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Cal vs. Arizona: Preview

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From the frying pan into the fire: Previewing Cal’s brutal start to Pac-12 play

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga vs Arizona Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

You know what’s the first thing I notice when I look at Arizona? Man, they scheduled way smarter than us. Four games against legit teams (they went 2-2) and then 9 games against teams that almost entirely sit between 100 and 199 nationally. Arizona wasn’t THAT much better than Cal in the non-conference, but their computer profile looks miles better because of smart scheduling. Sigh.

OK, that’s a not-super-important tangent to what really matters: Beating Arizona and starting off Pac-12 play with a huge win that would be a strong signal of intent - that Cal is a contender right alongside the Wildcats, Ducks, and Bruins. I don’t need to tell you that defending home court is a necessary ingredient to any plausible conference title attempt.

Arizona is the same but different. They’re the same because Sean Miller is in charge, and Sean Miller brings in similarly awesome recruits every year, and plays the same basic style of basketball. But the names are different. You get a Lauri Markkanen rather than a Ryan Anderson, a Rawle Alkins rather than an Allonzo Trier*. Whatever, they’re all really good and will probably lose in the elite eight regardless of whether or not Cal wins on Friday night.

*Trier, as you may have heard, has been indefinitely unavailable for indefinitely described reasons, causing rampant internet speculation. I, personally, don’t care about the reason. All I know is that he won’t be available and Arizona will be without probably their 2nd best player and most dangerous wing.

Roster

Starters

PG Kadeem Allen - Lowest usage of Arizona’s 5 starters, and struggling as a finisher, but he’ll hit from deep if you leave him alone.
G Kobi Simmons - 5 star freshman guard is a dangerous slasher who makes up for mediocre finishing by drawing lots of fouls.
G Rawle Alkins - 5 star freshman guard a bit turnover prone but has otherwise stepped in nicely for Allonzo Trier.
F Lauri Markkanen - On the short list for Pac-12 POY - ultra efficient, versatile offensive threat who never turns the ball over and can shoot from anywhere. Usage rate makes me think that Arizona struggles to get him the ball a la Cal and Rabb.
F Dusan Ristic - Not as polished a threat as Tarczewski, but not a stiff either. Solid two way rebounder/interior defender.

Bench

F Chance Comanche - back up big struggles with turnovers, a solid finisher when he gets the ball in good position.
G Parker Jackson-Cartwright - Arizona’s best distributor may not even play, and if he does, his effectiveness is in question.
F Keanu Pinder - Defensive specialist and rebounder has an unpolished offensive game but can do damage on the offensive glass.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kenpom sez: Arizona 64, Cal 63, 48% chance of a Cal win

There’s enough roster turbulence with these teams that granular predictions don’t mean a ton. Both teams have played most of the pre-season with lesser rotations than anticipated, and both might have key players back from injury at unknown levels of effectiveness. Let’s just say that it will probably be close and move on.

Keys to the Game

Who guards Markkanen, and how effective will he be?

I’m assuming the answer is Ivan. At first blush it might be attractive to give the assignment to Kingsley, but asking our 7 foot shot blocker to guard a versatile stretch 4 probably isn’t a good idea, to say nothing of Ivan guarding the 245 pound Ristic. Luckily Markkanen isn’t a foul drawing monster (yet) and Ivan’s length and quickness may well prevent him from getting off shots.

Will either team return an effective, previously injured player?

If Arizona has a weakness, it’s a propensity for turnovers, which can be tied to losing an experience ball handler and handing over more responsibility to a pair of true freshmen combo guards. Meanwhile, Cal would love to get Kam Rooks back in a game that will demand consistent high level defense from a 7 foot post for 40 minutes, not the 25 Cal would typically get from just having Kingsley. Will either team get what they want?

Can Cal keep Arizona off the offensive glass?

2nd chance points are a key part of the Arizona offense, and it’s something that has paid dividends even in losses when other aspects of their offense aren’t as effective. But Cal is, by a fair margin, probably the best defensive rebounding team they have faced (especially if Kam plays). It will take a team effort, because Arizona has a bunch of players grabbing occasional offensive boards rather than one monster that nobody can box out.

Can Cal finally turn on-paper offense into actual offense?

This is where we get a little broken-recordish. You can see the pieces. Ivan is an elite post threat, Charlie is a freshman prodigy, Jabari is playing the best basketball of his career, Sam and Grant both bring different but valuable skills as secondary point guards, Kam and King are both solid offensive rebounders and 4th choice threats . . . it might not be an elite offense, but it HAS to be better than the nationally average offense that the numbers say it has been so far, right? Arizona is a good defensive team, but they ain’t Virginia - let’s show them what we learned by taking on the best. Which brings us to . . .

Shoot the danged ball into the net

Sure, the majority of Cal’s bad shooting against Virginia was because of Virginia . . . but damn, they still missed some passable shots and some open looks against the Cavaliers. We all know what kind of game this is going to be - a low possession, defensively bruising slugfest where every possession is critical. A couple extra made shots go a long, long way.