Winners of six in a row, with its best AP ranking of the season and an NCAA Tournament resume that keeps getting better, Arizona hits the road for two games in the Bay Area this weekend.
On paper it shouldn’t be a particularly difficult trip for the fifth-ranked Wildcats (21-3, 10-3 Pac-12). According to KenPom.com, the UA has a 93 percent chance to win at Cal (3-20, 2-10) on Thursday night and a 76 percent chance to win Saturday night’s game at Stanford (10-13, 4-8).
Arizona has swept this trip five straight times, the last time it didn’t come back from the Bay with a 2-0 record being 2016. Winning both is critical to the Wildcats’ chances of sticking on the heels of UCLA (18-4, 10-2) in the Pac-12 title race.
Here’s what to watch for this weekend:
Arizona beat Cal by 13 at McKale Center on Dec. 4, during the brief pocket of conference play that happens a month before the rest of the game, but since it’s been two months since that contest it’s almost like the teams are meeting for the first time. That will actually be the case against Stanford, whom the Wildcats haven’t faced yet in 2022-23.
Same goes for next weekend when, after trying to avenge the Dec. 1 loss at Utah the UA will play Colorado for the first time.
“It’s kind of how the schedule broke,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “It’s interesting, this late in the season you’re used to kind of sort of getting a rhythm of playing teams a second time. You have two teams (in the next two weeks) you haven’t faced yet, which is good. It’s exciting to figure out ways you’re gonna be able to be competitive with those teams. But obviously, the first order of business is Cal, and getting our guys dialed into it down there.”
Speaking of Cal …
When the Golden Bears came to McKale two months ago they were 0-8, one of only two winless teams in the country (Louisville was the other). Yet that 81-68 win for Arizona didn’t feel like it was against a team with no hope of victory, as the Golden Bears shot better than 52 percent from inside the arc and had what is currently their fifth-most efficient offensive performance of the season.
“Cal came here last time and they played us pretty well,” Lloyd said. “They battled with us. And our guys know, obviously we’re having a little bit of success recently. But you can’t take that for granted. You have to go out and recreate that, you have to make that happen every single time. The score is going to start out with 0-0 in Berkeley on Thursday, and if we don’t play well, I mean, we’re going to be on the bad side of that, so we need to be ready to roll.”
The Bears started 0-12 before winning three of four, but are on a 7-game skid with the last five all decided by 13 or more points. Point guard Devin Askew is out for the season, while other injuries and absences have caused coach Mark Fox to use nine different starting lineups.
“I’m sure they don’t feel good about him being out, but at this point of the year you have to go out and compete with the guys that are available,” Lloyd said. “And I know Coach Fox well, and he’s always done a great job of getting his teams prepared and competitive. So I’m expecting a hard game on Thursday.”
Last Saturday’s 32-point win over Oregon State saw the first instance of Arizona going beyond its 7-man rotation pre-garbage time since before the win streak began. If the Cal game goes as expected, this could provide another opportunity for Lloyd to give some younger guys minutes in his quest to see if any of them are worthy of being added to the regular playing mix.
Freshmna wing Filip Borvicanin was the first of that group to play against the Beavers, but Lloyd said that was more a reward for his hard work in practice than a sign he was ahead of sophomore Adama Bal or freshmen bigs Dylan Anderson and Henri Veesaar.
Bal should be the favorite to be the eighth member of an extended rotation, since Lloyd has said he “built” this year’s team to have the French guard in that top 8. But before playing 10 minutes against OSU he had logged only 40 minutes in the previous 12 Pac-12 games.
“Of course I want to play,” Bal said Tuesday. “I want to be part of the team. Things don’t always happened as we want to.”
Lloyd said he doesn’t have any specific benchmarks he’s looking for from the reserves if/when they get in. It’s more about impact, both overall and compared to who they are in for.
“When you’re on the court, you have to bring value, and the value isn’t just shot attempts,” Lloyd said. “Your value is, is the team or efficient when you’re on the floor, or nearly as efficient as the guy you’re subbing in for? And we just don’t need to have a dropoff there.”
Arizona’s 7-man rotation has worked so far, and it hasn’t added too many minutes to each player’s load. Ideally, though, Lloyd has said he’d like to add at least one more player to the mix and this is the time of year (and part of the schedule) when it’s best to try that.
“Sometimes, you change your lineup a little bit, maybe shorten the bench, and it gives the guys that are playing a little more certainty and allows your team team to move forward that way,” he said. “And then the next step is you got to adjust it and you got to get some guys a chance again.”