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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Cal on Thursday

The losing streak has to end here, right?

arizona-cal-basketball-preview-wildcats-bears-what-to-watch-notes-quotes-interviews-pac-12 Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats felt they had to hold a players-only meeting after they dropped their seventh straight game Sunday, the program’s worst skid in 36 years.

“Because it’s hard,” said UA guard Dylan Smith. “A lot of us, I know me personally, I’ve never lost that many times in a row ever. Like, in anything. It’s definitely hard. It’s easy for some people to get off the course and lose track of the main goal, so it’s just making sure that everyone is on the same page and everybody knew that we had to come together, get some pieces back and we’ll be fine.”

The Wildcats (14-12, 5-8 Pac-12) believe this will be the week their fortunes finally change, putting aside the obvious reason that Thursday they face a California Golden Bears team that is 5-20 overall and 0-13 in the Pac-12.

“We had a really good practice yesterday. I think the team’s mindset is in a really good place,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “It’s up to us to be the most ready we can be. It doesn’t really matter who our next opponent is. This is 100 percent about us trying to break into the win column and trying to play a great game, trying to be at our best, whatever our best is.”

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. MST on FOX Sports 1, and here are some things to watch for in this battle of maligned teams.

Throw the first matchup out

Arizona blasted Cal by 22 points in Berkeley in January, improving to 4-0 in conference play.

The Wildcats seemed poised to finish near the top of the Pac-12, but none of that matters anymore because they have lost nine of their last 10 and sit in 10th place entering Thursday’s rematch.

“We were almost a different team then,” Miller said.

Well, they actually were. That was the last game Emmanuel Akot appeared in before leaving the program. Brandon Williams, who has missed the last five games and will not play Thursday, played that night too and had 16 points and four assists on seven shots.

“Those are two key losses,” Smith acknowledged.

Chase’s big night

The Wildcats also had a pre-injury Chase Jeter in their first game against Cal. The big man has not been the same since he banged up his back against Oregon State on Jan. 19.

Before getting hurt, Jeter was averaging 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Since the injury, he is averaging just 7.4 and 6.2, respectively. His heady defense has tapered off too.

“Like all these guys, it’s just you can lose confidence and I think some of it might be that,” Miller explained Jeter’s struggles. “He’s working really hard. I thought (Tuesday) he had a great practice. I’m only talking about practice, but really that’s important because that’s the thing that can lead into the game. But when you go through an injury, especially a back injury, you do nothing. The longer you do nothing, the more tricky it is when you start to do something. Chase was playing excellent basketball, a big reason why we were on a winning streak and we got off to a hot start in the Pac-12.”

Miller “would be surprised” if Jeter doesn’t return to form against Cal. After all, he posted 23 points and nine rebounds against the Bears in January.

“I think this week,” Miller declared, “Chase will have a big week.”

It all starts on defense

Arizona’s defense has regressed hard during its losing streak. The Wildcats once boasted a top-30 defense, per KenPom, but now sit at 70th in the country.

Combine that downturn with an offense that ranks 145th in Division I, and it is easy to see why the Wildcats are struggling the way they are.

The way Smith sees it, the losing won’t stop until the defense tightens up.

“When teams work us late in the clock, sometimes we break,” he said. “But we are definitely getting better at that as a team. … I feel like once we get that down pat, everything else will fall into place.”

These teams are actually good at something

Cal’s KenPom page looks like a typical McKale Center crowd.

That is, mostly red.

The Bears, who are 281st nationally in KenPom’s ratings, are not just bad at basketball, they are one of the worst teams in all the land. In fact, Tulane of the American Athletic Conference is the only major-conference team that ranks lower.

Some teams that rank higher than Cal in KenPom’s metrics include Houston Baptist—whom Arizona beat 90-60 to open the 2018-19 season—Longwood, James Madison, Cal State Northridge and Fairleigh Dickinson.

But if you squint hard enough, you can spot one thing the Bears are actually good at: taking care of the ball. They rank 29th in the country in turnover percentage, only committing 11 per game in conference play.

Oddly, Arizona is strong in that area too, ranking 35th in college basketball in turnover percentage.

“We have to continue to be good at it,” Miller said. “As a matter of fact, when you talk about us playing our best, to have a great night maybe where you play with seven, six, five, that’s what we’re after. But I think probably what it shows about both teams is there’s more to the game than just taking care of the ball. When you shoot it, it has to go in.”

Transfers playing their best basketball

The offensive production of Smith and Ryan Luther has been a bright spot for the Wildcats during the latter part of this seven-game skid. Each has scored in double figures in four of their last five games, shooting a combined 46 percent from 3.

It has been the best stretch of their UA careers. Well, individually at least.

“It doesn’t matter,” Smith said. “I don’t really pay attention to it. People are talking about it, but obviously the main point is we’re losing so it doesn’t really matter how good I’m playing.”

Justice not served for Sueing

Cal’s Justice Sueing is in the same boat. The sophomore forward is averaging 16.3 points and 6.2 rebounds on 48 percent shooting in conference play. He has scored 15 or more points in the last six games, yet the Bears have lost 14 in a row.

“He’s a tough matchup,” Miller said. “I mean, you look at his free throw attempts, he’s shot 141 free throw attempts on the season at 82 percent. He’s scored 116 points on the season from the free throw line. If you look at our team, the highest is Brandon Randolph and Brandon has scored 71 points from the foul line and shot a total of 90.

“So Justice Sueing has shot 50 more free throws than the highest person on our team and that’s a gift he has. He draws fouls and we have to be careful because he could put one of our good players in foul trouble. Excellent offensive rebounder, he’s more of a driver than he is a 3-point shooter, but he’s a really difficult matchup when they play him at the 4. Then when he plays the small forward, he tries to take advantage of his size.”

Miller said a combination of Smith, Luther, Randolph and Ira Lee will be tasked with defending Sueing, who dropped 27 points on Arizona on 13 shots in January. Akot was the primary defender the first time around.

What’s at stake?

Um, not a whole lot other than pride and Pac-12 Tournament seeding, though Arizona probably cannot afford to lose this game if it wants to make the NIT.

Wow, that is a sad sentence to write.