Coming into tomorrow morning’s big contest against top-20 Arizona, Texas A&M’s previous higher-profile games (USC, Virginia Tech, UCLA) were mere possessions away from either making the Ags undefeated or a 3-loss team. Against the Trojans and Bruins, the Aggies teetered on taking control of those ballgames only to stumble down the stretch. The opposite occurred against Virginia Tech where A&M teetered on getting run out of the building only to make a ferocious comeback and achieve their first signature victory of the season.
When gigthem08 and I made our predictions, we both envisioned Lunardi Bubble Watches, RPI analysis, and comparing our resume with other tournament hopefuls. If the Aggies hope to have joyful Selection Sunday, a victory on Saturday will be vital in what looks to be a down-to-wire type match-up.
To gain more insight, we visited with Arizona Desert Swarm’s Jason Bartel and asked for his thoughts on the season so far for the Wildcats and his predictions for tomorrow.
What would you say Arizona's biggest strengths and weaknesses are?
I'd say Arizona's biggest strength is its ability to get to the free throw line on a regular basis, and make those free throws. The Wildcats are averaging over 16 made free throws per game so far this year and are 74.3% from the stripe. There are a lot of guys who drive to the basket on this team, and they can all capitalize after drawing a call.
The biggest weakness is depth. Right now, Arizona's only playing seven scholarship players. Starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is out until early February with a high ankle sprain, and right after his injury, it became obvious that this team doesn't have a great distributor either. But when he got hurt, all of the sudden three or more players have been playing 35+ minutes. If it's a close game late, I don't like Arizona's chances simply because of fatigue.
How does ‘Zona’s big men match-up against our frontcourt trio of Tyler Davis/Tonny Trocha-Morelos/Robert Williams?
Of the seven players available, three of them are 6-foot-11 or taller, which has certainly helped the team get through this rough stretch in decent shape. However, I don't like how two of the big guys (Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche) defend in the block, so if A&M is able to post up down low on a regular basis (see the Gonzaga game with Przemek Karnowski), they should be able to get plenty of points.
The big problem Arizona presents is having seven-footer Lauri Markkanen playing the 3. That could counteract any frontcourt advantage that most teams have, especially if his shot is on early in the game. However, he's struggled the past couple of games, posting his two lowest scoring contests of his career.
A&M and 'Zona both have 2 close losses to solid teams. How have expectations changed from pre-season to now?
Expectations have dropped, but not because of the two losses. Allonzo Trier hasn't played all year because of unspecified eligibility issues, PJC's injury mentioned above, plus Ray Smith tore his ACL in a preseason game, and Terrance Ferguson never made it to campus. Ferguson was arguably the best player in this recruiting class, and Smith missed last year as well. This is his third ACL tear in just over two years, which forced him to retire from basketball for the time being.
This is nowhere near the team anyone expected to see heading into the year. Add in how good UCLA looks, and not a lot of people are expecting Arizona to win the Pac-12 right now.
Arizona player to watch out for?
I'm gonna go with Rawle Alkins. With only seven players to choose from, there's no one that can really sneak up on you I guess. Alkins is the team's second-leading scorer behind Markkanen, and has really been coming into his own, especially on the offensive end. Of the three big-time freshmen on this team, I'd say Alkins' early success has been the most surprising.
Honestly, I would be surprised if Arizona were to win this game. The only high-profile game they've won was Michigan State, and the Spartans were dealing with their own share of injuries, and games in Hawai'i are always a toss-up. The best team Arizona's beaten since then was Grand Canyon or maybe Santa Clara. A&M has too many good players for me to be very optimistic about this one.
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, TX