Arizona opens conference play on Saturday when the No. 25 Wildcats host rival Arizona State in Tucson. The Wildcats, losers of three of their final four non-conference games, look to snap a two-game skid against the Sun Devils that dates back to last season.
Earlier in the week, Arizona received some good news as graduate transfer Stone Gettings will be returning to the lineup for the Pac-12 opener. Gettings, who suffered a face fracture and concussion during Arizona’s pre-season tournament at the Wooden Legacy, has not played in over a month. However, his return adds much-needed depth to Arizona’s frontline, as well as an element of outside shooting and aggressiveness on the boards, which was sorely missing in Wildcat losses to Baylor, Gonzaga, and St. John’s.
Arizona (10-3, 0-0 Pac-12) has won its last nine conference openers under Sean Miller and leads the all-time series with ASU 152-84.
The Wildcats enter Saturday’s tip ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive field goal percentage. Offensively, the Wildcats are shooting 49.2 percent from the floor (No. 13 nationally), while holding opponents to 37.4 percent (No. 17 nationally). If these statistics hold up, it could be a positive final two months of the season for the Wildcats, with a legitimate chance to win the league.
Recent losses aside, the fresh start after a long holiday break, coupled with the return of Gettings could be the right recipe for success for a relatively young team still looking to solidify its identity.
At times, Arizona has been an up tempo, highly-skilled, offensive powerhouse that has looked unstoppable. At other times, Arizona has been a gutsy, resilient, defensive-minded team incapable of overcoming a difficult showing on the offensive end of the floor.
Over the course of 18 conference games, becoming more consistent will serve them well. However, if they get out of sync, nearly every Pac-12 opponent, including ASU, will not hesitate to exploit any Arizona inefficiencies and win the game outright.
On Saturday, ASU brings forward a style somewhat similar to the same St. John’s team that took the action to the Wildcats, beat them to loose balls, scored on broken plays, and got enough easy buckets in transition to earn the upset victory.
To win, Arizona needs to make sure all of their big men get involved in the offense, starting with Zeke Nnaji, who has been the team’s most consistent player on both ends of the floor this season. The Wildcat guards need to attack off the dribble and avoid settling for an overabundance of 3-Point shots. Granted, if the outside shots are falling, Arizona is all but unstoppable on the offensive end of the floor. However, ASU is going to dare Arizona to shoot over the top of its defense and the Wildcats should avoid taking the bait, instead attacking the painted area, outscore ASU on points in the paint, and outshoot the Sun Devils from the free throw line.
Perhaps most important is Arizona being a more aggressive rebounding team. Arizona enters league play with a rebounding margin below plus four (+4). If team rebounding remains the same, the Wildcats will struggle in conference. Defensive field goal percentage can only take a defense so far, and without securing the rebound off a miss and therefore minimizing scoring opportunities for the opponent, Arizona will be fighting an uphill battle. A key, in this area, is Arizona’s big guards getting more involved on the defensive boards. In non-conference play, Arizona’s guards seemed more concerned with triggering the fast break rather than being in solid rebounding position to protect against the types of tip outs and loose ball scrambles that have, to this point, plagued the Wildcats.
I expect to see a more concentrated effort from all five Wildcats on the floor to first secure the defensive rebound on Saturday, especially since the team has now had a chance to take a step back and really breakdown game film from the non-conference slate. If they do that, they’re going to be tough to beat, particularly at home where Arizona is 101-9 (.918) in the last 110 games played at McKale Center.