On Thursday night, Stanford men’s basketball (10-5, 3-2 Pac-12) will welcome No. 3 Arizona Wildcats (14-1, 4-0 Pac-12) to Maples Pavilion. After playing three games in five days last week — including an underdog victory against then-No. 5 USC — the Cardinal have had a longer rest period this week to prepare for their upcoming matchup.
Arizona has been dominant against Pac-12 competition, beating every Pac-12 team it has faced this season by at least 16 points. The Wildcats could very well be the best team the Cardinal have played thus far, among a group that includes other impressive teams like No. 5 Baylor, No. 16 USC and No. 23 Texas.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd, the Wildcats have emerged as one of the most surprising teams of this basketball season. Initially starting the season unranked, they rapidly climbed the rankings after dismantling some of the best teams of last season, like Michigan and Illinois.
Arizona is led by 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Benedict Mathurin, who looks to be a favorite to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Mathurin is currently averaging 18 points per game — good enough for second in the Pac-12 — and 6.3 rebounds per game. Mathurin’s scoring sidekick, sophomore forward Azuolas Tubelis, helps ease the scoring load on Mathurin with an average of 15.9 points per game. Mathurin and Tubelis anchor an Arizona scoring attack that leads the league in points per game and shoots a league-leading 49.9% on field goals.
On defense, the Wildcats rely on 7-foot-1 junior center Christian Koloko to make it more difficult for opposing teams to score inside the paint. Koloko, who has a 7-foot-5 wingspan, possesses an elite combination of size and athleticism that makes it tough for opposing big men to score. Koloko is a large part of the reason why the Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in blocks, rebounding and opposing field goal percentage.
Arizona is a team with very few holes, and for the Cardinal to win this game, they must play near-perfect basketball.
On offense, Stanford’s leading scorers — freshman forward Harrison Ingram, junior forward Spencer Jones and senior forward Jaiden Delaire — must be selective with their shots around the rim and look to drive and distribute the basketball for more efficient shots. The Cardinal must also shoot the ball well from the 3-point line, as the Wildcats do not give up easy shots at the rim. The emergence of sophomore Brandon Angel as a key contributor has been a positive development for Stanford, and his play will be important in this game, as his size and versatility on the offensive end could force Arizona to extend its defense further.
Defensively, the Cardinal will need to figure out how to guard Arizona’s pick-and-roll offense. The Wildcats have several playmakers on offense, and Koloko is very efficient on shots at the rim, leading the Pac-12 in field goal percentage. Stanford may have to compromise defensively and take its chances in letting some of the Wildcat’s less productive players try to beat it. The Cardinal must also prevent Arizona from getting out ahead in transition, as the Wildcats thrive in transition offense.
Tip-off is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. PT at Maples Pavilion.