After a poor weekend against the Los Angeles schools in which its two game lead in the conference standings disappeared within a matter of 72 hours, Arizona returns to Tucson in a deadlock with UCLA atop the Pac-10.
In a normal scenario, a game against a team with a record of 5-11 in conference and 10-17 overall would instill confidence in the fan base that UA is in a good position to win. With Craig Robinson and Oregon State coming to town on Thursday for a 7pm MST tipoff though, UA fans are likely feeling a little less certain about the outcome of the game.
After all, in the Sean Miller era, UA has posted a 0-3 record against Robinson and OSU, including a 76-75 defeat on January 2nd in Corvallis. Since winning its first two games of conference play however, the Beavers have gone on to lose 10 of their last 13 games and find themselves in ninth place in the Pac-10.
Despite its struggles, Oregon State has proven it has what it takes to upend the Wildcats either at home or on the road. OSU has given UA problems defensively in the past, and that defense is led by one of the best perimeter defenders in the country in Jared Cunningham.
Coming into Thursday, the 6-foot-4 sophomore is ranked fourth in the nation in steals with 2.9 swipes per game. He's also the team leader in several categories, as his 13.8 points in 28.8 minutes per contest both rank tops on the team.
Cunningham is also the team's leading three-point shooter, connecting on 35.4 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. He's also been quite effective from inside the arc, hitting 42.6 percent of his field goal attempts on the season.
His 2.1 assists per outing are good for second on the team, and he's become the team's best player as an underclassman. If OSU wants another victory against UA, it will need Cunningham to post similar numbers to his 18 points and five steals that he put up against Arizona in January.
Aside from Cunningham, Oregon State does not have another scorer averaging double digits. That player is 6-foot-3 guard Calvin Haynes, although he has lost his starting job and is now coming off the bench.
The senior is averaging 9.9 points to go along with a team best 2.2 assists per game, and like Cunningham is active in the passing lane with 1.3 steals per contest. A second team All-Pac-10 performer a year ago, Haynes is struggling this season beyond the arc, hitting only 26.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range.
He did have one of his best outings of the season against UA in January, when he put up 18 points and nabbed two steals in 30 minutes. Things haven't come easy for Haynes, but with previous successes against UA he'll be looking to end his college career with a few solid outings.
Stepping in for Haynes into the starting lineup is Ahmad Starks, who is currently fourth on the team in scoring at 7.2 points per game. The 5-foot-8 freshman has not been very efficient in his scoring however, as he's connecting on just 34.7 percent of his field goal attempts and 30.3 percent of his three-point tries.
Omari Johnson's 7.1 points per contest rank him behind Starks and four other Beavers this season. The 6-foot-9 senior is the team's leading rebounder at 6.1 boards per game, and he led the way on the glass last time out against UA with seven rebounds in 29 minutes in January.
Johnson has been more effective as an offensive player the closer he plays to the basket. He's connecting on just 25.9 percent of his tries from three-point range, but is hitting 46.4 percent of his shots overall. UA will need to locate Johnson on the defensive glass to prevent him from second chances near the rim.
Angus Brandt has been far less affective near the rim as a starter, as he's hitting just 39.1 percent of his field goal attempts this season. The 6-foot-10 sophomore doesn't do anything especially great, as he averages just 4.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game.
He'll give way to Joe Burton early on in the contest, a player that gave the Wildcats all they could handle in the season's earlier meeting. The 6-foot-7 sophomore put in 18 points, including the eventual game winning layup with 28 seconds remaining, and pulled down five rebounds in 33 minutes.
Since that meeting however, Burton has been almost non-existent for Oregon State. After averaging 8.8 points in the team's first 13 games, he has averaged only 4.7 points in the 14 games since the game against UA. For the season, Burton is averaging seven points per outing and 5.2 rebounds, which is good for second on the team.
The final starter for OSU is Devon Collier, the team's third leading rebounder at four boards per game. The 6-foot-7 freshman has been very effective when shooting the ball this season, hitting 55.5 percent of his attempts on his way to 6.3 points per contest.
Collier had one of his best games of the season in January against UA, when he scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in 27 minutes. The Beavers will need Collier to continue to mature and develop and have another solid outing against the Wildcats in order to have another chance at defeating Arizona.
Aside from Haynes and Burton, Roberto Nelson is another player likely to see time off the bench for the Beavers. The 6-foot-3 redshirt-freshman started off the season well, but has since come back down to earth and is connecting on just 29.1 percent of his three-point attempts and only 38.3 percent of his field goal tries overall.
Nelson is averaging seven points in his 15.7 minutes per game, although he's coming off a game against California where he played just six minutes. UA did a great job against Nelson in January, holding him to zero points on 0-5 shooting in 18 minutes.
As previously mentioned, winning against Oregon State has been a huge struggle for the Wildcats of late. They'll need to reverse the trend this time out as the lead in the Pac-10 is riding on this game.
It's no secret that Arizona will need to shore things up defensively. OSU is a team that thrives on patience and finding holes in the defense, so UA will need to communicate well and work together as a unit defensively in order to prevent the Beavers from easy baskets.
When the Wildcats have the ball, they'll need to be crisp and precise with their passing. Lazy passes of late have led to innumerable turnovers for Arizona the past few games, and if they continue to be careless with the basketball, Cunningham and company will be active in the passing lanes and exploit lackadaisical play from UA.
There's definitely more on the line here for the Wildcats, and Oregon State is likely to come out playing loose and aggressively with little to lose. Arizona needs to exploit its advantages in size and athleticism, and finally get the Beaver off its back and look to close out the regular season Pac-10 title.
Wildcats start final week of regular season
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