It is up to the Wildcat defense to stop Cal basketball
With the clock ticking under the five-minute mark Wednesday night, the No. 7 Arizona men’s basketball team was tied 54-54 with Stanford. Senior Solomon Hill and the Wildcats’ offense ran away with the victory in the final few minutes, but it was Arizona’s defense that kept them in the game at all.
With Cal (13-9, 5-5 Pac-12) next up on the schedule, it will again be up to the Wildcat defense to stop the Golden Bears’ dynamic backcourt Sunday night at 5 p.m. in McKale Center.
“The thing that’s hard in college basketball, sometimes, is to be a really, really good defensive team,” head coach Sean Miller said.
He stressed that playing solid defense throughout the game, which they did all night, is crucial for winning consistently at the collegiate level.
Arizona (20-2, 8-2) held the Cardinal to 29.6 percent shooting in the first half and 37.9 percent in the game, despite struggling on the offensive end for the majority of the night. Arizona even slowed down Stanford from three-point range (7-for-19), with the exception of guard Aaron Bright, who hit four of the Cardinal’s seven shots.
“The key is can you just be the same on defense,” Miller said. “You play in Pullman [Wash.], you play in Seattle [Wash.], you play in Tucson; it’s roughly the same [defensively].”
While Stanford came to Tucson red-hot from three, that won’t be the case with Cal. The Golden Bears are last in the conference with a 31.1 percent average from beyond the arc and they’re ninth overall in shooting from the floor (44.1 percent).
What Cal does bring is elite talent from the guard spot. Junior Allen Crabbe leads the Pac-12 with 17.4 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game.
Starting next to him is point guard Justin Cobbs, the only other Golden Bear in double-figures, with 11.6 points per game and a team-high 5.2 assists.
Arizona’s designated defensive stopper is guard Nick Johnson, but the sophomore has been nonexistent on the court the past two games because of a stomach virus. Miller thinks he’ll be back to 100 percent by game time and Hill said he felt Johnson still contributed against Stanford even though he was recovering from being ill.
“Nick didn’t get into his groove [Wednesday], but defensively he was there,” Hill said. “He was focused, really locking in and playing defense.”
Even with most of the offense funneling through Crabbe and Cobbs, it’ll still take a whole team effort to effectively stop Cal. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they brought just that against Stanford.
“(Arizona) is an aggressive team,” Stanford’s leading scorer Dwight Powell said after the game. “They get into passing lanes. They were good at pressuring the ball so they made it difficult to get easy entries. They’re a good team, a good defensive team.”
An old coach taught Miller that selfishness has no place on a good defensive team, a lesson he’s never forgotten.
“The ultimate sign of togetherness and unselfishness [is] how you play on defense,” Miller said. “And when you give each other great effort and togetherness on defense, it’s hard to be a pig on offense.”
With the team defense the Wildcats played Wednesday night, it seems like they must be familiar with the message of Miller’s old coach as well.
Arizona saw its most drastic change to the usual eight-man rotation Wednesday when freshman Grant Jerrett sat out because of a low-grade stress fracture in his left foot. If Jerrett’s pain doesn’t recede, he will miss Sunday as well, but that might not be the only change for the Wildcats.
After starting slow in three of their last five games, Miller said that there could be a change in the starting lineup, most likely with senior Kevin Parrom taking the place of either freshman.
“You start to say to yourself that we don’t have that confident look that you want,” Miller said. “What I’m going to do is play five guys out there that have that confident look, and we are going to address that over the next couple days.”
Parrom is averaging 8.2 points, five rebounds and two assists as the Wildcats’ sixth man this season and has shown Miller unwavering confidence during the 22.7 minutes per game he’s playing.
“He doesn’t care if [the score is] 0-0, 10-10 or 50-50, he’s going to be the same,” Miller said. “As a senior, maybe that’s something that we can use at the start of the game.”