Arizona Wildcats use hot start to blow out California

Feb 1, 2024, 8:45 PM | Updated: 8:45 pm

Caleb Love #2 of the Arizona Wildcats drives against Jalen Cone #15 of the California Golden Bears ...

Caleb Love #2 of the Arizona Wildcats drives against Jalen Cone #15 of the California Golden Bears during the first half at McKale Center on February 01, 2024 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The Arizona Wildcats jumped out to a dominant advantage over the California Golden Bears on Thursday and rode that to a 91-65 win in Tucson.

Arizona secured a 16-6 lead a little over four minutes in and extended it to 29-11 at the 9:58 mark of the first half, an advantage in the high teens that held the rest of the night, extended even more in the mid-second half.

After a tremendous run in non-conference play, Arizona has had a few hiccups in a weak Pac-12. The Wildcats, however, have now won the fourth of their last five games and that lone loss was on a buzzer-beater 3 for Oregon State. It is a conference full of talent that has underwhelmed, opening the door for a running-the-table type run previous Arizona teams have achieved in the conference as well. The Wildcats are now 7-3 at the top of the Pac-12 and 16-5 overall on the season.

On Thursday against Cal, Arizona used its balance. It is the team’s biggest strength this year and also its biggest weakness. Senior guard Caleb Love will be one of the favorites for Pac-12 Player of the Year but the inconsistencies among the other four starters makes it anyone’s guess as to who will be Arizona’s second-best player on a night-to-night basis.

A leap, similar to the one Love has made, hasn’t quite come for that quartet. With that said, it’s a luxury for the Wildcats to have that many guys capable of performing at a high level.

The encouraging development for them on Thursday was a big night from their frontcourt of Oumar Ballo and Keshad Johnson, one that is more than capable of being one of the best in the country.

Ballo was a force inside with a game-high 22 points and 13 rebounds, making all eight of his shot attempts. Johnson added 15 points and five rebounds while Love scored a dozen with seven rebounds, four assists and a steal on zero turnovers.

Love has been exceptional for the Wildcats. He entered the night averaging over 19 points per game and has brought a much-needed perimeter scoring punch last year’s Wildcats sorely missed after the departure of Bennedict Mathurin. Love certainly has his moments where an ill-advised shot or a brain fart will come but his efficiency of a field goal percentage in the mid-40s is a huge improvement from his three years at North Carolina. He is committed to moving the ball, can make great passes and has a career-low number in turnovers as well.

Love’s confidence can almost carry Arizona on its own and it’s evident how he picks up his teammates with it. He has a chance to go down as the best transfer in the program’s history if he has the type of March he’s proven capable of in the past. That’s because of how good he has been and also how much this team will be relying on him under the bright lights.

Ballo hasn’t been able to relocate his monstrous form from the non-conference schedule last season while Johnson was tremendous to begin this year before some waning impact against Pac-12 opposition. Both players have been more or less solid throughout the season, which is exactly the problem for Arizona. It needs someone else to step up and all four guys have the potential to.

Sophomore guard Kylan Boswell and senior wing Pelle Larsson are the other half of that equation.

Boswell’s had a disappointing 21 games to begin the year after potentially looking like the next elite name to add alongside the numerous “Point Guard U” greats. Boswell is still figuring out how to command an offense while picking his spots, even though he’s armed with the skill to do so, the type that has him likely to go in the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft should he declare. It’s apparent when watching him that the battle between staying aggressive and not pressing is a balancing act he hasn’t nailed just yet. It’s natural for some players. Others need more time.

Versus the Golden Bears, Boswell was 3-for-8 with seven points, four rebounds and five assists.

Larsson in the last two weeks looked to be having the moment everyone wanted from him, amounting to 52 points over his last three contests prior to Saturday’s win over Oregon. Against the Ducks, though, he was 2-for-7 with seven points in that game and on Thursday it was an 0-for-5 evening with three points, six rebounds and three assists. Like Boswell, when he’s fully confident and in a rhythm, Larsson looks the part of a first-round pick.

The Wildcats as usual got to the foul line at will and that buffer helped keep their offense rolling. An 18-of-30 (60%) mark compared to seven total attempts for Cal was the main difference in the game.

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