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What to watch for when Arizona visits Cal on Thursday

Will the Wildcats snap out of their shooting slump?

Arizona v Washington Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats (16-7, 6-4) will begin the Bay Area road trip Thursday when they will battle the California Golden Bears (10-13, 4-6) in Berkeley.

Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. MST on FOX Sports 1.

Here are some things to watch for in Arizona’s first, and only, regular-season matchup with Cal.

Will the Wildcats snap out of their shooting slump?

After Arizona shot a program-worst 25 percent in McKale Center, Nico Mannion said he spoke for the whole team when he said they could spend more time in the gym working on their jumpers.

Turns out they did, assembling groups of four this week to shoot for 40 minutes at a time.

“You really allow them to watch the ball, go in the basket and shoot quality shots and just get their rhythm back,” said coach Sean Miller. “It’s amazing sometimes when you mix that in, how a guy’s confidence can return because we have guys that have certainly gone through that confidence bug. But usually you work your way out.”

Arizona better hope so because it’s shooting 28 percent from 3 over its last five games, clanking all 12 in the second half vs. UCLA.

Here’s a list at some of the ongoing 3-point shooting slumps:

  • Dylan Smith: 1 for his last 18
  • Josh Green: 4 for his last 17
  • Nico Mannion: 4 for his last 16
  • Max Hazzard: 2 for his last 7

The cause?

“Some of it is shot selection, some of it is who’s taking the shot, some of it is confidence, some of it is probably just execution,” Miller said. “but there’s always those shots where you say, ‘can’t get a better one than that’ and it didn’t go in.”

Cal is having the same problem, shooting just 30 percent from 3 in conference play, though they don’t take many. The Bears have only hoisted 335 3-pointers in their first season under coach Mark Fox, the fourth-fewest in the country.

“Fox has yet to show that he can adapt to the modern game and coach an above-average offense,” our friends from California Golden Blogs told us. “(Cal will) be a very good defense team going forward, but the offense still is an old school inside-out offense that doesn’t use the strength of the current players.”

Can Arizona control the pace?

One way Arizona can alleviate its shooting woes is by generating opportunities in transition, but that will be difficult. Cal plays at a plodding pace, ranking 325th (of 353) in the country in tempo, preferring to drag out possessions on both sides of the ball.

As I outlined this week, Arizona really struggles in such games, going 1-3 in its slowest-paced games of the season, the problems stemming from youth and a lack of patience and cohesion in the halfcourt (on both ends).

Getting stops, grabbing rebounds, and forcing turnovers will all be critical for Arizona to be able to control the pace. It will be a challenge but not impossible. Cal ranks 216th in offensive efficiency, 282nd in offensive rebounding percentage, and 221st in turnover percentage.

Bradley is a bad man

Cal does not have much talent, but sophomore Matt Bradley is one of the better scorers in the Pac-12, averaging 17.6 points per game with a balanced shooting line of .451/.364/.851.

While the 6-foot-4, 220-pound guard can hit from the outside, he is at his best getting to the rim, which is where roughly one-third of his shots come from. He is converting 67 percent of them. Not to mention he averages over five trips to the free-throw line as well.

“Every team that plays them, it starts with making sure that they’re responsible guarding him, that they don’t foul him, that we know where he’s at, and we really compete against him,” Miller said.

Given Bradley’s burly body type, Green is probably Arizona’s best matchup for him.

Cal continuing its winning ways at home

Despite barely cracking KenPom’s Top 200, Cal has been dangerous at home, compiling a 10-3 record at Haas Pavilion, including a 4-1 mark in conference play.

The Bears swept the Washington schools, beat Stanford, and split with the Oregon schools, falling to the Ducks 77-72. The Bears led by seven midway through the second half in that game, though they were boosted by some unusually hot shooting, making half their 18 3-point attempts.

“They have, in a way, just no pressure on them,” Miller said. “They’re building their program from the ground up and their guys are playing with a lot of confidence at home almost with nothing to lose. And the only game that they’ve lost at home is to Oregon, and if you watched that game, that game was a hard fought game from start to finish.”

For Arizona, this will be a good test to see if it can replicate the success it had on the road against the Washington schools, when they became the first, and only, Pac-12 team to get a road sweep.

A fresh start

Miller has been pretty resistant to tinkering Arizona’s starting lineup, only making one change all season, replacing Chase Jeter with Stone Gettings on Jan. 16 vs. Utah when the former suffered a back injury.

But with Smith stuck in such a terrible slump, Miller acknowledged it wouldn’t be a bad time to move him to the bench to take some pressure off him.

“Sometimes you just change it up, mix it up, it helps everybody,” Miller said. “So that could potentially happen.”

Jemarl Baker Jr. might seem like the obvious choice to replace Smith because he has been Arizona’s most consistent 3-point shooter and has a 14 to 0 assist-to-turnover ratio in his last six games, but starting Hazzard could boost his confidence, and against Utah and Colorado we saw how dangerous Arizona can be when Hazzard is feeling it.

Hazzard also has more experience as a starter, getting the nod in 36 of 37 games at UC Irvine last year, when he averaged 12.5 points per game while shooting a career-best 38.8 percent from distance.

Baker, formerly at Kentucky, has never started in a college game.

Scoreboard watching

First-place Colorado is currently game up in the loss column on Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State, and Thursday could go a long way toward strengthening—or flatlining—the Buffaloes’ chance of capturing the conference championship.

If they beat Oregon and Arizona and ASU slip up in the Bay Area, the Buffaloes would have a two-game lead on the field. If Colorado loses to Oregon, there could be a four-way tie in the loss column for first heading into Saturday’s action.

Here are the KenPom projections for Thursday’s slate:

  • Oregon def. Colorado 71-68 (60% win probability)
  • Arizona def. Cal 72-62 (82% win probability)
  • Stanford def. ASU 70-63 (73% win probability)
  • USC def. Washington 69-66 (61% win probability)
  • UCLA def. Washington State 71-66 (67% win probability)
  • Oregon State def. Utah 73-67 (69% win probability)

Assuming that’s how things shake out, the Pac-12 standings (not the Pac-12 Tournament seeding) would look like this heading into Saturday’s action:

  • Colorado (8-4)
  • Oregon (8-4)
  • Arizona (7-4)
  • USC (7-5)
  • UCLA (7-5)
  • ASU (6-5)
  • Stanford (6-5)
  • Utah (5-7)
  • Washington State (5-7)
  • Oregon State (5-7)
  • Cal (4-7)
  • Washington (2-10)