Literally limping into their matchup versus Gonzaga Saturday, the Wildcats travel to Spokane looking for what would be the marquee nonconference win of their season.
By now, everyone knows that stalwart center Kaleb Tarczewski will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a stress reaction and strained muscle in his left foot. Never convenient, the injury still comes at an extremely inopportune time for the Cats. Ryan Anderson has also battled a nagging ankle injury recently, but will be good to go come Saturday.
Facing a frontline of Kyle Wiltjer (6’10), Przemek Karnowski (7’1), and Domas Sabonis (6’11), Arizona will surely miss Zeus but will try to replace Zeus’ size with Dusan Ristic. After playing fewer minutes than expected in the Wooden Legacy tournament (due to matchups mostly, with Arizona not needing his size as much), Ristic will be relied upon to clog the paint defensively, stay active on the boards, and perhaps most importantly, stay out of foul trouble.
Much like last year (when Arizona rallied to beat Gonzaga in OT in Tucson), star senior Kyle Wiltjer will lead the Bulldogs. Averaging just fewer than 19 points per game this season, Wiltjer is a big man who loves to shoot from the perimeter. Who Arizona matches up against Wiltjer will be an interesting subplot.
The most likely candidates will be Mark Tollefsen and Ryan Anderson. Last year, Arizona had stud Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to guard Wiltjer, making life tough for him on the court. While Arizona has trusted players like Kadeem Allen and Elliott Pitts to guard standouts on the opposing team so far this year, the significant height disadvantage those matchups would create are sure to influence Sean Miller’s ultimate decision.
Elsewhere, Anderson and Ristic will battle against Sabonis and Karnowski. Anderson has been extremely consistent so far this year, and will be relied upon to hold his own against the experienced frontcourt of Gonzaga.
Where the Wildcats will have an advantage in this game is the backcourt. Gonzaga runs three consistent, similar guards (Josh Perkins, Eric Mclellan, and Silas Melson). Keeping two out of the three in relative check defensively will be paramount for Arizona.
Arizona can and will look for Allen, York, and Trier especially to have good outings. Still looking for consistency from three-point range, the Wildcats will need their guards (also including PJC) to outperform the Bulldogs guards if they want to win this game.
Arizona having had success against Gonzaga the past few years, this game will mean a lot to the Bulldogs and their home crowd. While many will disregard Arizona’s chances in this game after the loss of Tarczewski, the truth remains that the Cats will continue to be an extremely tough team to beat with their overall talent. Containing Gonzaga “glue-guy” Kyle Dranginis will be an x-factor Saturday afternoon. If Arizona can battle Gonzaga’s frontcourt to a draw, good performances from the Wildcat guards should make this another barnburner, with whoever can make the most stops in crunch-time prevailing.