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Oregon State Basketball: Arizona Wildcats Preview (Game 26)

Arizona is back in the Pac-12 title race with six games left to play.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats (18-7, 8-4)

  • Head Coach: Sean Miller (11th Season)
  • Top Performer: Zeke Nnaji (16.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
  • Points For: 78.0 PPG (34th)
  • Points Against: 65.1 PPG (67th)
  • Last Game/Streak: 69-60 Win at Oregon (2W)

The Skinny

After winning five of their last six overall, Arizona suddenly finds themselves sitting a half-game back of Pac-12 leaders Colorado and Oregon in the conference standings.

The Wildcats have begun to fulfill their preseason expectations and have morphed into one of the more dangerous teams in the Conference of Champions. Sean Miller’s boys rank in the Top 40 nationally in points and assists per game and are defending at a high-level. They have a unique mix of veteran prowess and youthful excitement to push them into a mid-March run and are currently projected as a six-seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi in the NCAA Tournament.

So why in the world aren’t more people talking about this Arizona squad? Let’s just say it’s a strange mix of quirky road losses and missed chances against top-ten teams that have kept the Wildcats below the radar for now.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Washington
Big man Zeke Nnaji has the game (and the hair) to become a household name.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The thing that I like most about this Arizona team is that their best performing talent in forward Zeke Nnaji (16.6 PPG) is not a ball-controling talent who needs plays run for him. Nnaji finds a handful of his points off pick-and-roll and post opportunities in the flow of the offense and on put-backs around the rim, where he pads his 8.8 rebounds per game average. He’s a easy big to play with, who doesn’t take away from the other talents on this team, especially when it comes to Miller’s revolving door of guard options.

Obviously, point guard Nico Mannion (13.6 PPG) is the focal point of those pieces, as the freshman phenom has become the multi-dimensional option that this team needs in the back-court. Some critics have said that Mannion still needs to look for himself less (which could be true), but in a committee type of scoring depth chart, picking the right spots is never easy. His offensive abilities also haven’t seen to dampen the impacts of fellow freshmen like Josh Green (11.7 PPG), veteran guard Dylan Smith (8.3 PPG) and pair of key transfers in Jemarl Baker Jr. (6.4 PPG) and Max Hazzard (4.8 PPG).

Up-front, it’s amazing to think that forward Chase Jeter (7.3 PPG) has basically fallen out of the mix all-together, in favor of 6’ 9” Stone Gettings (6.7 PPG), but this year’s edition of the Wildcats has favored more of a traditional big, which looks more comfortable with Nnaji or Gettings. Even Ira Lee (3.6 PPG), who looked ready to take on a bigger role has played under 15 minutes per night.

While the Beavers will have their hands full on the road against Arizona, they’re also reaching a point on their schedule that could really spell disaster for this group. Coming off a loss to Colorado, Oregon State will have to deal with both the Wildcats and then Arizona State this week, before traveling to meet up with Oregon next week. Unless Wayne Tinkle can get his guys to spur an unforeseen victory, they could head into their final home-stand of the year against Stanford and California with a four-game losing streak in tow.

Player To Watch

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Dylan Smith (Guard - Senior)

The 6’ 5” guard from Mobile, Alabama has gotten it going in the team’s last two outings, averaging 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest in a pair of key wins over California and Stanford. Smith was ice cold (0-6 FG) the last time the Wildcats and Beavers met back in mid-January, when Oregon State coasted to a 17-point victory.

Game Info

  • Date: Thursday, February 20th
  • Time: 5:00 PM PT
  • Location: McKale Center (Tucson, AZ)
  • Coverage: Pac-12 Network