No. 2 Arizona snaps out of offensive slump in win over Oregon State

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The offensive issues for No. 2 Arizona began before sophomore forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season with a broken right foot. In the 60-58 loss at Cal in which Ashley suffered his injury the Wildcats shot just 32.3% from the field, but that was the third of a four-game stretch in which Arizona would shoot no better than 40% in any of those contests.

Accounting for the loss of a player who provided 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game isn’t easy, especially when considering how versatile Ashley is on both ends of the floor. Arizona will have to do so as a unit, with multiple players chipping in, and if that happens they’re still a team capable of making a run at a national title. On Sunday night against Oregon State that was the case, with the Wildcats making 50% of their shots from the field (56.5% from two) on their way to a comfortable 76-54 victory.

Arizona didn’t shoot particularly well from three, making just three of their 12 attempts, but they made up for this by consistently looking to get the ball inside. The Wildcats scored 40 points in the paint, and Aaron Gordon led four players in double figures with 17 points. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tallied a career-high 16 to go along with five rebounds and three assists, with T.J. McConnell (11 points, six assists) and Nick Johnson (ten points, three assists) also reaching double figures.

Also of note is the fact that without Ashley the Wildcats’ work on the offensive glass becomes even more important, and against Oregon State they corralled nearly 43% of their own misses and converted those opportunities into 13 second-chance points. With the lack of consistent “lights-out” perimeter shooters, paint touches and second-chance opportunities will continue to be important areas for Arizona to take advantage of as the season wears on.

Defensively the Wildcats were good, with Johnson being the primary defender of Oregon State’s Roberto Nelson. The Pac-12’s leading scorer, Nelson was limited to ten points on 3-for-12 shooting from the field. If there’s one thing Arizona’s consistently done this season it’s defend, and that’s unlikely to change thanks to the remaining personnel.

But that’s a known at this point for Arizona. The concern for the Wildcats in the aftermath of Ashley’s injury was whether or not they’d be able to generate enough points against the teams they’ll need to beat in order to be a title contender. Oregon State isn’t the greatest litmus test but after the last four games Arizona needed to get back to creating quality looks inside by way of either the pass or dribble penetration, and they were able to do that.

VIDEO: Kris Dunn wills Providence to win over No. 11 Arizona

Kris Dunn, Elliott Pitts
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Kris Dunn spent the first 35 minutes of Friday night’s game against No. 11 Arizona in foul trouble, splitting his time between sitting on the bench and trying to avoid finding himself, again, on the wrong side the whistle.

With 11 minutes left in the game, and with Dunn yet to find a rhythm, the all-american point guard was whistled for his fourth foul as he battled for a rebound with Arizona’s Mark Tollefsen. Head coach Ed Cooley say his superstar beside his for six game minutes, time enough for Arizona to turn a 49-47 deficit into a 58-54 lead.

There were just over five minutes left when Dunn reentered the second semifinal of the Wooden Legacy, and he proceeded to show everyone in the country why he was named the NBCSports.com Preseason Player of the Year. Providence had nine possessions after he reentered the game. Dunn scored 11 points and had a pair of assists on those eight possessions, and if Ben Bentil had stuck a wide-open three — that was setup by Dunn — the Friars would have scored on all nine.

In total, Dunn was responsible for all 15 Friar points in a game-changing, 15-7 run in the final 4:30. It was capped off by this Kobe-in-his-prime-esque game-winner:

The win for Providence is huge for a couple of reasons:

  • Dunn showed a killer instinct against a marquee opponent, something that we didn’t necessarily see out of him a season ago. He wasn’t going to let his team lose, and given that Providence doesn’t have anyone else that can consistently create good shots, they are going to need that from him a lot this year.
  • It makes a statement for the Friars. Arizona is overrated at No. 11 in the country, yes, but going out on national television against an elite program and getting this kind of performance from Dunn is a confidence-booster and a tone-setter. Providence hasn’t been accustomed to winning in recent years. This is a way to set a trend.
  • Ben Bentil continues to play like a star. Dunn had 19 points and eight assists on Friday, but Bentil followed up a 24-point performance in the win over Evansville with 21 critical points on Friday.

This win sets up a matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence on Sunday night, which means that Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn — the two best players in the country, sorry Ben Simmons — will be going head-to-head.

Oh. Hell. Yes.

No. 14 Cal goes 0-2 in Las Vegas Invitational

Jaylen Brown
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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After midnight on the east coast on Thanksgiving, No. 14 Cal blew a 15 point second half lead against San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs to use a 30-6 run to put away the game and advance to the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s the same San Diego State team had scored 43 points in a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last week.

Not 24 hours later, the Golden Bears were shredded defensively by the Richmond Spiders, losing 94-90 in the consolation game of a four-team tournament they were considered to be the heavy favorite in.

It’s a disappointing two-game stretch for Cal, who entered the season as a Pac-12 favorite and had looked the part for the first four games of the season.

And the issue appears to be on the defensive end of the floor.

Richmond is a good Atlantic 10 team. Terry Allen and Marshall Wood are high-major big men, Shawn’Dre Jones is a jitterbug at the point and Chris Mooney runs a Princeton-esque system that is very difficult to prepare for without a day in-between games. So it’s not really surprising that the Spiders gave Cal a fight.

But 94 points?

On the heels of giving up 44 points in the second half against the offensively-challenged Aztecs?

That’s a problem, one that I’m sure that Cuonzo Martin is going to address this week in practice. Martin has managed to put together a roster that is build for small-ball, with four talented perimeter players surrounding a first round pick in the post. But that’s not the style that he’s known for. Martin played his college ball at Purdue in the Gene Keady days. He cut his teeth as a head coach at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley. His team’s at Tennessee were known for being tough and physical defensively.

That’s how Martin coaches, which is part of the reason Cal had such hype entering the year.

The talents of Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews on a team with a coach that gets teams to defend the way Martin does? It’s no surprise that pundits would be optimistic.

But as of now, they have some work to do defensively if they want to live up to that hype.