UC Irvine-Arizona Preview
A host of quality opponents will pass through the McKale Center this season, but Arizona coach Sean Miller thinks UC Irvine might be one of the most talented.
Miller expects his second-ranked Wildcats to be in for a serious challenge Wednesday night against the visiting Anteaters.
Arizona has looked far from perfect while winning its first two games by a combined 41 points. The Wildcats shot a combined 55.7 percent but went 34 of 60 from the free-throw line. They owned a 70-54 rebounding advantage in those contests but committed an alarming 18 turnovers in Sunday's 86-68 victory over Cal State-Northridge.
Miller knows his team must be on its game against Irvine (2-0), which returns four starters and two key reserves from last season's 23-win team that won the Big West regular-season title but settled for a NIT bid after being upset by Cal Poly in the league tournament.
"We're going to jump up significantly in the level of competition that we'll face on Wednesday," Miller said. "Our focus is to be ready, and to get ready.
"In my opinion, we'll be playing one of the best teams that we'll play at McKale all season. Irvine has all the makings of a (NCAA) tournament team. A team that can win in the tournament."
That's high praise considering No. 13 Gonzaga, No. 24 Michigan and the rest of the Pac-12 will visit Tucson in 2014-15. While Miller could be providing some coachspeak to find a means of motivation for his players, he won't allow them to take anything for granted as they try for a 30th straight non-conference regular season victory.
"Our focus is on Wednesday," Miller reiterated after Sunday's win.
Irvine has dropped nine consecutive games against ranked opponents since a 79-63 victory at No. 13 Stanford on Nov. 19, 2005, but took a 13th-ranked UCLA team to overtime before falling 80-79 two years ago.
The Anteaters shot 67.3 percent in an 87-36 rout of Division III Chapman University on Friday before beating Pacific 68-50 on Sunday. Irvine held the Tigers to 34.0 percent shooting after limiting Chapman to 24.0 percent.
"It's fun to coach players who are adaptable to different styles," coach Russell Turner told Irvine's official website.
"We have great depth and that's not easy to find in college basketball these days. It's a testament to the character of our players since not everyone gets to play as many minutes as they would like."
Irvine's 7-foot-6 sophomore Mamadou Ndiaye could present a problem for the Wildcats in the post, but the Anteaters still face a daunting task offensively. Arizona held its first two opponents to 40.4 percent shooting, including 9 of 31 from 3-point range, after finishing fourth nationally in defensive field-goal percentage (38.0) last season.
Irvine finished third at 37.4.
The Anteaters, though, may struggle to match the all-around hustle of Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who has totaled 29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in 43 minutes off the bench.
''I'm going to have the most energy in the country when it comes to giving it my all,'' Hollis-Jefferson said. ''Teams need that in a game and I feel like I bring that spark every time.''
Irvine also could have its hands full with freshman forward Stanley Johnson, who had a team-high 17 points Sunday after missing six of eight shots in his debut.
Arizona won the only previous meeting with Irvine, 93-70, on Dec. 14, 1998.