With 17 regular-season titles, Arizona has finished at the top of the Pac-12 standings more than 40 percent of the time since joining the league in 1977-78. There’s one last chance to add to that haul.
The 4th-ranked Wildcats open their final season of Pac-12 play on New Year’s Weekend with a trip to the Bay Area, where they’ve had quite a bit of success over the years.
Arizona (9-2) enters Pac-12 competition having navigated one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, knocking off four top-50 KenPom teams along the way, though it lost two of the last three before the Christmas break.
UA coach Tommy Lloyd said after the double-overtime loss to Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas that the break comes at a good time. The Wildcats went home for a few days before reconvening Tuesday in Tucson to prepare for the first of six road trips between now and early March.
Here’s what to look for in that first set of road games, Friday night at Cal and Sunday afternoon at Stanford:
A soft opening
There’s no such thing as an easy road trip in the Pac-12, the only conference that still does travel partners and thus makes teams play consecutive away games in a short time frame against opponents from the same general area. But if there’s one trip Arizona has usually been solid on, it’s the one to the Bay Area.
The UA is 29-12 at Cal in Pac-12 play, having won six in a row with the last five decided by an average of 21.4 points. The Wildcats are 28-16 at Stanford, though they’ve lost two of the last three on the road including in February.
The Bay Area is one of Arizona’s bigger alumni bases, which makes these road games feel like home. That should be the case again this weekend, particularly since UA fans in the region don’t know when (or if) they’ll get to see the Wildcats play around there again.
Additionally, the competition on this trip may be the weakest of any road combo all season. Stanford (5-5) is No. 94 in KenPom and Cal (4-7) is No. 161.
After losing to Purdue in Indianapolis on Dec. 16, Arizona didn’t have much time on the practice court before having to face Alabama in Phoenix and then FAU in Vegas. With nearly a week since that contest, though, expect Tommy Lloyd and his staff to have made some adjustments to address flaws that popped up during the last few games.
Nothing really stands out, since Arizona has the 6th-best adjusted offensive efficiency and second-best adjusted defensive efficiency while also ranking in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. However, the shooting dipped in the last week, with back-to-back field goal percentages of 43.1 and 38.8.
The last time Arizona had consecutive games shooting under 44 percent was against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game (36.5) and the first-round NCAA loss to Princeton (42.1).
This weekend may provide an opportunity to try to extend the bench beyond the trio of Jaden Bradley, KJ Lewis and Motiejus Krivas who have been the only subs used in Arizona’s four closest games. Reserves Filip Borovicanin, Paulius Murauskas and Conrad Martinez have not seen action since Dec. 9 against Wisconsin.
Guys who could go off
When Arizona lost to Purdue, it did about as best as you could to contain Zach Edey but then had guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith combine for 53 points on 20-of-33 shooting including 9 of 16 from 3. The FAU loss saw Owls guard Johnell Davis go for 35 points but need 27 shots, but even more damaging was fellow guard Jalen Gaffney score 20 and make 3 of 5 3s after coming in averaging less than 7 per game.
Arizona’s game plans will likely again try to minimize the damage of Cal and Stanford’s best scorers, but recognizing which other players could be capable of having a big game is also important.
Cal has three players averaging 16 or more per game, including 6-foot-11 Fardaws Aimaq at 16.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. But guard Keonte Kennedy, who was injured for the first seven games, had 20 in his second game back while Jalen Celestine had 21 in the season opener.
For Stanford, its top three scorers all shoot better than 53 percent but Spencer Jones, who torched Arizona for 40 points in a pair of games last season, has played only once since Thanksgiving because of injury. If he returns Sunday he can’t be ignored, nor can promising freshman wing Andrej Stojakovic, the son of former NBA star Peja Stojakovic.