Sean Miller called Oregon State the “most physical team we’ve played all season”.
Even though the Wildcats are already regular season Pac-12 champions, Wednesday night’s game at Oregon State proved to be a true test for Arizona before entering the tournament. While Arizona ultimately endured the Beavers 74-69, Oregon State’s defense was on par with the Wildcats. The Beavers created various obstacles for Arizona’s offense, holding the Wildcats below their season average from the field. Oregon State’s physicality also carried over to the boards, as the Beavers out-rebounded the Wildcats 43-34. After a tough outing like this, Arizona needs to focus on game-plans for facing zone defenses and boxing out on the low block.
While Arizona struggled to surpass the Beavers the entire game, there were various bright spots for the Wildcats. After all, the Cats are one of only five teams this season to beat Oregon St. in the Gill Coliseum.
Nick Johnson: In my last article, I said that Arizona’s success depends on Johnson’s performance. He was the only Wildcat to make more than four shots last night. Johnson was all over the place, stuffing the stat sheet with 25 points 6 rebounds 4 assists and 3 steals. Johnson continues to prove that he’s more than just a 43-inch vert. He was one of the only players that Arizona could turn to when they needed a quick score. He also accounted for 6 of the Wildcat’s 19 made free throws. Without Johnson, Arizona easily lets a close game like this slip away.
Gabe York: York has emerged as Arizona’s main threat from beyond the arc. York looked unconscious from deep at pivotal points of the game, as two of his four made threes were lead changing for the Wildcats. This would’ve been a very different game without York’s performance. While he has already become a fixture in the starting lineup, look for York’s role to improve in the tournament as he is the ultimate “heat-check” player for the Cats.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: After losing Brandon Ashley, many, including Sean Miller, assumed that Jefferson would fill his spot in the starting lineup. After a few starts, Coach Miller quickly learned that bringing Jefferson off the bench is better for the team’s overall consistency during games. Jefferson brings an elite physicality and energy that Wildcats need coming off the bench. Since being designated as the permanent sixth man, the Wildcats have outscored their last four opponents by a combined 73 points. Jefferson was extremely opportunistic in crunch-time, scoring six points in the last 3:45 of the game. Jefferson was also a presence on the defensive end, blocking two shots and swiping one steal. Jefferson’s late game dependability was a major difference in the game.
TJ McConnell: McConnell doesn’t need to score to have an impact on the Wildcat’s performance. Once again, McConnell proved that he can successfully orchestrate an offense. McConnell led all players with 8 assists and created dozens of scoring opportunities for the Cats. While McConnell isn’t currently, and may never be, seen as an NBA prospect, any pro team could value his fundamental leadership and playmaking abilities.
The Big Picture: This game should help the Wildcats adapt to playing against physical teams away from home. Arizona has one more game against a streaking Oregon team before heading to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament on March 13th. All these games will test the Wildcats’ ability to stand tall in games where the opposing team’s season is on the line. While a #1 tournament seed would be optimal, the Arizona coaching staff might want to contemplate implementing all possible game strategies before beginning the round of 64. Every game going forward is preparation for the big show.