On Dec. 14, the Gonzaga Bulldogs try and go for three against the Pac-12 when they take on the Arizona Wildcats. Gonzaga has already defeated the Oregon Ducks in the Bahamas and the Washington Huskies on the road. Heading into Tucson and upsetting ‘Zona would be oh so sweet, but is a lot easier said than done. To learn a bit more about Arizona, we spoke with Ryan Kelapire from AZ Desert Swarm.
TSSF: Arizona has a couple of highly-touted freshman studs in Nico Mannion and Zeke Nnaji. What are the other pieces of the machine that are working so well for the Wildcats this year?
Don’t forget about the other highly-touted freshman, Josh Green (editor’s note: I did). He was a top-10 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, and so far has looked the part. Green is not the most prolific scorer (12.5 ppg), but he can do damage at all three levels of the court and is especially dangerous at the rim because of a wicked combination of strength and bounce. He and Mannion, his former travel ball teammate, are extremely dangerous in transition.
The other guy to watch for is Dylan Smith, who is a really odd player in that you don’t really know what you’re going to get from him. But when his 3-point shot is on and he is not being too reckless with his drives, he can be a game-changer. Smith and Green are Arizona’s top perimeter defenders, though length is the name of Smith’s game.
TSSF: Outside of Baylor (and Illinois), Arizona has played a lot of good teams, but not necessarily a lot of great teams. What were the expectations coming into this season, and how do you think those have held up for Arizona so far?
Expectations are pretty high for Arizona this season. Before the Wildcats lost Brandon Williams (who would have been the starting two-guard) for the season, I’d say most fans viewed the Wildcats as a Final Four or Elite Eight-level team. Those expectations are still more or less the same because Zeke Nnaji is a lot better than anticipated and the Wildcats got some fantastic news before the season when they learned that Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker Jr. was immediately eligible to play this season. He has filled Williams’ role as a combo guard who can shoot but also spell Mannion when needed. Baker is shooting 50 percent from 3 and has a crazy assist-to-turnover ratio of 28 to 4.
So between Nnaji and Baker, and then Mannion and Green being as good as advertised, most feel like the sky is the limit for this Arizona team. It’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together.
TSSF: Rather than talk about the one loss to Baylor, I’d rather talk about the almost loss to Pepperdine. Arizona’s got a pretty decent defense, but the Waves averaged 1.21 points per possession in the near upset. What in the world happened in that game?
First off, you have to give Pepperdine some credit. They were hitting some really tough shots that game. But the Waves also exposed that Arizona isn’t the most fundamentally sound team on defense. They didn’t close out hard that night and had a lot of miscommunications on screens and cuts that left too many shooters open. A lot of that has to do with the fact they rely heavily on three freshmen and those kinds of mistakes are going to happen with such a young team. But they are learning. It is worth noting that the Wildcats held Baylor to 0.87 points per possession and do have the personnel to be a dominant defensive team.
However, Arizona has not faced a team with the offensive firepower that Gonzaga has.
TSSF: KenPom puts this game at a 55% chance for an Arizona win. What needs to go right for the Wildcats to hold off Gonzaga at home? On the flip side, what does Gonzaga need to do to pull off the road win?
Arizona is focusing on limiting their turnovers this week, so that is one thing. It’s not like Arizona has been super turnover prone, but they have these stretches where they pile up and it allows their opponents to make a run. It’s why all of the Wooden Legacy games, despite being against average at best opponents, were all close. Defending the 3-point line is obviously important too, as well as rebounding. Arizona hasn’t shown many weaknesses this season, but rebounding can’t really be considered a strength either. It goes without saying that the Wildcats actually have to make shots too. They shot 27 percent in the loss to Baylor, their first bad offensive game of the season.
One thing Gonzaga needs to do is limit Arizona’s transition game and force them to execute in the halfcourt. Not only is Arizona at their best when they are pushing the ball (as I said, Mannion and Green are so, so good in that area) but preventing those highlight plays will also help the Bulldogs keep the McKale Center crowd in check, which is important because Arizona is a young team that has been a lot sharper at home this season, presumably because it is easier to play with high energy when you have 14,500 fans cheering you on.
TSSF: Score prediction!
It really is remarkable how similar these teams’ numbers are offensively and defensively, so because the Wildcats are at home, I will take them in a close one. Arizona wins 81-77.
Big thanks to Ryan for taking the time out of his day to answer our questions. Make sure to see my responses to his questions here (and my sad score prediction). Also, make sure to follow Ryan on Twitter for all things Arizona.