The Oregon State Beavers take on the #24 ranked Arizona Wildcats in Tucson Thursday night. Big thanks to AZ Desert Swarm and Brian J. Pedersen (@realBJP) for taking time to talk with us.
Arizona has been on a bit of a roll since dropping back-to-back road games in the State of Oregon in early January. What has been the secret to their success?
Sean Miller considers the OSU loss the worst performance of the season, mostly because of how quickly Arizona gave up in the second half. Getting swept on that trip seemed to have sparked the UA to learn from its mistakes and grow from them, so it has looked its best right after losses (including consecutive road sweeps after the last two setbacks). Maintaining that after things get better, though, remains to be seen.
Beaver fans probably know just a couple of players for Arizona (Nico Mannion, Chase Jeter & maybe Max Hazzard); but Zeke Nnaji is having a spectacular year. What can you tell us about Zeke and the other players that make the Wildcats go?
Zeke was the least-heralded of Arizona’s three high-profile freshmen recruits, with Mannion and Josh Green getting most of the attention. Yet Nnaji has been the best player on the team, and most consistent, with his ability to finish at the basket and his tremendous rebounding. He has double-doubles in 8 of 12 Pac-12 games and is a big reason Arizona is near the top in the league in rebounding.
Arizona and Oregon are the top teams in the Pac-12, but they have been surpassed in the rankings by Gonzaga & SDSU. How mad are AZ fans to not be considered the best team in the West?
Frankly, the fanbase probably has those teams lumped in with the rest as far as ones the Wildcats SHOULD be ahead of, it’s part of the unrealistic expectations this program always faces. There are many that want Miller gone because he hasn’t gotten to a Final Four and think there’s a better coach out there, and that will unfortunately never change.
ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Arizona a 92.6% chance to win Thursdays game, based on their BPI. Are you 92.6% confident in the Wildcats walking away with a victory?
Arizona was given a 91.9 percent chance of beating UCLA at home, per KenPom.com, and ended up having its worst shooting performance in the 47-year history of McKale Center. That came after it nearly blew a 20-point lead at home to USC, and let’s not forget the 22-point collapse at ASU in January. In other words, there are no certainties with the Wildcats other than that it will never be dull.
Miller doesn’t want to look at this as a revenge game, but it’s hard not to think that vengeance won’t have a little bit to do with the approach. Arizona’s defense has gotten much better since that last outing, and Nnaji had 21 points on 14 shots so he’ll be a heavy focal point. It could be an ugly game from an efficiency standpoint but the Wildcats take it 71-60.