Before the 2015-16 season started, pundits couldn’t decide who to crown the Pac-12 champion — perennial contender Arizona (16-3, 4-2 Pac-12) or talented upstart Cal (13-6, 3-3).
With nearly half of conference season completed, there appears to be much more parity than clarity. Almost every Pac-12 team seems to have earned either a hallmark win or an unpredictable loss.
The No. 12 Wildcats are no exception to the latter, falling to USC, which is widely predicted to finish toward the bottom of the Pac-12, in quadruple overtime Jan. 9. Arizona, led by respected head coach Sean Miller, is 2-2 in its last four games after going 13-1 to open the season but is still one of the more formidable opponents Cal will face this year. Since Miller took the reins in 2009, no Pac-12 team has more conference road wins than the Wildcats. Arizona will look to continue this trend when it visits Haas Pavilion on Saturday to face the Bears after battling Stanford on Thursday.
Miller’s primary task this season has been integrating new pieces into his offense after losing Stanley Johnson, T.J. McConnell, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to the NBA. Of course, it helps to have the skills of center Kaleb Tarczewski, along with a unanimous top-10 recruiting class at your disposal. Transfer forward Ryan Anderson and freshman guard Allonzo Trier, the No. 18 overall recruit, lead the team in scoring this season, both averaging 14.8 points per game. Trier, however, broke his right hand against the Trojans and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
Trier’s injury is an eerie parallel to that of Cal senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who broke his right wrist Saturday and will be sidelined for the same amount of time. Without two crucial players on the court, Arizona and Cal will have to adapt more or less on the fly.
Most are likely anticipating a win for the ranked Wildcats, especially with the Bears’ recent skid. Cal had dropped its last three games before a victory over Arizona State on Thursday, continuing what has been a lackluster season for a team pegged in the preseason to make a deep tournament run.
Without its floor general, Cal might struggle even more than usual to find the basket. The Bears are currently clinging to 10th overall in scoring offense and assists in the Pac-12, along with being dead last in turnover margin and free throw percentage. Cal will hope to find more success against an Arizona defense that has been relatively average this season — an unwelcome development for a team that has had elite perimeter defenders such as Johnson and Aaron Gordon in recent years.
In response, Arizona has begun implementing the zone at points this season, a drastic change from what Miller has typically run during his time with the Wildcats. With the lack of depth being a prime culprit, the zone could be utilized more aggressively against the Bears, especially as it is Cal’s infamous Achilles’ heel.
If the Bears hope to find their footing in Pac-12 play, facing a daunting opponent will provide the team with both their most difficult challenge and their best chance to clear their name.