The battle of West Coast supremacy is upon Tucson.
No. 3 Arizona hosts No. 9 Gonzaga on Saturday afternoon in what could be a statement game for both programs.
The Wildcats, 7-0 on the season, are trying to stake their claim as one of the top teams in the nation. The Bulldogs, also 7-0, would love nothing more than to shake off the memories of an embarrassing 84-61 loss to UA in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
This one won’t come as easy for the Wildcats.
Gonzaga has a healthy Kevin Pangos this time around and a revamped roster featuring Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and former USC guard Byron Wesley.
Arizona might not face a more talented opponent until March, which means the Wildcats can ill afford to get off to the type of slow start that has defined the early going of this season.
Yes, having the McKale crowd at their back will help, but Arizona needs to establish control early by getting high percentage looks, whether that’s going inside or letting Stanley Johnson try to will his way to the hoop.
Kaleb Tarczewski, who has struggled for stretches, will have his hands full going up against Gonzaga’s 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski. When the two faced up last March, Karnowski put up a double-double while Tarczewski went 3-8 from the field.
If the Wildcats can’t get things going in the paint, they’ll need another strong shooting performance, one similar to the 10 made three pointers made versus Gardner-Webb.
The key position battle will almost certainly be at point guard, where TJ McConnell goes head to head with Pangos. Gonzaga’s Canadian-born star has 41 assists to five turnovers, much of why the Bulldogs are 4th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Gonzaga is also 3rd in the country with a .545 field goal percentage – the benefit of having an ultra-efficient point guard. With that said, Pangos has not faced someone with consistent defensive pressure like McConnell.
Arizona must make the Bulldogs uncomfortable on offense and force them to take contested jumpers.
Considering the way Arizona has pulled out late victories this season, Saturday’s game could very likely come down to the final minutes.