Western powers No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 15 Arizona tangle

NCAA Men's Basketball
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Gonzaga and Arizona, who have often battled for supremacy in the West the past two decades, resume their rivalry Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz.

The programs have met nine times since 2000 — in eight locations — including twice in the NCAA Tournament.

No. 15 Arizona has a 6-3 advantage, but sixth-ranked Gonzaga has won the past two meetings. Wildcats coach Sean Miller is convinced that streak will go to three if his team doesn’t rebound well against a talented, tall Bulldogs front line.

“There’s no bigger key for our team on Saturday than to keep those guys off the offensive glass,” Miller said after Arizona (10-1) beat Omaha 99-49 on Wednesday night.

“I don’t think they get enough credit in that area. They can beat you up and they have two bigs in the game, they have wings who run in from the 3-point line. Everybody on our team has to know that for us to have a chance, we have to rebound the ball.

“It’s such an emphasis right now because we’re not good at it. We have to get better.”

Gonzaga’s front line includes 6-foot-11 Filip Petrusev, who averages team-highs with 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds. If 6-10 senior Killian Tillie hadn’t been injured for much of last season, he’d been in the NBA right now. Instead, he’s averaging 13.7 points and making 40.7 percent (11 of 27) from 3-point range. Drew Timme, a 6-10 freshman, is a promising, valuable bench player, posting 10.4 and 5.5 rebounds.

Gonzaga has a plus-10.4 rebounding margin. Arizona is at plus 4.6.

The Bulldogs (10-1) quickly reloaded this season after losing four starters — including first-round picks Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke — and will be looking for their third win over a ranked Pac-12 team. They beat Oregon 73-72 in an epic overtime contest at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on Nov. 28 and are coming off an 83-76 win in front of a packed house at Washington on Sunday.

“At the start of the year with all the new faces we had, I wondered how we’d be in tough environments against good opponents like this,” coach Mark Few said in the Spokane Spokesman-Review after the win. “We really responded. We didn’t play perfect, but we played hard and pretty darn smart for the most part.”

Playing smart, efficient offensive basketball is a program hallmark, with Gonzaga shooting 49.9 percent and averaging 85.9 points. With guard Admon Gilder slowed a bit by a knee injury, Joel Ayayi has started the past two games, with a combined 28 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists.

The matchup could end in a shootout, with this Arizona squad looking like the best offensive team Miller has had in 11 seasons in Tucson. Freshman post Zeke Nnaji is averaging a team-best 15.9 points but has struggled through the past three outings (26 total points) as he is now drawing frequent double teams.

Freshman point guard Nico Mannion has two double-doubles with points and assists; he is averaging 14.9 points and 6.2 assists. The Wildcats are averaging 85.5 points and shooting 51.2 percent.

Gonzaga beat Arizona 91-74 last season in the Maui Invitational. Although much has changed — the only returning starters from that game are Bulldogs sweet-shooting forward Corey Kispert and Arizona center Chase Jeter — the rivalry stays red hot. They finish this home-and-home series next season in Spokane.

“Everybody comes to Arizona to play in games like this,” Jeter said. “It’s something we expect when we come here.”

–Field Level Media

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