Despite a loss in the semifinals of the Wooden Classic to unranked Providence, Arizona has a chance to enter a challenging Pac-12 schedule almost unscathed.
Most will argue that was head coach Sean Miller’s objective with a weak non-conference schedule, but those critics can’t deny a road win against Gonzaga and two wins against a Boise State team that recently beat Oregon.
That all comes to a head with their last major test on the non-conference schedule, a home game against UNLV.
The Running Rebels are coming off of a loss to Arizona State on Wednesday and are one of the most hit-or-miss teams in the country. With wins over ranked opponents such as Indiana and Oregon and narrow losses to Wichita State and Oregon, UNLV has shown that they can compete with some of the best teams in the country and are already very battle-tested this early in the season.
For the Wildcats, they have had three relatively easy opponents since the Gonzaga win in Fresno State, Missouri and Northern Arizona. They will look to continue the best home winning streak in college basketball, which stands at 45.
Here are three keys to the game.
Contain the top-tier talent
UNLV’s pedigree in the national media is being a team with loads of talent, but not being able to play consistently. One of Arizona’s pedigrees this season has been the inability to shut down premier players and it has shown in games against Santa Clara, Providence and Gonzaga. Those two pedigrees will collide Saturday night.
The Running Rebels have talented freshman center Stephen Zimmerman Jr., who was a serious target for the Wildcats in recruitment last year. Zimmerman is a skilled lefty who has natural footwork and ball handling ability for a seven footer. Arizona is still without Kaleb Tarczewski and that means Dusan Ristic will face off with Zimmerman, who struggled mightly against a similar smooth big, Domantas Sabonis of Gonzaga.
On the perimeter, Patrick McCaw is one of the most unique players in the country. According to sports-reference.com, McCaw and Kris Dunn are the only two players in the country averaging at least 15 points per game, three assists per game and three steals per game. Add in the fact that McCaw is shooting 44 percent from three-point range and you’ve got a truly dynamic player.
At 6-foot-7, there is no ideal player to guard McCaw on Arizona. The most likely candidate is Elliott Pitts, but Pitts has not played since the Gonzaga game on Dec. 5. It’s a huge opportunity for McCaw to show the nation what he’s about.
Play with high energy
That might sound like a standard line from a coach, but Arizona is severely outmatched in size and athleticism for this game. Zimmerman, Dwyane Morgan and Ben Carter are the true size down low. McCaw, Derrick Jones Jr, Jordan Cornish and Ike Nwamu have size and bounce on the perimeter, especially Jones.
Point guard Jerome Seagears is the only UNLV player that gets serious run in the rotation that is under 6-foot-5, while Arizona plays four guards that fit the bill. Even if we see Pitts, he’s only 6-foot-5 and will be undersized against the likes of McCaw.
That’s going to require extra energy from those undersized guards like Gabe York and Allonzo Trier, but the Wildcats will need even more from those who can match UNLV like forwards Mark Tollefsen and Ryan Anderson.
This is even more important with the way UNLV handles the ball. The Runnin’ Rebels rank 244th in turnovers per game in the country and Arizona can make up for a lack of athleticism by causing havoc for UNLV on both ends.
Continue to play Arizona basketball
Points two and three are intertwined. Miller’s team this season doesn’t have the long and extremely athletic NBA caliber wings that he’s had in the past to win him games both defensively and on the glass, but that hasn’t stopped the Wildcats from playing their own style of basketball.
Arizona ranks 34th in the country for rebounds per game with 41.6 and 16th in points allowed at 60.4. UNLV has enough firepower across the board to end Arizona’s incredible run in Tucson, but there’s no doubt who comes out on top if Arizona plays Miller’s way.
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