A look at the non-conference slate

As Arizona embarks on the out of conference campaign, it seems things have taken a 180 degree turn compared to last year's team. Everyone is raving about the leadership of three senior starters and the team's incredible depth. The freshmen are as touted as ever, and the schedule should be a little easier compared to last year's.

The showdown against Kansas on Jan. 25 should be a very tough game but Arizona has to like the rest of its non-conference schedule. The Wildcats play Western Kentucky opening night, but the Hilltoppers All-American center Chris Marcus may not be able to play and that will hurt the Hilltoppers tremendously. While Western Kentucky is still a very good team and should not be overlooked, without Marcus I do not think they have enough to hang with Arizona in Tucson. Arizona also has a tough game against Texas Dec. 15, which should match up the best two point guards in college basketball in T.J. Ford and Jason Gardner. Texas is very tough, but playing the game in Tucson should be the difference. The Arizona bench should also play a role and could wear out the Longhorns.

Two other very difficult road games have the Wildcats traveling to Louisiana State and San Diego State. Neither has the talent of Texas or Kansas, but being at home could be a key for the Bengal Tigers and the Aztecs. San Diego State is an up and coming team, coming off a berth in the NCAA tournament. They also landed blue chip recruit Evan Burns in the summer and should be a formidable opponent. Louisiana State will be played in front of lthe rowdy LSU faithful. On paper this game should not be close, but with winter break around the corner and playing in a tough environment should affect the Wildcats.

The schedule throws in games against Northern Arizona, Saint Louis and Davidson, which could be ugly. No one should expect any of those games too be close. Kansas should be very difficult in Lawrence but Arizona should be favored to win all of the other games this non-conference season. With the incredible talent this year in Tucson it is not an unlikely proposition. Here is a small look at all of the teams Arizona will be facing off with in the preseason with bigger previews coming later as the games approach.

Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky was last year's best team no one knew about. While they lost in the 1st round against Stanford in the NCAA's, they should be very good again this season. That is being if Chris Marcus can stay healthy, and lately that has been a big if. Besides Marcus, who is widely considered a 1st round NBA pick when healthy, the Hilltoppers return their floor leaders Patrick Sparks and David Boyden. Both players play the game right and are productive on the court. The Hilltoppers also have a very good bench with Todor Pandov and Filep Videnov leading the way. Western Kentucky has a solid freshmen in Anthony Winchester. He was a scoring machine in Indiana high school basketball, averaging 34.7 PPG and chipping in 13.5 rebounds a game on top of that. He will definitely have a big role with the Hilltoppers, 25-4 last season, as they try to repeat last season success with a longer run in the postseason. Don't think the Hilltoppers will roll over and die, as they have beaten Kentucky at Rupp Arena. It looks as if Marcus will not be able to play in the game, which will make it extremely difficult on the Hilltoppers. Look for Arizona to rout them if Marcus does not play.

Northern Arizona
Northern Arizona is going to be tremendously overmatched against Arizona. This is a game that could get extremely ugly as Arizona's player depth is superior. Ryan McDade, a 6-7 small forward, was NAU's leading scorer last season. McDade was also their leading rebounder at 7.4 RPG, but that was against inferior competition to the players he will face in Tucson. He is the only player returning who averaged over ten points per game. Kodiak Yazzie, a 6-3 two-guard from Flagstaff, was their second leading scorer at 9.2 PPG last year. Overall, this is not going to be a nail biter and could be flat out ugly. Nothing against Northern Arizona, but Division I-AA schools usually can't hang with preseason number ones.

Saint Louis
Saint Louis is a school in transition following the departure of Head Coach Lorenzo Romar to Washington. The Bilikens are led by senior point guard Marque Perry and his 14.1 PPG. Other than Perry there were no other double-digit scorers returning to the Billikens, a team that averaged only 63 PPG last year. Kenny Brown, the team's leading rebounder at 6.2 per game is returning but is limited offensively, averaging seven points per game. Saint Louis is a defensive oriented team and could have problems against the Arizona press. Saint Louis did have ten players that averaged 14 minutes or more per game so stamina is not an issue. Saint Louis is a step up from NAU, but this should be chalked up as another victory for Arizona.

San Diego State
The Aztecs made a nice run into the NCAA's last year but also lost a bit of the talent in the offseason. They return point guard Tony Bland, who averaged 15.7 PPG, and their starting center in Chris Mackell who averaged 10.7. They have tremendous athleticism, but it will be a matter of time to see if it comes together. Chris Walton, brother of Arizona forward Luke Walton is a candidate for a redshirt although he could play his way into a lineup slot with continued improvement. The Aztecs have more Arizona roots as it has former Wildcat Travis Hanour, who will be eligible after the holiday break. He won't e eligible for the Arizona game, but should make an impact. San Diego State also brings in UCLA academic casualty Evan Burns. Burns, a tremendously talented player, could break into the starting lineup this season. He was a McDonald's All-American last year and could make the Aztec's frontline more formidable. Although San Diego State is good, it remains to be seen if the new faces in the program and its starting lineup can mesh together in time to play the Wildcats. They have a chance to have a very good season in the Mountain West but, even being at home against Arizona, the Aztecs might not have a shot at beating the Wildcats.

Texas
Texas comes into McKale as one of the best teams in the country. They were a sweet sixteen team last year and should be better this year. The key is that the Longhorns return Super Sophomore T.J. Ford. While Ford did not have a great jump shot last year, his ball handling and passing were electric. It will take more than just Jason Gardner to contain Ford. He led the nation in assists as freshmen and should only improve to this season. Early indications are that he put in the work and his jump shot looks much better. If this is the case then watch out, this could be the player of the year in college basketball. They also have former McDonald's All American Brian Boddicker in the post along with rebounding machine James Thomas. This should be an imposing frontline to handle for any team, Arizona most definitely included. They also return Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey on the wings. These two are relentless on defense and provide quality offensive games. This is a game where Arizona should be pushed. Their press will probably be neutralized with Texas' great athleticism and it will most likely turn into a battle of the frontlines.

Davidson
Davidson will be lead by three senior starters who return from a tournament appearance a year ago.. Chris Pearson, Peter Anderer and Wayne Bernard average 11.7, 10.8 and 10.7 respectively and Pearson averaged 8.4 rebounds per game on top of that. They will miss 7-2 center Martin Ides, who graduated last season. Davidson should be have a good season within their conference after going 21-10 last year, but Arizona is simply a different animal. Like most of the out of conferences and regular season games Arizona will simply be too deep and talented for teams to even compete. This should be one of those games were Davidson will be happy if the game is close for a half.

Louisiana State
On the outside LSU looks like a game Arizona definitely should win. LSU went 19-15 last year, albeit in a very tough SEC conference, but definitely aren't on Arizona's level. That being said, this could be a very close game for a number of reasons. Number one, this game is right before the winter break and Arizona is historically bad heading into the Christmas break. Secondly, this game will be in Baton Rouge, which will be a very hostile environment and a tough place to win. Third, and most importantly, LSU starts four seniors and is very experienced. Competeing in the SEC, the Tigers have played teams with Arizona's talent. They will not back down after facing the likes of Florida and Kentucky year in and year out. They are led by Ronald Dupree who averaged 16.2 PPG, as well as Collins Temple III and Torris Bright, who each chipped in 13.4. The do everything Dupree was their leading rebounder at 8.4 per game and Bright was their leading assist man at four per game. LSU shot 46% as a team last year and is looks like they will be a very good team. The Tigers should storm into the NCAA Tournament and could go far with all the senior leadership. This game is kind of a sleeper for an Arizona upset and if the Wildcats are too anxious to go home for the holidays they could get tripped up.

Kansas
This game at Allen Fieldhouse is the showcase pre-tournament matchup in all of college basketball. Kansas once again is loaded with talent and is a consensus number two-ranked team behind Arizona. Some publications even have Kansas as their top team in the country. This game will constantly have talented players on the floor with Kansas not losing a beat after losing Drew Gooden earlyto the NBA. Kansas returns two All-Americans in Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. These two will join three very talented sophomores in the lineup in Aaron Miles, Wayne Simien, and Keith Langford. The three made big impacts last year in Kansas' run to the NCAA semifinals and will have a chance to play a greater role. This game should be extremely close. Kansas is very tough in Lawrence and the fans and players will most certainly put forward their best effort. This game will come down to intangibles and Kansas' player's ability to break the Arizona press. Kansas does not run quite as deep as the Cats and could fatigue while breaking the press for 40-minutes. This will clearly be the toughest game of the season.

This year's schedule seems much more manageable than last year's difficult slate. Arizona is more talented and their opposition is not nearly as imposing as last year. There are some tough games in that schedule, most notably Kansas, LSU and Texas, but those games seem much more manageable than taking five freshmen to Madison Square Garden to play Maryland and Florida on national television.

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