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Wyoming's stunning upset over sixth-seeded Gonzaga proved a couple of points to the national audience on Thursday night. One was that the Zags might have been slightly overrated/the committee was right, and two, that the Cowboys are for real.
Led by the determined play of senior Josh Davis and power forward Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, Wyoming held Gonzaga to 26 percent shooting, including a 7-24 performance by first-team All-American Bulldog point guard Dan Dickau. However, don't let those numbers mislead you. It was Gonzaga that simply missed its open looks.
Along with the 17 misses from the almost automatic Dickau, fellow guard sharpshooter Blake Stepp went only 1-13 from the field. Both of the Zag guards had plenty of opportunities to score but they either missed wide-open shots or had them rim in and out.
That is not likely to be repeated when Wyoming faces No.3 seed Arizona on Saturday evening. The Wildcats have the kind of ball and player movement that the Cowboys have seen very little of this year and two shooters in Salim Stoudamire and Jason Gardner who rarely miss open shots. Throw in the playmaking of forward Luke Walton and the improved outside shot of Rick Anderson and the Cowboys have their hands full on defense.
The one person to make sure has a hand in his face at all times is Davis. He's an all-purpose player that hits the boards hard, scores from inside or out and blocks shots. He made the plays of the game against Gonzaga because of his aggressiveness and hustle. First, he had a follow-up dunk on a teammate's missed shot and then sprinted down court to block Dickau's lay-up attempt. That gave the Cowboys all the momentum they would need to hold on for the 73-66 victory.
The assignment of stopping Davis defensively will likely be given to Walton, who is equally as big and an even better all-around player. Davis is more athletic but in the NCAA Tournament it's the players with the higher basketball IQ's that generally find themselves leading their teams deeper into March.
Here are some of the keys for Arizona to win this game and advance to its ninth Sweet 16 under Olson.
*Attack the glass.
-Wyoming is a good rebounding team while Arizona is a good rebounding team when it wants to be. This is the tournament and the Wildcats realize that they have to be there each and every time they take the floor. Neutralizing Cowboy big men Davis, Nsonwu-Amadi and Ugo Udezue is the top priority for Walton, Anderson and the freshman trio of Channing Frye, Isaiah Fox and Dennis Latimore. Wyoming forward Marcus Bailey also gets a number of rebounds from the wing, so either Walton or Stoudamire will have to put a body on him when the ball comes off the iron.
The one positive aspect of Arizona's five-point win over UC-Santa Barbara on Thursday night was the play of Frye on both ends of the court. He scored the most points he's scored in over a month (16) and played solid yet smart defense while hitting the boards hard on defense. It looked like Channing was much more aggressive and/or comfortable on the floor against the Gauchos than he had been in some time.
Anderson had seven offensive rebounds against UCSB, a number that is very impressive for anyone in any game. He would have been the player of the game with his 19 points and nine boards had it not been for the All-American play of Jason Gardner.
*Move the ball around and stay active on offense.
-When the Cats shot 32 percent in the first half against UCSB, Lute Olson said it had to do with the lack of one thing: ball movement. He told his team at halftime that in order for the offense to be most effective, both the ball and the five guys on the floor had to be in constant motion. As always, the Wildcats listened to their coach and made the proper adjustments and shot an incredible 59 percent in the second half.
While ball movement sounds simple enough, a lot of it depends on the players' energy level and how active they are away from the ball. Stoudamire is always moving, whether he has the ball or not, and that's why he finds himself open in the corners for three-pointers all the time. In the second half of the Santa Barbara game, it was Anderson who benefited the most from his activity and the improved ball movement in the offense when he made three threes to stifle repeated Gaucho comeback attempts.
Frye, Fox and Latimore will have their hands full against the physicality of Nsonwu-Amadi and Udezue in the paint, but the Wildcats' frontcourt depth and big-game experience should be enough to overcome some of Wyoming's strength advantages.
*Let Jason Gardner do his thing.
-Sean Elliott had it and Miles Simon had it, that's about the extent of Arizona's "special" players when it came to big games and hitting the key shots in Tournament play. Now Jason Gardner has "it". What "it" is is almost unexplainable and certainly not tangible or quantifiable. What these three Wildcats possess is a certain will and desire to win. Gardner, who is not blessed with the size of either Elliott or Simon, might be the most impressive of any Arizona player when it comes to being money in the clutch.
The junior from Indy has been making big shots since his first week in an Arizona uniform and has been making them even more frequently this year on this freshman-heavy team. The thing about Jason Gardner is that even if he only makes two shots in a game you can bet that they were in the final minutes and that they either gave the Wildcats a lead or put the game away.
And lately Gardner has started to show off his tremendously underrated (or underused) mid-range game and playmaking skills. No longer does Jason float around outside the arc waiting to hoist up another three-pointer, now he cuts, slashes and drives into the lane, almost forcing something to happen but yet staying under control at the same time. Olson could not wish for a better combination of players that compliment each other as well as Gardner and Walton do.
If the game against Wyoming comes down to the wire, as it very well could, give Arizona the instant advantage. The Cowboys have no one close to the level of Gardner when it comes to coming through late in the game.
Because Jason Gardner isn't ready to go home yet, Arizona will defeat Wyoming on Saturday and get to next weekend's Sweet 16.
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