The Runnin' Rebels have an extremely tough challenge at hand as they set to tip off against the #2 Arizona Wildcats this evening at the McKale Center. We reached out to Kevin Zimmerman of Arizona Desert Swarm to answer some questions we had about this talented Arizona squad.
1. What would you say has been the biggest reason for Arizona's success so far?
Defense. That is the biggest reason Arizona plays consistently. Even in the semifinal of the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Wildcats stayed in a game against Drexel by wearing the Dragons out and then making a late push at the end of the first half to get back into it. The Wildcats have an NBA-sized frontcourt and because of it have been one of the best two-point field goal defenses in the NCAA. In the Duke game, we also saw evidence the Wildcats can defend the three-point shot very well.
UA only plays man-on-man, and the versatility allows them to switch most screens
2. There's definitely a lot of talent on this Arizona team, but which player has surprised you the most this season?
Personally, I'd go with power forward Brandon Ashley. While every starter has his own role and has played it well so far, Ashley has seemingly taken one of the biggest steps forward since his freshman season. He's been aggressive but also efficient and if he hadn't got into foul trouble in a couple of games, probably would be a lot closer to averaging a double-double.
The most obvious player who has surprised is Nick Johnson. The starting shooting guard has played a big role the last two years as a lockdown defender, but he's improved his shot and is surprisingly scored 17 points per game on a team that's well-balanced. I wouldn't say the Wildcats have a true go-to guy at this point, but Johnson would be it.
3. Is there any noticeable weakness of this Arizona team based on what you've seen thus far?
Nothing glaring has stood out a lot thus far. It's surprising Arizona is shooting so well from the perimeter (they're at 40 percent from three-point range right now), and also surprising they've been consistent despite being a relatively young team. Additionally, it's interesting to see the chemistry considering this isn't close to being the same team as a year ago.
One weakness that extends back to last year -- smaller teams that have three guards and two wing-like forwards up front tend to bother UA's big frontline of center Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. I'm not sure that will be an issue this game, however.
4. What kind of tempo does Arizona like to run?
The Wildcats are really pretty methodical when it comes down to it. A lot of people will talk about how many transition dunks they get off defensive boards or turnovers, but it seems that most of those come in waves. For the most part, the Wildcats are fine running their halfcourt motion sets and have only picked their spot for when to put the pedal to the floor. I'd think their comfort playing relatively slowly lies in their desire to also allow their very good defense to get set up. If UNLV gets into transition, it also takes away UA's strength in the interior with Tarczewski the 7-footer.
5. If UNLV is to have any chance in this game, what do they have to do?
The Rebels will need to score in the paint and make Arizona less efficient than normal. Both are possible with UNLV's athleticism and length. The Wildcats are due for a poor shooting day, and if they aren't hitting, the Rebels have the ability to rebound and run. In the halfcourt, they need to get their big man moving and passing the ball well to get some buckets on cuts. Then they can worry about opening up jumpers.
Even against Duke, Arizona hung in there despite not playing all that cleanly. The Wildcats flipped some switch or another and turned on the jets for a short burst to separate late. UNLV would have to avoid such a burst, and then I'd expect they'd need to hit some big shots or get crunch-time stops.
6. What are your predictions for this game?
For me, the biggest question is whether that No. 1 ranking hanging over Arizona's head will get in the players' heads. Just on social media, there was a bit too much No. 1 talk for not being No. 1 yet, so I can imagine that could impact the players.
I think that might be an issue early for Arizona. I'm betting this could be a decently close game at halftime, but I suspect the Wildcats will have a second-half burst a la the Duke and Drexel games where they pull away and win by double-digits.