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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Montana on Tuesday

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats return to the court Tuesday when they host the Montana Grizzlies at 5 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.

Arizona (5-1, 0-1 Pac-12) is coming off a 78-75 road loss to Stanford. The Grizzlies (3-4) are just 1-4 against Division I opponents, though that lone victory came at Washington.

They are the No. 153 team in the country per KenPom, ranking 210th on offense and 109th on defense.

Arizona is No. 43 (50th on offense and 34th on defense) in KenPom’s ratings and has been given an 88 percent chance of winning Tuesday, with a projected score of 73-60. The Vegas oddsmakers are listing Arizona as 13-point favorites.

Here are some things to watch for.

Last game before Christmas break

This is not only Arizona’s final non-conference game (for now, at least), it’s also its last game until it faces Colorado all the way on Dec. 28 after Christmas break.

That’s six days in between games, so expect the Wildcats to be lively out of the game, especially since Monday’s game vs. San Diego had to be cancelled due to a COVID-19 case within the Toreros’ program.

“We have to watch our guys, they’ve been through a lot,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Saturday after the Stanford game. “They just finished the first semester, they haven’t been home, they haven’t seen their families at games. It’s hard on these guys, it really, really is. I want to make sure that I’m clear on that, my heart goes out to our players, this is not easy to just power through. But I also know that our guys love to play the game. This is their reward.”

Things actually went as planned

This is the only second game on Arizona’s schedule that survived all the changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The other was the Dec. 9 matchup vs. Cal State Bakersfield.

Then again, there’s still time for this game to get cancelled, so maybe we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. The USD game was called off just 2.5 hours before tip.

Ari-zone-a’s defense

The Wildcats are coming off, by far, their worst defensive performance of the season. They surrendered over 1.1 points per possession to Stanford. Before that they had never allowed more than .91.

The Wildcats had trouble defending off the dribble and weren’t sharp mentally. They struggled to communicate when covering screens (both off and on the ball) and were beaten badly by back cuts.

Miller chose to play zone down the stretch, which is how you know things got bad. Expect more of that moving forward, though maybe not against Montana. Despite their offensive struggles this season, the Grizzlies shoots a respectable 36.0 percent from 3.

“I do think that we have to be smart and maybe sprinkling that in,” Miller said Saturday. “A lot of times it will help take the rhythm away of the offense against our man-to-man defense, because we just can’t go toe to toe for 40 minutes with our personnel, with the experience of our team this year.”

The charge card

Another way Arizona can give its defense a boost? By drawing offensive fouls.

As I detailed Sunday, the Wildcats have been getting destroyed in that department. They have committed 25 offensive fouls in six games while only coaxing 11. Miller, channeling his inner Tim Tebow, promised that this Arizona team will take more charges than any other moving forward.

“I’m excited about that,” he said. “We have to draw charges. We have to cross body block, we have to go vertical in the charge arc, like the NBA does. We have to leave the corner and get there late, there’s so many things that I think we have to do a better job of to make our defense better. You have to make those hard plays on the ball, on a handoff, on a dribble handoff. We teach our guys on a dribble handoff to kind of go under, like show, trail and go under. We have to go through the guy’s arm, because we’re getting fouls on our handoffs because we dribble handoff and extend the arm. They’re kind of coming through to take it away.”

He added: “I’m not trying to be funny. It’s what it is. That’s what we have to do.”

Watch out for Kyle Owens. Not only has the sophomore forward scored in double figures every game for the Grizzlies, he’s also has drawn nine charges through seven games, a year after he led the team with 12.

Pushing the pace

Montana doesn’t do a whole lot well offensively, but it has been pretty solid on defense.

The Grizzlies rank 55th in the country in defensive rating, holding their opponents to a .387/.276/.616 shooting line. Montana beat Washington 66-58 in Seattle and held the Huskies to just 42 percent shooting (although it’s worth noting UW is 1-6 this season).

Montana prefers to play at a slow pace, but Arizona cannot let this become a halfcourt game like the first half of the Stanford contest was. The Wildcats are at their best when they can get the ball moving in transition or semi-transition.

That matchup two years ago is irrelevant

Montana had some defensive success against Arizona in McKale Center a couple of years ago, holding the Wildcats to 61 points on 54 shots.

That doesn’t matter anymore because only three players who appeared in that game—Montana’s Freddy Brown and Mack Anderson and Arizona’s Ira Lee—are still around and none of them are starters.

Arizona and Montana are two of just 22 teams in the nation with eight or more new players on their roster.

The rebounding margin could get ugly

Montana is 298th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and 299th in offensive rebounding percentage. Arizona is 45th and 8th, respectively.

The Wildcats have won the rebounding battle in every game this season—sometimes by as many 23 boards—and this game could yield their largest margin yet.

Jordan Brown’s cold streak

The Arizona forward has not scored in double figures in three straight games, combining for just 18 points on 6 of 17 shooting in those contests. That was after he averaged 14 points on 80 percent shooting in Arizona’s first three games.

His rebounding numbers are down too, falling from 9.7 per game in the first three games to just 4.3 over the last three.

Brown’s minute distribution is actually pretty interesting and not exactly what you’d expect from someone who might be the team’s most talented player.

The Nevada transfer has played less than 20 minutes in three of the last five games, including just 19 in the loss to Stanford when he had seven points and seven rebounds on 2-of-7 shooting. He’s been a victim of a lot of those offensive foul calls.

It would help the Wildcats’ offense a lot if he can recapture some of the dominance he displayed in the paint earlier in the season.