The Arizona Wildcats have raced to the top spot in the AP and Coaches Poll with a 10-0 start to the 2013-14 season.
Sean Miller’s squad has beaten good teams, bad teams and teams somewhere in between. The Wildcats have won in Tucson, in San Diego and in New York City.
But what they haven’t done yet this season is beat an elite program on the road in front of a hostile crowd.
Saturday, they’ll get that chance against the Michigan Wolverines, who are ranked No. 25 in the Coaches Poll after an up-and-down beginning to their season.
The reigning National Championship runner-ups are a much different team than the squad that went toe-to-toe with Louisville on the first Monday in April.
Gone are Wooden Award-winner Trey Burke (Utah Jazz) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (New York Knicks), and in there place Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary have been tasked with taken on bigger roles in the offense.
The results have been so-so to say the least. John Beilein’s team comes into Saturday’s non-conference tilt in Ann Arbor sporting a 6-3 record with losses already to Charlotte, Duke and Iowa State.
Here’s a preview of what both teams need to in order to lay claim to an important December resume booster.
Keys for Arizona:
1. Start fast:
Despite their undefeated record, the Wildcats have no always been at their best at the start of games. In recent wins over Drexel, Duke and UNLV, Arizona found itself trailing at halftime.
There’s no question playing from behind is a great trait to have, especially if it can carry over to March, but with a roster full of underclassmen — Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Gabe York, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski — a quick start in front a rabid crowd at the Crisler Center could go a long way towards a victory.
It might not be center court at Madison Square Garden, but it’s not an easy place to play.
2. Stifle Stauskas:
After a sensational run through the NCAA tournament in 2013, sophomore Mitch McGary was thought to be Michigan’s primary offensive weapon heading into the current campaign.
However, lower back problems have limited his progress on the court this season, and he’s averaging just 9.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in seven appearances. McGary has hit no more than six field goals in a game this season and has reached double figures just three times.
With McGary still finding his form at the offensive end, Michigan’s sharp-shooting guard Nik Stauskas, has taken over the reigns.
The sophomore has scored at least 20 points in six of eight games he’s played in this season and is shooting 50 percent from three-point range.
If Arizona wins, it will have to run Staukas off the three-point arc. In Michigan’s three losses that’s exactly what happened. Charlotte, Duke and Iowa State held him to 5-of-16 from distance.
3. Win the rebounding battle:
Heading into play Saturday, Arizona leads the Pac-12 with 41.5 boards per game. In fact, the Wildcats are 82-17 under Sean Miller when winning the battle on the glass, including 10-0 this season.
That’s easier said than done, though, against the Wolverines.
While Michigan ranks No. 104 in that category with only 37.9 boards per game, it features plenty of physical bodies — McGary, Robinson III, Caris LeVer and Jon Horford — who are more than capable of dominating the glass on any particular night.
This will be a big boy game for Ashley, Gordon and Tarczewski. How they fare could ultimately determine the outcome of the contest.
Arizona is the Pac-12’s best road team over the last four-plus seasons, winning a league-best 25 games since the start of the 2009-10 campaign.
Keys for Michigan:
1. Take care of the basketball:
Freshman Derrick Walton Jr. is by no means Trey Burke, but he’s trying to do his part to take over for the former Michigan All-American.
Walton Jr. is going into Saturday’s contest averaging 9.2 points and 3.0 assists per game, but he’s struggled to hang on to the basketball. In nine appearances, the Michigan native has had at least two turnovers on eight occasions.
Against a veteran defender in T.J. McConnell (1.8 steals per game), ball security will have to be of the utmost importance. Possessions need to valued even more than usual for the Maize and Blue.
2. Be charitable:
Normally, giving a team free looks from the charity stripe wouldn’t be a good thing, but Arizona’s biggest weakness so far this season is its free throw shooting.
In 10 games, the Wildcats have shot an abysmal 66 percent from the charity stripe. If the game gets tight, Michigan should not be shy about using its foul.
No easy buckets should always be a moniker, but especially against Arizona and its star freshman Aaron Gordon. So far in 2013, he’s hit on only 21-of-47 attempts.
Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford should all be advised.
3. See the three, be the three:
In its six wins, Michigan has hit a total of 69 three-point shots. In its three losses, Michigan has hit a total of a total of 16 three-point shots.
It’s safe to say the perimeter game is an important part of what John Beilein’s squad does offensively.
Sophomore Nik Stauskas is a big part of that equation, having hit at least three shots from distances in five of eight games this season. If the Wolverines can get him going early and subsequently get the hometown crowd going early, it could bode well in their attempt to knock off the No. 1 team.
Historically, Michigan is only 2-23 all-time against the No.1-ranked team in the AP Poll.