To discuss this crucial road game, we talked with AZ Desert Swarm writer Ryan Kelapire.
What makes this Arizona team different than in years past?
Every Arizona team is so different because of all the roster turnover they experience from year to year. But this year more than any, the Wildcats are heavily reliant on freshmen, as their top three scorers are first-year players. And while those guys are talented, that kind of inexperience leads to a loss of focus at times. You see that in all aspects of the game. Like not boxing out, or taking quick shots, or having mental lapses on defense. It makes this team very inconsistent and vulnerable anytime it takes the court. At the same time, when the freshmen are clicking and the role players, who ironically are mostly seniors, are doing their share, this team is extremely dangerous.
Arizona has lost five of their last eight games after starting the season on fire. Are you concerned with this slip, or is this team shaping back into form?
It’s definitely concerning. You would expect a team with so many newcomers to get better as the season goes on, but that has really not been the case. The Wildcats have been outcoached too many times and have just come out flat against stiffer competition. Some poor late-game execution also cost them a game at Oregon in which they were up by six with less than two minutes to go.
The only quality win they have came against Illinois super early in the season. That said, if this team can get it together, it has enough talent to do some serious damage in March.
What makes Nico Mannion and Zeke Nnaji so effective on offense?
Mannion gives Arizona something it has not had under Sean Miller, and that’s a point guard who’s both a threat to score and distribute. Because of that, there are times when he can completely control his game. His assist-to-turnover ratio has been pretty solid all season. The one issue he’s had is his jumper has been very streaky. And whether it’s been a coincidence or not, it has mostly happened against the better teams Arizona has played. For example, he shot a combined 6 for 34 in the losses to Gonzaga and Baylor. Both were single-digit games, so Arizona could have easily won if Mannion wasn’t so cold.
As for Zeke, he is just the total package. He is athletic, long, mobile, skilled inside and out, and has an unrelenting motor. He has been a double-double machine these last few weeks.
If Colorado focused on Mannion and Nnaji, are you confident Arizona’s role players can win a close game?
I would have said no up until Thursday when Max Hazzard scored a season-high 24 points and Dylan Smith had 12 in a blowout over Utah. Arizona’s supporting cast has been hit or miss this season, but mostly miss. However, that group does not include Josh Green, who should be in the same conversation as Mannion and Nnaji. He affects the game in a lot of ways, including being Arizona’s best defender. He and Mannion have been teammates for a long time, so you’ll see some pretty awesome stuff when those two push the ball in transition. Unfortunately for UA fans, both will be in the NBA next season.
What is Arizona’s biggest defensive strength?
Statistically, the Wildcats have been good at defending the paint, holding opponents to 43.5 percent shooting on 2-pointers, the 15th-best mark in the country. That is a product of Arizona’s length and pack line principles which, above all else, emphasizes protecting the paint and forcing the other team to shoot jump shots. The downside is Arizona doesn’t usually force a lot of turnovers, which is a shame since this team is so lethal in transition.
Are there any past CU players who Arizona fans have hated?
The only one that comes to mind is Xavier Johnson because of his physical play and because one year he guaranteed Colorado would beat Arizona in Boulder by 20. Spoiler: the Wildcats won by 27 and he looked very foolish.