Preview: Arizona/Cal

Cal would love to erase the memories of a blowout loss to DePaul by upending the highly ranked Wildcats in the Pac-10 opener for both teams. Arizona will look to break a string of mediocre first half performances and get conference play off to a rousing start with a full 40 minute effort against the visiting Bears.

Game 11: December 28, 2006

California (8-4, 0-0 Pac-10) vs. Arizona (9-1, 0-0 Pac-10)

Arena: McKale Center

Capacity: 14,572

The Cal Bears won the Great Alaskan Shootout by beating two quality opponents, Hawaii and Loyola Marymount, early in the season. Then the injury bug hit and Cal hasn't been the same, losing three of their last five, including a 28 point setback to DePaul. Tonight, Cal will again face a ranked opponent without their full roster as DeVon Hardin will be sidelined for up to eight weeks with a foot injury.

Arizona enters the game winners of nine straight and a #7 national ranking. Led by the heady play of senior point guard Mustafa Shakur the Wildcats are proving to be a difficult team to stop on offense. Arizona's beginning to settle into an eight and sometimes nine man rotation with Daniel Dillon, Brett Brielmaier, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise spelling the starters. What's more surprising is that the Wildcats are also proving to be a stingy defensive team when they want to be. Arizona has strung together several impressive second half performances against strong opponents and are beginning to resemble the 1984 Boston Celtics who were the most dominant third quarter team in the past two plus decades.

Clearly, Lute Olson and his staff are doing one of their best jobs in making adjustments at the break and the results speak for themselves. Arizona has outscored their last five opponents (Illinois, Louisville, San Diego State, Houston and Memphis) an average of 40.2 to 29.4 points (201 to 147) in the second half. The point differential can mainly be attributed to the fact that the Wildcats are holding teams to less than 40 percent field goal shooting in the final 20 minutes.

Here's how I think the teams will play this one out:


Arizona is averaging 85.9 points per game and should get at least that against a Cal team who has now lost two key players to injury. The Cats haven't played since Dec. 20 but the last time they came off of eight days rest, they beat Houston by 25 points. Tonight could be much of the same if Cal can't match Arizona's offensive production. Williams is coming off a foul-plagued, low production game against Memphis so expect Lute to try and get him off early. Also expect Budinger to assert himself early by attacking the basket. When he settles for jumpers, he becomes too one dimensional. When he's scoring inside and outside, he's virtually unstoppable. With the loss of DeVon Hardin, also expect the Wildcats to use Radenovic on the low block to put pressure on Cal's super frosh, Ryan Anderson.

Hardin's absence in the middle will hurt Cal in more ways than one. First, his 6 foot 11 frame was really the only potential mismatch Cal had for the smaller Cats inside. Second, Arizona will now be able to focus their attention solely on Anderson, who's leading the Bears with 17.8 PPG. Anderson scored 24 and grabbed 16 boards in a blowout loss to Depaul a few days ago. Ayinda Ubaka, Cal's senior point guard and a highly underrated player, in my opinion, will do his best to help out on the offensive end but Cal's ability to keep this game remotely close will require stellar play from the abovementioned as well as Omar Wilkes. If Wilkes can knock down some outside shots and help pull Arizona out of its zone defenses, then maybe the Bears stand a chance.


Both teams may come out a bit rusty following the brief holiday break, but once they break in their game legs expect the Wildcats to run all over Cal. With Hardin no longer clogging the lane, Arizona will attack the rim and the glass all night. Expect Budinger to lead the charge in going to the hole, which should open up some perimeter shots for McClellan and Williams. McClellan has been aiming his shots recently and as a result has struggled from the perimeter. I expect him to break out of his funk tonight as Cal will struggle to defend the Cats. The attacking Cats will force double teams and help defense and if McClellan rotates well, he should be the benefactor of some open shots.


Arizona will undoubtedly play zone defense tonight and force Cal to shoot over the outstretched arms of Arizona's lengthy defenders. Olson will incorporate some man defense from time to time to keep his players sharp, but there's no reason to think that Cal will be able to consistently score against the zone. The formula of late has been to run teams for the first half, wear them down, and then force them to shoot long jumpers with tired legs. I expect no changes tonight.

Expect Cal to struggle in defending Arizona. Hardin's presence inside could have potentially neutralized Arizona's leading scorer, Radenovic. Now, Radenovic could possibly have a field day against Cal, especially if Shakur, Budinger and Williams are able to break down their defenders and get into the paint. Cal will play mostly man, but may be forced to go zone if they can stop Arizona's penetration from the wings. If Cal does go zone, McClellan and even Wise off the bench could be in for big nights. If they go man, how well they defend Budinger, Williams and Radenovic will help to determine tonight's outcome. The one bright spot is that Cal's point guard, Ubaka, is a terror on defense and an all around great player. He may be able to go toe-to-toe with Shakur and if he does, may be able to disrupt Arizona's offense just enough to make this a sloppy and perhaps winnable game for Cal.


Right now Arizona's zone defenses are just nasty. They're playing the 2-3 so well that when they go to their traditional 1-3-1, the switch has been disguised so well that teams are struggling (and wasting precious seconds) trying to figure out what the Cats are in. The Cats confused Memphis in the second half and used their defense to pull away from the Tigers. Cal, unfortunately, doesn't have the horses right now to make the Cats pay for playing a zone defense. Anderson may get his 17.8 points per game average, but I don't know who else will be able to step up and replace Hardin's point and rebound totals to keep Cal in this one.


Arizona has done a fantastic job on the boards during the preseason. At times it appears as if they're getting killed on the boards but by game's end they've either matched their opponents' efforts or at times absolutely dominated them with a strong second half effort. Plus, until Arizona plays UCLA and Washington, there's no other Pac-10 team who will crash the offensive boards harder than teams the Cats have already faced such as Illinois, Louisville and Memphis. So, whatever Cal throws at Arizona tonight, expect the Cats to adjust quickly and continue their lofty 41.0 rebounds per game average.

Again, without Hardin, things get difficult for Cal. Hardin was second on the team with 8.3 rebounds per game. The good news is that Anderson has been on monster on the glass, averaging a team leading 9 rebounds per game. Against DePaul, this outstanding freshman pulled down 16. The bad news is that no other player on Cal averages more than 5 rebounds a game which against an aggressive team like Arizona, is recipe for disaster. For Cal to win the rebounding edge and maybe the game, securing rebounds will have to be a total team effort.


Team effort or not, I think Cal is simply overmatched on the boards at this point in the season. Until they can get a few more games under their belts as they adjust to life without Hardin, teams will be able to focus on Cal's stronger players and contain their efforts. This Arizona team looks as focused as ever and unlike Cats teams of recent memory, really enjoy getting after it. Budinger's rebounding average (5.9) has been on a steady decline and don't think the coaching staff hasn't noticed. I expect to see Budinger battling a bit more down low tonight and join teammates Williams and McClellan in really getting after some loose balls on the offensive glass.


Arizona has its two most difficult road trips of the season in the first half of conference play. After this week's home games against Cal and Stanford, the Wildcats travel to the Greater Northwest for games against the Washington schools. Two weeks later, they visit Southern California to play the Trojans and Bruins, a stop that last year saw the Wildcats get swept.

For this reason, Olson will have his team ready to play as a 2-0 start in conference play is imperative if the Wildcats expect to contend for a regular season Pac-10 title this year.

Arizona's zone defenses should prove too much to handle for the Bears who may knock down some shots in the first half only to see those same shots fall short in the game's final 20 minutes. That at least seems to be the formula for success for Arizona thus far into the season against a top ranked national schedule.

Cal has had its fair share of success in McKale over the years, but won't tonight. This is a statement game for Arizona in that anything less than a blowout win against a depleted Cal roster would tell conference foes that this year's version of the Wildcats is no much more ferocious than last year's disappointing team. Expect big games out of both Williams and Budinger as Cal won't be able to defend both at once.

Depending on how fresh the Wildcats look coming out of the gate, I expect a five to eight point advantage early that stretches to more than 20 as they game plays out.


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