We have arrived at what is very likely the toughest game of the season. Syracuse on a neutral court is tough. Creighton and UCLA on the road are tough. But Arizona at McKale, even without Brandon Ashley, is as tough as it can get in college basketball this year.
Which means that, in all likelihood, you and I will be overreacting to a defeat later today. We will both know that Arizona has won every single game they have played at home this year, by an average margin of 21.6 points. We all know that only two teams (UNLV and Oregon, oddly) have lost by fewer than nine points in Tucson.
But we'll still overreact, fret, speculate and otherwise make too much of this game. It's our job as fans, I suppose.
Unless Cal wins. Then we can have a good old fashioned freak out. That'd be fun, wouldn't it?
C Kaleb Tarczewski(So), 7'0, 235 lbs
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson(Fr), 6'7, 215 lbs
F Aaron Gordon(Fr), 6'9, 225 lbs
G Nick Johnson(Jr), 6'3, 200 lbs
G T.J. McConnell(Jr), 6'1, 195 lbs
G Gabe York(So), 6'3, 180 lbs
G Elliott Pitts(Fr), 6'5, 180 lbs
G Jordin Mayes(Sr), 6'3, 190 lbs
As always, everything from Scott's earlier preview still stands, other than the Ashley injury. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has stepped into the starting lineup in his absence, and that isn't much of a drop off. The two players are actually remarkably similar. Ashley has shot the ball better this year, but Hollis-Jefferson makes up for it with a better assist/turnover ratio.
No, Ashley's injury hurts Arizona's bench. Rather than bringing in a forward off the bench that would start for every other team in the conference, the Wildcats now have to go 'small' by playing either Gabe York or Nick Johnson as their 3. It also means that more marginal players like Elliott Pitts and Jordin Mayes are getting occasionally minutes as backup wings.
It's only 10-15 minutes that those players have to cover, but having to worry about 4 really really good players rather than 5 for a few minutes is nice. And of course Arizona has to lean more heavily on their starters. Currently the Wildcats are 304th in the country in bench minutes, and that includes when Ashley was healthy and Arizona got a bunch of early season blowouts, so the number is probably even more extreme now.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Kenpom: Arizona 72, Cal 58, 92% chance of an Arizona win.
Yeesh. Granted, the Kenpom computer doesn't factor in the absence of Brandon Ashley, so maybe Cal's chances creep up towards 15%? Either way, a win here would be one of the bigger upsets of the Pac-12 regular season.
Keys to the game
Make shots, particularly jumpers - Arizona has the best defense in the country, and I don't get the sense that Ashley's injury has really changed that. Teams have a really, really hard time getting the ball inside and scoring. Thus, it's likely that Cal will attempt more jumpers than usual, and they're going to have to hit a decent amount of them to pull off the road upset. If a decent percentage of these hypothetical made jumpers are 3s, even better, although Arizona's defense is really good at not allowing teams to get off shots from behind the arc.
Force Arizona into missing a bunch of jumpers - Here's the flip side to the first key. Arizona's recent streak of games in which they have looked beatable (and, in fact, have been beaten twice) has happened because Arizona isn't a great shooting team, at least relative to all of the other things they do very, very well. Teams are packing the paint and forcing Arizona to shoot as many jumpers as possible.
Every time Nick Johnson takes a contested jumper, and every time Aaron Gordon bricks a shot from the elbow, let out a cheer. And if they start to make them, quietly curse and brace yourself for Cal's inevitable defeat.
Get a ‘playing in front of pro scouts' game from Solo - Cal was barely able to beat Arizona in part because they got a spectacular game from their most mercurial player. Richard Solomon is the one guy that stands between Arizona and total domination of the paint, but it will require a focused, controlled effort. We know he can bring it, we know the effort will be there. It might just be a matter of hitting a few shots, cleanly catching a few entry passes, or a few 50/50 calls on contests going his way, but it has to happen.
If nothing else, Solo (and Kravish and everybody else) need to keep Arizona off the offensive glass. Arizona's #1 offensive skill is getting multiple opportunities, and Cal was only so-so at locking down the defensive glass in Berkeley. They'll have to do even better to beat Arizona on the road, and it starts with Solomon.