For the second game in a row, the Pac-12 lead will be on the line when Arizona takes on Stanford in Palo Alto on Thursday night.
The Wildcats may have restored their perception as the conference favorites with a 69-51 dismantling over Utah at home last Saturday but the records still say that there is a three-way tie for first place.
A road win over the Cardinal would settle the dispute over the Pac-12’s best team and also prove that Arizona can beat a strong opponent away from Tucson.
If Sean Miller gets his team to play something close to the level of defense they displayed against Utah, this game could end in another anti-climactic finish.
However, Stanford is a disciplined group led by a pair of veterans who have experience navigating, albeit not succeeding, against Arizona’s pack-line defense.
While Delon Wright is rightfully receiving attention as one of the nation’s most valuable players, it might be Chasson Randle who takes home Pac-12 Player of the Year. Randle is arguably the best scoring guard Arizona will face all season and over his last five games, he’s averaging over 23 points.
Similar to facing Wright, the job of slowing down Randle will likely fall on TJ McConnell and his relentless defense as well as the efforts of multiple other Wildcats. Stopping the 6’2 senior from getting confident from outside will be the top priority for Arizona defensively.
Senior wing Anthony Brown has been just as hot as Randle since conference play and statistically speaking is Stanford’s best threat from outside. Brown is also the team leader in rebounding.
But the biggest matchup of the night may come down low where Stefan Nastic of the Cardinal has emerged as one of the conference’s best big men. Nastic is aggressive in all aspects and has already earned four double-doubles this season, including a 13 point, 13 rebound performance going head to head with Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.
If Nastic can get Kaleb Tarczewski in foul trouble the same way Utah did, Arizona could be in trouble. That’s assuming Tarczewski comes out with the same type of intensity that he’s played with the last two games.
Stanford is a solid rebounding team but there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t dominate the glass the same way they did against Utah. Motivation certainly shouldn’t be an issue. What’s more appealing than playing in a national televised contest with the conference lead on the line?
In the end, it could very well come down to which team has the best player and that guy is Stanley Johnson. The last two games, Arizona’s freshman phenom has dominated in practically all aspects, whether it’s playing hands-in-your-face defense, getting to the free throw line, or coming with big steals.
There’s perhaps no one in the nation who can match his skill-set when Johnson is feeling it. Certainly no one in Maples Pavilion.
Nonetheless, Johnson has struggled on the road so far this season – particularly down the stretch.
Yet if this game, like the UNLV and Oregon State losses, goes down to the final minutes, there’s little doubt that it will again be Johnson whom Arizona turns to.