Want to ponder a depressingly plausible outcome? The Sean Miller–led Arizona Wildcats, temporarily wounded thanks to having an assistant coach that has pleaded guilty to federal charges(!!!), still win the 2019 Pac-12 title because everybody else is even more mediocre.
The Wildcats aren’t overwhelming favorites or anything. They’re probably not even the single team most likely to take the crown. But they’re definitely in the conversation despite the fact that they don’t have a single contributing five-star freshman! Shed a tear for the poor, deprived Arizona fan who must suffer through one year of good-to-average basketball before Josh Green and Nico Mannion arrive on campus.
Sean Miller has adopted the ostrich crisis management strategy and has refused to comment publicly on the issue for nearly a year. That strategy is working perfectly. He appears to be very, very likely to get away with major NCAA violations within the program he runs while only losing an assistant coach and whatever reputation he may have had for running a clean program. The former is replaceable and the latter is, apparently, valueless. In many ways I admire the brazenness of it all. But like I said last year: I’d respect Arizona more if they tried to argue that NCAA regulations are an illegal/immoral barrier to the free exchange of payment for work and talent.
Oh, yeah, Arizona’s team this year. I guess we can talk about them.
PG Justin Coleman – Grad transfer has had odd, circuitous career. Low usage, solid shooter, high turnover rate for a point guard
G Brandon Williams – Arizona’s best freshman recruit (‘only’ a 4 star) is a combo guard who does everything well except for actually putting the ball into the basket.
G Brandon Randolph – Go-to-guy is a slasher wing and reliable ball handler who gets to the rim and draws fouls.
G Emmanuel Akot – wing who is struggling to badly to make an offensive impact (single game high score: 7) that I can only assume that he’s a lock down defender.
C Chase Jeter – hyper efficient low post scorer and rebounder. Will likely eat us alive just like Rakocevic did.
C Ryan Luther – Stretch 5 who has attempted more 3s and 2s. Aggressive defender.
F Ira Lee – Erstwhile Cal recruiting target still struggling to get minutes largely thanks to a sky-high turnover rate.
G Dylan Smith – Back up shooting guard is basically a 3-and-D guy who shoots a low volume of 3s.
There’s one thing very Sean Miller about this team: the defense. With Bol Bol’s season-ending injury, there’s a pretty decent chance that Arizona now has the best defense in the Pac-12. There’s nothing super flashy about Arizona’s D – they don’t block a ton of shots or get a ton of steals – but they do all of the fundamental defense stuff well. By that I mean that they don’t give up anything easy and they pull down the defensive board.
In that sense this is an interesting challenge for an intriguing, young Cal offense. If this is the best defense Cal has faced so far this year, how well will the revamped offense respond?
Keys to the Game
Can Cal avoid offensive turnovers?
Cal’s biggest offensive strength is probably turnover avoidance, but forcing turnovers is one of the strengths of Arizona’s defense. So what gives? The answer may well depend on whether or not Paris Austin returns after missing Cal’s last two games to injury. If Cal can run their offense without turning the ball over, then they’ll maybe have a shot to score on Miller’s defense.
Which team can play defense without fouling?
When Cal has the ball you’ve got an offense that’s pretty good at drawing fouls against a defense that’s pretty good at avoiding them. When Arizona has the ball you’ve got an offense that’s average at getting to the line against a defense that fouls a ton. And both teams are excellent shooting from the line. If either team can find a way to play defense without fouling it would give them a solid advantage.
How does Cal slow down Chase Jeter?
Cal has been badly shredded by pretty much every high end big man they’ve faced, along with a few that maybe wouldn’t be considered high end. From Malik Fitts and Nate Grimes to Nick Rakocevic and Moses Brown, competent interior scorers have had their way. Chase Jeter is certainly on that list – 65% shooters on 2 point shots who draw lots of fouls and pull down lots of boards have tended to have good days against the Cal defense. If Cal is going to start pulling upsets, they’re going to have to find ways to mitigate their biggest weakness.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Kenpom sez: Arizona 76, Cal 68, 75% chance of an Arizona win
Cal goes into this game with about the same chance of winning as they did against Arizona State. Will Arizona also spot Cal an early lead with a disinterested, haphazard opening 10 minutes? And even if the Wildcats do, can Cal play enough defense over the entire 40 minutes to eke out a win? It’s going to happen at some point this season, why not now?