No. 4 Arizona found its defensive stride and the Wildcats want to remain in step with a season sweep of offensively challenged California when the teams meet Thursday night in Berkeley, Calif.
The main story for the Wildcats (21-3, 10-3 Pac-12) has been the All-America-level play of post player Azuolas Tubelis, but this recent stretch of defense has made Arizona more complete. The Wildcats have allowed less than 60 points three times in their current six-game winning streak, helping them climb to 37th nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency.
“I think we have found ourselves a good group defensively,” said Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd.
“And I think we’ve got an ability to be a really good defensive team. We have size to protect the rim; we have some versatility so we could throw different coverages at teams. We have some really good individual defenders. You’ve just got to put it together and make it mean something, and I think the guys are doing that right now.”
While the Wildcats pursue the Pac-12 regular-season title — they trail UCLA by one in the loss column entering the week — Cal (3-20, 2-10) is in the basement having lost seven consecutive games. The Bears have failed to reach 50 points in any of their past four games and have, improbably, scored exactly 46 in three in a row.
A tough season got worse last week, when they learned Devin Askew, who was averaging a team-high 15.5 points in 13 games, underwent sports hernia surgery, ending his season. Askew poured in 25 points when the Bears lost 81-68 in Tucson, Ariz., on Dec. 4.
Cal coach Mark Fox has dealt with myriad injuries and the Bears missed DeJuan Clayton, averaging 9.6 points in only seven games, for the past two due to illness.
“We’re disjointed and until we get a body back, we just have to create the depth to be able to man 40 minutes,” Fox said. “Our best playmakers are the ones that aren’t on the floor, so until we get somebody back we have to manufacture points and be elite defensively. We have to keep coming up with new ideas.”
Lars Thiemann is the only healthy Cal player averaging double-figure points (10.4).
That sets up for some tough sledding against Arizona, which is holding opponents to 40.1 percent shooting from the field, including 31.6 percent from 3-point range. The defense has sparked an offense that thrives in transition, where Tubelis excels, propelling him into the Pac-12 lead for scoring (20.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.5).
Tubelis earned some national player of the week honors after posting a 40-point game against Oregon on Feb. 2. In two games last week, he had 59 points, 17 rebounds, five steals and four assists.
“He probably isn’t getting the due he deserves,” Lloyd said. “This guy’s a first-team All-American, and you have to convince me otherwise.”
Arizona has five players averaging at least 9.8 points, including big man Oumar Ballo, who is averaging 15.0 points and 9.0 rebounds.
The Wildcats have won 12 consecutive games vs. the Bears, the longest streak for either team in the history of the series.
–Field Level Media