15.3 points per game with sharp efficiency.
With three talented freshmen around them, Arizona and its No. 8-ranked offense will be tremendously difficult to curtail if they are scoring at a rate like that.
The question is, can Smith and Jeter maintain that production, or at least come close to it, against stiffer competition?
“That’s what you would expect from older players,” Miller said of their Wooden Legacy performances. “Hopefully there’s more of that to come.”