The Arizona Wildcats take on a dangerous Oregon State team tonight; the Beavers are tall, athletic and aggressive.
“I think Craig Robinson has done as good a job rebuilding his program as any coach in the country,” UA coach Sean Miller said of OSU’s fourth-year head coach. “He’s recruited very well.”
Oregon State has only one senior — forward Kevin McShane — and he ranks only 10th on the team in scoring. OSU, which defeated Cal last week and took Stanford to four overtimes before losing, is formidable right now … and just wait until next year, Miller said.
“They can be really, really good,” he said.
Arizona swept two games from the Beavers last season but lost three consecutive games to Oregon State before that. Both teams are 11-5 entering tonight’s game. Let’s look at a few keys:
Checking Mr. C.
It’s nearly impossible to forget Jared Cunningham’s rebound dunk against the Cats last season — but you can refresh your memory with the YouTube video below — and he’s one of the most explosive, energetic guards in the league.
“Jared Cunningham is one of my favorite players in the country,” Miller said.
“He does it on offense and defense. Gives great effort. To me, he’s one of the most talented guards in college basketball.”
What Cunningham does so well — other than posterize opponents with monster slams — is knife into the lane and draw fouls. He gets to the foul line a Derrick Williams-esque 8.6 times per game. (Williams, by the way, averaged 8.7 free throws per game last season.)
Arizona’s Kyle Fogg will draw the primary defensive assignment. If Cunningham can get Fogg into foul trouble, that’s a big advantage for Oregon State.
“He really wants to drive the gap,” forward Solomon Hill said of Cunningham. “Somebody needs to help.”
Solving the zone
Oregon State has evolved from the days of sitting back in its 1-3-1 zone and grinding out possessions. Improved athleticism allows the Beavers to plan a challenging man-to-man defense.
But there’s no doubt Robinson will mix things up with the zone to see how the Wildcats — and freshman guards Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson — handle it.
Oregon State has great size in the frontcourt, and has taken to using 6-10 freshman small forward Eric Moreland on top of the 1-3-1 zone. Robinson said he is worried about Arizona using its undersized frontcourt players to beat Oregon State off the dribble, so the Beavers could very well sag off Hill and Jesse Perry and let them shoot.
Most recently, UCLA tried this strategy with success. Hill and Perry — a combined 19 of 68 from 3-point range (27.9 percent) — haven’t scared any opponent with their outside shooting this season. Not exactly zone-busters.
If the Cats aren’t hitting those outside shot tonight, can they really get points at the rim against Oregon State’s big front line?
Miller wasn’t panicking about his team’s overall poor shooting on last week’s L.A. road trip. He gave credit to the defense of UCLA and USC, and was willing to chalk up the rest to a small sample size.
“Very few teams don’t go through it, even the best 3-point shooting teams,” he said of 3-point shooting slumps. “There are always those windows in a season when the ball doesn’t go in.”
Arizona is averaging 16 turnovers in its three conference games, and Miller said he would like that figure to be around 12.
Those collective 48 turnovers become even more alarming considering none of the first three opponents play the kind of pressure defense, disrupting the passing lanes, that leads to a high rate of mistakes.
Oregon State does.
“Whether they are in a zone or man, their defense is always predicated on trying to turn you over, being aggressive,” Miller said. “If we can take care of the ball, that will be a huge stat toward us beating Oregon State.”
The Beavers lead the conference by forcing 18.6 turnovers per game.
Miller just wants his team to eliminate the unforced errors.
“Sometimes you press the pause button when you’re watching on film and you ask yourself, ‘What in the world is he thinking?’ Miller said.
“We have to get away from those. You can’t leave your feet and change your mind in mid-air. There is a time to drive, a time not to.”
Miller said those kind of mental errors have cost the team four or five shot attempts per game lately — certainly enough to be the difference tonight.