Monday night was fun, wasn’t it? Watching the latest version of Tommy Lloyd’s Arizona Wildcats run up and down the court and nearly set a school record for largest margin of victory had to have been an enjoyable experience, but it didn’t really give a strong indication of just how good this team can be.
Those opportunities are littered throughout an ultra-tough nonconference schedule, one that ramps up considerably in competition when the UA visits second-ranked Duke on Friday night.
It will be the first matchup between the schools since 2013, when Arizona knocked off the Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The previous meeting was more memorable for UA fans, as that was when Derrick Williams dunked all over top-seeded Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16.
But this will be the first time the teams are meeting on one of their own courts since 1991, when Arizona beat Duke in double overtime at McKale Center. The previous season the UA lost by two at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It’s Arizona vs. Duke, I think that’s enough said right there,” Lloyd said after Monday’s 122-59 blowout of Morgan State.
12th-ranked Arizona is seeking its first nonconference road win over a ranked opponent since 2015, at Gonzaga, the first on the road against a top-10 squad out of conference since winning at Kansas in 2003. If the Wildcats were to lose it would be the first November loss since 2018 and the earliest in a season since falling at home to UAB in the second game of the 2008-09 campaign.
Here’s what to watch for when the UA and Duke meet in a big early-season battle:
The frontcourt battle
Arizona started both Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo in all but one game last season, giving it one of the biggest frontcourts in the country. Ballo is still around, but as of now it’ll be 6-foot-7 Keshad Johnson at the 4 with freshmen Motiejus Krivas (7-2) and Paulius Murauskas (6-8) the backups.
The Wildcats had more than enough size to dominate Morgan State on the boards, grabbing 22 offensive rebounds for 31 second-chance points, but to do the same against Duke is a much bigger task. Both literally and figuratively.
7-foot sophomore Kyle Filipowski is a consensus All-American who had 25 points and seven rebounds in the Blue Devils’ season-opening win over Dartmouth. Three other players 6-9 or taller logged at least 10 minutes.
Arizona may opt to go small quite a bit to counter size with speed, something it has done a fair amount until Lloyd’s first two seasons without much fanfare.
“It’s a style that we’ve been really comfortable playing,” he said. “We’ve done it the last two years and just people forget about it. And we’ve probably done it a lot more than people realize. It’s something we’re really comfortable doing and we kind of have our our plan when we do it.”
The guard play
Arizona’s guards showed an overall aggressiveness in the opener, as well as the two exhibitions, that wasn’t possible last season. The quartet of Kylan Boswell, Caleb Love, Jaden Bradley and KJ Lewis attempted more 2s than 3s against Morgan State, making 10 of 15 with many coming on layups.
“All of us bring different aspects than we had last year, and we’re just using it to our advantage,” said Boswell, who had a career-high 18 points. “Everybody brings what they got to the table and plays their best role.”
The Wildcats attempted 37 layups, making 20, and several were from the backcourt.
“Having guards who can make a layup is a huge advantage,” Lloyd said. “And I’m not saying that lightly or making a joke, because it’s really hard to do in high-level basketball. To have guards that finish 2-point shots at the rim is really, it’s kind of rare. I think it’s going to be a real added weapon to our arsenal that’ll show over the course of the season.”
The Love connection
This will be a homecoming of sorts for Love, a North Carolina transfer who faced Duke seven times in three seasons with the Tar Heels including a trio of games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He won two of those contests, spoiling Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game, and also 28 points on the Blue Devils a few weeks later in the 2022 Final Four to end Coach K’s legendary career.
But his last trip to Durham, in February, saw him miss 10 of 15 shots in a 6-point loss, part of a run of 12 straight games to end his UNC career where he took at least 10 shots and hit on only 37.2 percent of them.
Love’s role with Arizona won’t call on him to be so prolific with his attempts, as he took only eight in the opener and finished with 12 points, and despite his familiarity with Duke no added expectations are being put on him for this game.
“We can go there and play a good basketball game without Caleb playing out of his mind,” Lloyd said. “That’s one of gifts I’ve tried to give him is, you don’t necessarily need to just blend in here, but you have an opportunity to settle in and let the game come to you.”
Lloyd said Love won’t be asked for a player-specific scouting report on the Blue Devils, but if he has insights he can add they will be welcomed.
Cameron Indoor Stadium is one of the most renowned college basketball venues in the country, but in reality it’s quite tiny. With a capacity of 9,314 it’s 35 percent smaller than McKale and would be third-to-last in the Pac-12 behind Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum (9,301) and Stanford’s Maples Pavilion (7,233).
But what it lacks in attendance it makes up for in atmosphere. On TV it looks like the crowd is right on top of the court, and that’s really the case for the student section. The Cameron Crazies occupy the entire top sideline, from a TV perspective, leading to some great images.
Duke also rarely loses at home, going 16-0 there for its 19th perfect home season in school history, and all-time has an .847 win percentage at Cameron. It is 461-46 during a current 507-game sellout streak and at one point had won 150 straight nonconference home games before getting shocked by Stephen F. Austin in 2019.
“We just got to be ourselves, don’t get caught up in the outside noise,” UA forward Keshad Johnson said. “We’re anxious to play any game that’s next up.”
The first of many tests before Pac-12 play
Duke is one of six teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 on Arizona’s schedule, five coming in nonconference play. The Wildcats also face No. 4 Michigan State—which lost its opener at home to James Madison—on Thanksgiving in Palm Springs and in an 8-day span just before Christmas take on No. 3 Purdue in Indianapolis, No. 24 Alabama in Phoenix and No. 10 Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas.
There’s also a home game Dec. 9 against Wisconsin, the start of another home-and-home series.
That’s a lot of potential pitfalls for Arizona, and the likelihood of going 11-0 (or even 10-1) before Pac-12 play is on the small side. KenPom.com has the UA favored in eight of the remaining 10 nonconference games.
With that in mind might Lloyd treat this like just another game, considering how many more there are like it ahead, and not place too much importance on a single contest?
“Hopefully you have two great teams that are going to have an epic early season battle,” he said. “I think that’d be great for college basketball. But no matter what happens, I don’t think there’s going to be any postseason awards given out by what happens the second (game on) November 10th. If you go and play well, it’s a great opportunity to really build your resume. If you go and struggle, it’s going to be an awesome learning opportunity that I’m sure you’re gonna be better for.”