Pac-12 Networks analyst Don MacLean was asked on Tuesday what conference team might be able to match up inside with the Arizona Wildcats.
He paused briefly before answering.
“Nobody, really,” he said.
That’s a big reason the former UCLA star said Arizona is not only the clear favorite to win the conference but a team that should be aiming for the Final Four.
“Arizona really is the best team in the country,” said MacLean, who is scheduled to work the Wildcats’ first two Pac-12 games this week, against Washington State and Washington. Point guard T.J. “McConnell has given them that pass-first dimension, but what jumps off the page for me is their size. When you start a 6-9 small forward (Aaron Gordon), that obviously makes you a big team.”
Offficially listed at 6-8 and 210 pounds, Gordon plays small and power forward but starts at small forward, while the 6-8 Brandon Ashley starts at power forward and 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski is at center.
It’s enough that fellow Pac-12 Networks analyst Ernie Kent, the former Oregon coach, also cites UA’s advantage up front when he calls the Wildcats the team to beat, over unbeaten Oregon and 20th-ranked Colorado.
“Oregon is not as big and physical inside, and neither is Colorado,” Kent said. Arizona “has got those three rim protectors. … And Arizona is the one team that can defend you. Their field-goal percentage (defense, .372) is what you look at and they’ve done a good job.”
When discussing other top frontcourts around the league, MacLean said ASU has 7-2 shot-blocking whiz Jordan Bachynski, but “who are the others who are going to deal with Gordon and Ashley?”
And even though UCLA has 6-9 Tony Parker and the 6-10 Wear twins, MacLean said the Bruins don’t yet have the toughness inside to match up with Arizona.
But Oregon, with a loaded backcourt, could be a team that could find a way around that issue.
“It’s all based on game plans,” MacLean said. “Would I be shocked if Arizona went in there and lost? Absolutely not. Dana (Altman, Oregon coach) has proven he can game plan and do things you don’t see every night.”
MacLean said he hoped that the Wildcats and Ducks would have a similar record when the teams meet in their regular-season finale on March 8 in Eugene, Ore., but it won’t be easy for either of them to get there without trouble.
Kent said he didn’t think Arizona would make it through conference play unbeaten, which MacLean suggested could actually be a good thing.
“I don’t think they want to go undefeated with all the added pressure,” MacLean said. “But I certainly think they’ll be the favorite, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t win it.”
While the Pac-12’s other 11 teams all held warm-up games last weekend before the start of league play, the Wildcats returned to practices Saturday. They will have not played a game for 10 days by the time they host Washington State on Thursday.
That’s just how UA coach Sean Miller wanted it, after UA played through Christmas last season and then took only a brief rest before slipping into Pac-12 play the following week.
“Although we had a break, I felt our team went into conference play not as refreshed, like ‘nonconference play is behind us and let’s move into the conference season,’ ” Miller said. “We weren’t able to do that as much as we would have liked. … We decided this year to put a lot of pressure on our team to play 13 games and really be able to take a true break and then have a nice beginning to the conference season.”
The Wildcats have practiced daily since Saturday, and Miller said they would practice lightly today in final preparation for WSU.
Off the mark
One reason WSU went 7-5 through nonconference play: The Cougars are shooting just 31.6 percent from three-point range.
What’s more: The best-shooting Cougar regular, DaVonte Lacy, is out for Thursday’s game after having an appendectomy on Saturday. Lacy has made 37 of 91 three-pointers (40.7 percent) this season.
“I did not foresee that happening,” WSU coach Ken Bone said of the Cougars’ poor aim so far. “We thought we had a pretty decent shooting team. I do think that it will get better, but I’ve been thinking that for the past few weeks.”