It’s all about the bigs. The Kansas Jayhawks (7-0) will bring 6-foot-6 Taiyanna Jackson to McKale Center on Thursday, Dec. 8. She’s the tallest player Arizona (7-0) has faced this season. With 6-foot-5 Lauren Ware out for the season, the only Wildcat within two inches of Jackson is 6-foot-4 freshman Maya Nnaji.
Among the starters, no Wildcat is taller than 6-foot-2. Both fifth-year Cate Reese and senior Esmery Martinez hit that height, but they have not had to face a lineup that’s taller than them this season.
The Jayhawks feature six players who are at least 6-foot-3. That includes Ioanna Chatzileonti, who returned to the court on Dec. 4 after missing five games with an injury.
Jackson’s shooting percentage is fourth in the country among players scoring at least 15 points per game. It’s 11th among those attempting at least five shots per game.
“They have some really good athletes on the perimeter,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “They have good size. The second thing would be really good post defense. I think working early on Jackson. I mean, she shoots...fourth nationally. It was a surprise someone was higher than that...Seven out of 10, almost seven out of ten shots made, that’s pretty good. But just doing work early because she’s 6-6. We haven’t faced someone with her athleticism and size inside, so really good post defense is important, pressure on the ball is important, and just sticking to the game plan.”
The ball pressure has helped Arizona so far this season. The Wildcats are seventh in the nation with 14.0 steals per game so far.
As she’s reiterated all season, Barnes is not concerned about Arizona’s offense. While they don’t have anyone shooting close to 70 percent from the floor, they are effective inside in different ways.
Starting point guard Shaina Pellington is No. 28 among those scoring at least 15 points with 55.6 percent shooting. Of those taking at least five shots from the floor, she’s No. 116 of over 2,000 players fitting the criteria.
Among those not scoring at least 15 PPG but who do take at least five attempts per game, Helena Pueyo is ranked 22nd with a 64.9 percent shooting percentage. That includes hitting 70.4 percent of her 3-point shots. Esmery Martinez sits at No. 69 with a 58.9 percent shooting percentage. She’s also hitting 61.4 percent of her shots beyond the arc.
Those numbers must be taken in context, though. It’s going to be the first big test for both teams. According to Her Hoop Stats, UA’s previous opponents have a winning percentage of 28.7 percent. That ranks 350th out of 361 teams in Division I.
KU has had a better schedule, but it’s in no way good. The Jayhawks’ opponents have won 44.5 percent of their games. That ranks 251st out of 361 DI teams. According to Her Hoop Stats’ rating system, the best wins by either team are KU’s defeats of No. 105 UT Arlington and No. 106 Texas A&M.
With that in mind, the biggest challenge for both teams is seeing if their stats hold up as they take a dramatic leap up in the competition level. With Arizona ranked No. 18 overall by HHS and Kansas ranked No. 32, some of the luster may come off the shiny season.
“I think this will be a challenge for us—a good challenge,” Reese said. “We need one to see where we’re at, what we need to work on, but I think we’re all excited for the game.”
The biggest question for Arizona is if its dramatically improved shooting numbers will hold up. The Wildcats have five players who average double figures so far this season. Their overall field goal percentage is 48.9 percent while their effective field goal percentage is 54.5 percent. Those numbers are up from 43 percent and 48.4 percent, respectively, but that came at the end of the 2021-22 season after facing the ranked teams in the Pac-12.
Despite the concerns about the defense, the Wildcats' defensive scoring numbers are not dramatically different from last season. Their opponents are shooting 39.6 percent overall, up nominally from 39.0 at the end of last season. The effective field goal percentage of their opponents has moved up to 44.1 from 44.0. Once again, that is subject to change as UA faces the Pac-12, which currently has five ranked teams including the Wildcats. On the flip side, there is also the chance of improvement as the season wears on, keeping that rate locked. This is where Arizona starts finding out who they are.
RV Kansas Jayhawks (7-0) @ No. 12 Arizona Wildcats (7-0)
When: Thursday, Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. MST
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Arizona
Radio: Listen to the call by Derrick Palmer online on The Varsity Network or on the radio at KTUC 1400 AM.
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Rankings and ratings: The Wildcats are ranked No. 12 in both the AP Top 25 and the WBCA coaches poll. The Jayhawks are receiving votes in both polls but are not among the top 25 vote-getters.
Arizona is ranked 20th in Her Hoop Stats’ rating system. It is No. 19 offensively and No. 20 on defense. Kansas is ranked No. 33 by the stats service with the No. 46 offense and the No. 33 defense.
Projections: Her Hoop Stats gives Arizona a 75.1 percent win probability in McKale Center. The Wildcats are favored by 8.3 points with a projected score of 73.8 to 65.6. On a neutral court, the Wildcats have a 64.2 percent win probability with a 4.4 winning margin. In Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Arizona would be favored by 0.5 points with a 51.7 percent win probability.