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Arizona hosts Northern Arizona

It seems like ages have passed since Arizona last played a basketball game. While the college basketball landscape has been riddled with marquee matchups in tournaments across the hemisphere, Arizona has been sitting idly by since routing Long Beach State 94-72 at the McKale Center on Nov. 19. The waiting ends tonight, however, as the Wildcats return to action against a familiar intrastate foe in Northern Arizona.

Brandon Ashley has brought his high school "A" game to Arizona.

Date: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012
Time: 8 p.m. MST
Location: Olson Court, McKale Center (14,538), Tucson, Ariz.
Radio: IMG College/Wildcat Radio Network (Brian Jeffries/Jim Rosborough) [Sirius/XM: 132/192]
TV: Pac-12 Networks (Jim Watson/Matt Muehlebach)

Ninth-ranked Arizona has yet to be challenged for 40 minutes through three games this season despite a closer than expected season-opening affair against Charleston Southern. The Wildcats (3-0, 3-0 home) were outrebounded by CSU, but have since dominated the boards in doubling the rebounding efforts of UTEP and LBSU to produce 76-38 edge on the glass.Arizona will need to continue that effort against a Northern Arizona club not afraid to shoot the 3-Pointer, which will lead to many long rebounds that could get chased down by Lumberjack perimeter players if the Wildcats aren’t focused on boxing out and hustling at all five positions.

NAU (2-3, 0-0 Big Sky) is no stranger to Arizona as tonight will mark the 122nd meeting between the universities. The Lumberjacks are led by Gabe Rogers, who is averaging 16.6 points per game.

Arizona has won 28 consecutive games in the series and 43 of the last 46 tips against NAU.

NAU, which averages 66 points per game, will be put to the test defensively in trying to slow down the Wildcats. Arizona is averaging 82.7 points per game this season, thanks to a lofty team field goal percentage of 49.1 percent (79-of-161).

The surprise of the season thus far has been the play of true freshman forward Brandon Ashley. Ashley is leading the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.7), and seems to have overtaken the starting spot at power forward over classmate Grant Jerrett.

KEYS TO THE GAME
NAU has had success slowing down Arizona since Sean Miller arrived in Tucson. However, this year’s Wildcats are deeper, more balanced, and have too many scoring threats to be slowed down this time around. Arizona needs to overwhelm the Lumberjacks by crowding the 3-Point arc and forcing NAU’s shooters to put the ball on the floor and try and score inside the teeth of the Wildcat defense. If so, Arizona’s long reach from its big frontline should create numerous problems for NAU’s scorers. The trick though is to use solid defense positioning to “push” NAU’s ball handlers to where Arizona wants them to go, and that begins with properly closing out on jump shooters. NAU likes to slide its shooters behind its dribble penetrators, which can make them difficult to defend for a gambling, out of position defense. By way of example, a guard penetrating from the wing will result in a NAU shooter slipping to the strong-side corner baseline or arching over the top of the key opposite the dribble penetration to get a good look on a quick kick out back to the spot where the dribbler began his penetration. NAU also runs a lot of on-ball screening action, but it remains to be seen if the Lumberjacks will run those options against the bigger Wildcats. If they do, expect to see Miller call for his guards to fight over or through the screens to avoid his big men getting caught in space against a smaller player and potentially picking up a cheap foul.

The key for Arizona is to continue to excel on the glass. Offensively, the Wildcats could do serious damage by keeping possessions alive with tips, offensive boards and easy put backs. Defensively, long rebounds off of contested jump shots will help the Wildcats get into transition and run their first and secondary break offenses.

The second key for Arizona is getting their game legs back as quickly as possible. The Wildcats have been off since Nov. 19, and had several days completely away from basketball to celebrate the Thanksgiving Holiday. Meanwhile, NAU has already played five games this season, including a win over Campbell last Saturday. Arizona is clearly the more athletic of the two teams, but the long layoff brings with it the risk of Arizona playing a bit out of sorts in the early going.

The third key is continuing to improve as a team. It’s easy for good teams to play on cruise control, but this week alone college basketball fans have witnesses some fairly remarkable upsets. Locally, the biggest was Cal Poly’s shocker over No. 11 UCLA. I don’t suspect NAU will push Arizona to the brink tonight, but teams can win games and still enter the post game locker room as losers. Arizona begins a tough stretch of four games in the next 11 days, which includes road trips to Texas Tech (next Monday) and Clemson (Dec. 8). The Wildcats have been successful to this point and look like the class of the Pac-12. However, improvement from game to game is something Miller demands so you can be sure he’ll be pushing his Wildcats tonight to not only beat the Lumberjacks but to also get primed and ready for Arizona’s first road game of the season on Dec. 1 in Lubbock, Texas.

PREDICTION: ARIZONA 84, NAU 65

Follow me on Twitter @Gary Randazzo, and visit the WSR Chat Room during the game for live conversation with the WSR basketball staff and Wildcat fans watching from around the world.

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