The date was November 19, 2014. Sean Miller decided that enough was enough and scheduled UCI for the first time since 1998. Arizona featured three future NBA and two future D-League players. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson famously became friends with Mamadou. But the NCAA Tournament-bound ‘Eaters showed their mettle, outplaying the star-studded Wildcats for the first 30 minutes of the game. Ultimately UCI fell 71-54, and Arizona went on to finish 34-4, advancing to the Elite 8.
Fast forward to today, and both teams are significantly diminished. To help preview this one, Ryan Kelapire of Arizona Desert Swarm was kind enough to answer some questions to get us up to speed for Tuesday’s showdown at the McKale Center. Check out Ryan’s preview here.
1) The last time Arizona and UC Irvine matched up, the Anteaters kept up with the Wildcats for the first 30 minutes of the game before Arizona ultimately clamped down on defense and pulled away to win 71-54. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and TJ McConnell from that 2014-2015 squad are now plying their trade in the NBA. How does this year’s Wildcat team stack up comparatively?
Ryan Kelapire: This team is far worse. That team was a national title contender and this team isn’t near that level. Currently, Arizona is missing two of its best players to injury (Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Ray Smith), plus its leading returning scorer in Allonzo Trier for unspecified reasons. With that, the Wildcats are not only talent-depleted, but they only have seven scholarship players available so their depth is non-existent. If this team were at full strength, then yes, it would be a team that could reach a Final Four, but that’s simply not the case right now.
2) Is the hype on Lauri Markkanen well deserved? And if so, who’s the closest NBA comp?
Ryan Kelapire: Markkanen is the real deal. The 7-footer is a complete player in that he can shoot the 3 at a high percentage, score off the dribble, and in the low block. He’s also a legitimate 7-foot and has above average athleticism. The only weakness in his game is that he’s not a great defender at the moment, though the tools are there for him to be one in the future. The closest NBA comparison I can think of for Markkanen is Kristaps Porzingis.
3) If UCI is going to keep this one close, what Wildcat weaknesses must they expose?
Ryan Kelapire: Their depth. The Wildcats have a super short bench, so if the Anteaters can get them into foul trouble and force walk-ons to play, they shouldn’t have much of a problem staying in this game. UC Irvine also needs to take care of the basketball. With Jackson-Cartwright out, Arizona is missing its only true point guard, so its half-court offense stagnates rather easily. If the Anteaters can prevent the Wildcats from getting out into transition by limiting turnovers, they will be in the game.
4) What’s the latest on whether sophomore guard Allonzo Trier will play? If he does play against UCI, how do you think he changes what Arizona does in its game plan? And is Parker Jackson-Cartwright likely out as well?
Ryan Kelapire: There is no timetable for Trier’s return, and he could be back any game. He undoubtedly would make a huge impact for Arizona, considering he’d give the Wildcats a lethal one-two punch with the other scorer being Markkanen plus some much-needed depth. But it is unlikely that he plays versus UCI, and Jackson-Cartwright is out for the next eight weeks or so, so he’s definitely out against UCI.
5) What’s the general expectation of Wildcat fans going forward this season? Winning out the remainder of the non-conference slate? Competing for the Pac-12 title? Advancing to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8? What would be considered a “good season” for this 2016-2017 squad? And how catastrophic would a loss to the Anteaters be to those expectations?
Ryan Kelapire: A full-strength Arizona team would be good enough to win a national title and the Pac-12 conference. As the Wildcats stand now, though, they’re probably a Sweet 16 squad at best and will finish somewhere in the top half of the conference, though probably not higher than third.
A loss to UCI would be bad, but definitely not a surprise. Arizona currently doesn’t have an overwhelming level of talent as it usually does given the players that are missing.