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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Men’s basketball welcomes Utah Valley for first ever matchup

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Rebecca Noble

Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller shows his frustration at the referees during Arizona’s 66-63 win against Gonzaga in McKale enter on Saturday. Miller and the Wildcats take on Utah Valley today for the first time in program history.

For the sake of Sean Miller and his coaching staff, there better not be a mental, emotional or physical drop-off after Saturday’s 66-63 OT victory over then-No. 9 Gonzaga. No doubt the back and forth affair drained the No. 3 Arizona Wildcats (8-0) mentally, physically and emotionally.

Just a few days after that victory, the Utah Valley Wolverines (3-4) come to McKale Center five days before a matchup with Michigan. While Utah Valley is what one could call a cupcake game, that doesn’t mean the Wildcats can overlook the opponent sandwiched in between the two biggest nonconference home games of the year.

“The way our schedule unfolds, we just don’t have a stretch for some time where we have a chance to take a deep breath in and really practice,” Miller said after the Gonzaga win. “We’re practicing, don’t get me wrong. But even now, our next game is on Tuesday. We play Utah Valley and we play Michigan on Saturday.”

Much like the Gardner-Webb matchup last week, the Wildcats and Wolverines have never matched up in program history. Unlike Arizona, which has been on the national radar for about 30 years, Utah Valley is largely unknown, thus making it tough for Miller and company to game plan for the Wolverines.

Add in the fact that the Wolverines lost their top-two scorers from last season, and Miller is in unknown territory.

Luckily for the Wildcats, there’s a reason they’re ranked No. 3 in the nation. Behind a balanced offensive attack and stingy defense, Arizona is the unquestioned West Coast team to beat. Since before the season began, Miller has said he feels like he has six starters rather than five, and he wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of players averaged double-digit points per game.

Arizona’s leading scorer Stanley Johnson averages just 13.8 points per game, but with six Wildcats averaging at least eight points per game, Miller has plenty of options.

Just look at that Gonzaga game. When Johnson struggled to just get 11 points on 3-7 shooting with four turnovers, Brandon Ashley (14 points), T.J. McConnell (12 points) and Kaleb Tarczewski (11 points) picked up the slack.

That’s just the offensive side of the ball, too. This Arizona squad held an explosive Gonzaga team 25 points below its season average of 88 points per game, further proving that Miller’s packline defense works wonders.

After the Gonzaga game, Miller said his players have learned more about themselves over the first eight games of the season.

“We’ve learned in each game, and I think our team is growing and we’re learning,” Miller said. “We have a couple things that you can put us against any team in the country and compare, and we have a couple things we really have to get better at. That’s the quest for us.”

As the Arizona players put it, this team can continue to improve if the defense keeps up the current level of play.

“Even last year, I think defense won us a lot of our games when we were in a drought on offense,” McConnell said after the Gonzaga game. “I’d say we were in a drought on offense today and, again, our defense took it to the next level. It pretty much saved us tonight.”

As the Wildcats look toward the end of nonconference play, a stingy defense and opportunistic offense will take this team far.

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Follow Roberto Payne on Twitter.

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