Cal MBB vs. Arizona 2014: A 1,461-word Q & A with AZ Desert Swarm

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

#1 Arizona visits Cal tonight. Arizona is currently undefeated, and looks to continue that streak against a biding Cal team. AZ Desert Swarm, SBNation's Arizona Wildcats community, sent Kevin Zimmerman and Jason Bartel as emissaries to give us some insight on their team.

1. Your program kind of floundered a bit in the period between Lute Olson and Sean Miller. How has Sean Miller stepped in and so quickly made you into an elite national power again?

Kevin Zimmerman: I think Miller got some luck in some sense, but I'm betting he would have gotten this far eventually. The first recruiting class he scrapped together included the trio of USC commits in Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Momo Jones. Their sophomore season saw the Wildcats go on an Elite EIght run, and after that I think Williams' going No. 2 in the draft helped jump-start the process. But all along, Miller has preached Arizona as "A Player's Program" and it's really worked well in recruiting multiple elite players. He's also a pretty darn good coach.

Jason Bartel: Any team, college or pro, that has four different head coaches in four years is going to flounder, and the stability Miller has brought to this program has been big. He just seems so good at recruiting that he'll be able to land the elite guys for years to come, but not necessarily bring in a bunch of one-and-done guys. There's a lot of continuity, and it's showing up this year.

2. Who's the #1 player on offense that Cal needs to take away? Have any teams managed to limit his production this year?

KZ: Cal would best be suited and might even be best suited by taking away point guard T.J. McConnell. If Justin Cobbs makes McConnell feel the pressure, then the Wildcats will have trouble getting their big men like Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley involved. That was the case this past week against Utah, and Nick Johnson needed to score in the 20s to carry Arizona. If he's also out of sync, Cal has a shot at winning.

JB: I would go with McConnell too. The offense starts with him on every possession. Taking away T.J. essentially takes away everyone else.

3. Who's the 1 "under the radar" player that could explode if Cal's not careful?

KZ: Tarczewski I think might be apt to get going just because he had a pretty quiet game against Utah and because he's got a bit of size on Richard Solomon and David Kravish. Even if he's not scoring a lot, the 7-footer makes a big difference and has shown the ability to pass out of the post if doubles come. And that's why bothering McConnell, who makes it a point to share the ball to the post, is big for the Golden Bears.

JB: Gabe York. This year he seems a lot more confident and has the ability to have a big game if a team leaves him alone. If he's left open, he can stroke it, so Cal should make sure to keep an eye on him when he comes in.

4. Based on the numbers, you tend to play slow despite your impressive collection of athletes. Is this true? If so, why?

KZ: Sean Miller is fine playing at a moderate tempo just to get the defense in place. And with the Wildcats' size they like to play with, it makes sense they aren't outrunning people. Arizona actually doesn't force a lot of turnovers, and they seem fine defending long possessions to force bad shots at the end of shot clocks, so I think that plays a lot into the pace.

JB: Yeah, it's definitely not a fast-paced offense. Defense is the signature of this team, and they are more than content to defend the entire 35 seconds, then just take the ball down the floor and run the offense they want to run.

5. Aaron Gordon got a ton of publicity (and rightfully deserved) as an elite freshman big man. However, to my eyes, Brandon Ashley has arguably been more impressive, especially with his offensive versatility. Am I right or have I been enjoying too much of that high quality Berkeley "produce"?

KZ: It's not misguided. Personally, I thought that earlier on, and in terms of production, Ashley has been more consistent. Gordon is still extremely unpolished on the offensive end and I think his defense is a little overhyped (not bad). But last game was a great example of why people love Gordon. He had an awful shooting game but single-handedly changed the complexion against the Utes late, allowing UA to pull away. Within a few plays of one another, he grabbed an offensive board for his first dunk and blocked Jordan Loveridge on a jumper that led to a fastbreak. He's changed the momentum in a few other games as well. But you're right about Ashley. He's gone under the radar and might be Arizona's most improved player.

JB: Brandon Ashley's been the biggest surprise for me this year. He has improved a huge amount from last year, and I would say he's just as important as Aaron Gordon if not more important. I'm personally still not convinced that Gordon is even the best freshman on this team. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been a stud this season. He's struggled a little bit in conference play, but I see him being a huge reason this team has success come March.

No. 6 Arizona Opens with 73-62 Win Over Cal Poly (via Arizona Wildcats)

6. Nick Johnson has taken a huge step forward, increasing his scoring by about 5 ppg and his FG% by about 5%. How has he improved as a scorer?

KZ: Johnson's jumper has improved quite a bit this season, but he's also developed a floater and a driving game that he never had the tools to combine with his athleticism and use. Also, I think he's sort of seen it as his time to be aggressive for the first time in his career.

JB: He's taking better shots. I think the addition of McConnell has helped Johnson as well. Now he doesn't have to worry about the point guard duties and can focus on just being a scorer.

7. Arizona has played elite defense, ranking 4th in opponent's FG% and 3rd in opponent's 2P FG %. What are the characteristics of Sean Miller's defense? Who's the lockdown defender that our team should fear?

KZ: Johnson is the guy who'll take the biggest perimeter threat on defense -- freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is probably going to make an NBA paycheck with his defense -- but it's really about the concepts. Miller employs sort of a Pack Line defense that pressures the ball with the guards and has the size in the middle to challenge any perimeter drives that get by the guards. The recruitment of size (Tarczewski is 7', Ashley is 6'8 and Gordon is 6'7) helps stop any twos, and three-point defense is also a big part of it. The versatility also allows for a lot of switching.

JB: What Kevin said.

8. You guys appear to be 7 deep. Is depth a concern at all heading into the Pac-12 season?

KZ: The depth issue isn't a concern now, but it's one injury away from being that. Then again, an injury to any of the seven main rotation players would be huge. Miller subs a lot and the versatility gives him a little more leeway since guys can play backup at other positions, so I don't worry about fatigue much.

JB: Yeah, fatigue isn't really a factor at this point. All seven guys play almost equal minutes. An injury would be big, but there's always the backup options of Jordin Mayes and Matt Korcheck who have shown flashes of great play this year, along with Elliott Pitts.

9. Without jinxing anything, do you think Arizona has the depth, talent, and focus to run the Pac-12 table?

KZ: Ability compared to realistic chance of running the Pac-12 table are two different things. Arizona is far and away the best team in the league, and I think the standings now show the competition isn't what it once was. Still, it's hard for me to see any team going undefeated like that, simply because of good ol' human nature.

JB: They definitely have the ability. There's no doubt they'll be favored in every game from here on out with how weak the rest of the conference has shown to be this year. I just don't think that they'll finish the year undefeated, just like I don't think Syracuse will. I actually feel that the first loss of the year comes sometime on this road trip.

10. Be honest, "Bear Down" is a not so subtle way of saying that you'd all love to be Golden Bears, isn't it? What else from Berkeley would you love to adopt?

KZ: Do you have lawns there? Sometimes during the summer months, the mall at the heart of campus gets a little brown and dead. We'll take lawns of any sort.

JB: I'll take the ocean please. I'm a horse fan too so a racecourse like Golden Gate Fields would be sweet.

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