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What to watch for in Arizona men’s basketball’s pre-Christmas games

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-montana-bobcats-morgan-state-bears-pac12-christmas Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona picked up its fourth win over a ranked opponent on Saturday night, leading to a jump to No. 5 in the latest AP poll. And right around the corner is the Pac-12 slate, which begins Dec. 31 with a visit to ASU for a game that figures to be a lot tougher than originally though.

But in between are two contests that are equally important, as the Wildcats play two pre-Christmas games at home this week.

The UA will host Montana State (7-5) on Tuesday night and then take on Morgan State (4-7) on Thursday before taking a short holiday break.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats host the Bobcats and Bears at McKale Center:

Lesser foes, same focus

According to, Arizona has a 96 percent chance of beating Montana State and its odds of winning against Morgan State are 99 percent. Both games figure to have point spreads of 20 or more, as was the case for the Wildcats’ first three games in November as well as the December home tilts against Cal and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

The UA won those five contests by an average of 27.4 points, so there’s not really much upset potential. Still, the Wildcats will want to avoid overlooking these opponents with a break and Pac-12 play on the horizon.

“We know the team that we play next is a great team, so we’re going to treat them like any other game,” guard Courtney Ramey said. “These next two games are the most important games. We’re going to give them the same respect that we gave Tennessee, and anybody that we play.”

Arizona lost its pre-Christmas game last season, but that was a much tougher matchup in that it was on the road against Tennessee. The tail end of the Sean Miller era saw the Wildcats win lose to St. John’s in San Francisco in 2019 right before the holiday break, while in 2018 they narrowly escaped UC-Davis by two and in 2020 held off Montana by six.

States in different states

Montana State is the preseason pick (by both coaches and media) to win the Big Sky Conference, which it did a year ago en route to a 27-8 record and No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats were blown out by Texas Tech in the first round but returns several key players from that squad.

They also have a familiar face to Arizona: wing Raequan Battle, who is in his second season with the Bobcats after spending two years at Washington. The 6-foot-5 forward is averaging a team-best 17.3 points per game, shooting 47.7 percent overall and 36.9 percent from 3.

Montana State is one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, hitting at 75 percent, and it gets to the line more than 20 times per game. But it also fouls quite a bit, which plays right into the UA’s hands.

As for Morgan State, the Bears have only one win over a Division I team while five of their seven losses have been by double digits. That includes a season-opening 96-73 defeat at Xavier in Sean Miller’s return to that program.

A member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Morgan State is one of the smaller teams in the country yet take fewer than 28 percent of its shots from 3-point range. That hasn’t worked out well, as it’s shooting just 42.9 percent on 2s against D-I competition.

Senior guard Isaiah Burke leads the Bears in scoring, at 17.4 points per game, and shoots 42.1 percent from 3, while 6-4 senior guard Malik Miller averages 16.4 points and 9.5 rebounds.

Morgan State will be the latest team to test Arizona’s passing and ballhandling. The Bears average 12.6 steals per game, second-best in Division I, and force 21.5 turnovers per contest.

Plenty of bench minutes

Arizona’s five starters have logged 30 or more minutes in a game a combined 25 times through 11 contests, with the Tennessee win the first time they all did. Pelle Larsson (36) and Azuolas Tubelis (35) both played season-highs, and they were needed every minute because the bench went scoreless.

Per Pac-12 stat guru Greg Mroz, it’s the first time since 2007 the Wildcats beat a ranked opponent without getting any scoring from their reserves.

Coach Tommy Lloyd called it “one of those games,” and that he doesn’t have a formula that includes a certain number of bench points needed each night. But after the backups contributed 51 of 99 points in Tuesday’s win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, to see them collectively put up a goose egg had to be disappointing.

With both of these games ones that could become blowouts quickly, look for Lloyd to sub religiously and put his younger players in situations from which they can build confidence.