Arizona basketball: Six thoughts after beating Cal

Arizona basketball: Six thoughts after beating Cal

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Arizona Wildcats won 67-62 at Cal on Friday night, a nice opening statement in the Pac-12.

The Bears are a good team -- not a great one -- but not a lot of teams will leave Haas Pavilion with a victory. And the Cats showed plenty of grit in coming back from a 13-point first-half deficit.

"Road wins are hard," coach Sean Miller said. "Road sweeps are coveted."

Let's dive into it ...

Kobi Simmons was the player of the game

Others might point to Dusan Ristic and his team-high 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting, but Simmons was the key player in the key stretch.

The game changed when Cal forward Ivan Rabb picked up his third foul with 18:13 to play, called for charging in what, really, should have been a block against Lauri Markkanen. But the upshot is that Rabb had to go to the bench with the Bears up 34-30 -- and Simmons attacked.

With the paint more clear, Simmons drove for a pull-up jumper. He drove for a layup. And again. And more time. He was fouled at the rim and made two free throws. The athletic, springy freshman went on a personal 10-2 run, and the Wildcats led by four when Rabb returned to the game.

"I have to give Kobi Simmons a lot of credit," Miller said in his postgame interview on Sportsradio 1290. "Part of why we won is that he set the tone in the first 8 or 10 minutes of the second half. The baskets that he got were really big for our team. It gave us almost a renewed sense of confidence, and he has the talent to do that."

Simmons finished with 14 points, 10 coming in that game-defining 3:21 stretch.

Are we talking enough about Arizona's defense?

The Wildcats have allowed only one of the previous five opponents to shoot better than 35 percent from the field. For the season, Sean Miller's pack-line D is allowing teams to shoot just 38.9 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from 3-point range.

None of the past five foes have exactly been UCLA or Oregon offensively, so the biggest challenges await. But you better bring a full-service attack -- with size, shooting and organization -- to solve the Wildcats' defense.

PJC's return is huge

Point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright had missed almost all of the previous seven games because of a high ankle sprain, but he was able to play 20 minutes against Cal -- about as much as Miller could have possibly hoped.

PJC might not be 100 percent, but he brought the kind of efficiency Arizona needs, dishing out four assists with no turnovers.

"We would not have won if Parker didn't play," Miller said.

Miller said that Kadeem Allen, filling in at the point in Jackson-Cartwright's absence, cramped up at times during the game and ended up limping to the bench on at least one occasion.

"Just imagine what would have happened if Parker didn't play 20 minutes," Miller said.

What about Keanu Pinder?

The junior forward Pinder played only five minutes at Cal. Was he injured? In the doghouse? Just not the right guy for the matchups?

There might not be a lot to read into it.

"Keanu didn't play as much tonight, but that doesn't mean that is going to be the case moving forward," Miller said. "Tonight just wasn't his night."

Also keep this in mind: One of the trickle-down effects of Jackson-Cartwright's return is that Arizona has four players to cover the three perimeter positions. Miller doesn't have to use the 7-foot Markkanen at small forward, which is going to mean less opportunity for Pinder at power forward.

Don't overreact

At various times during the game, I got tweets or texts complaining about the performances of Markannen, post player Chance Comanche and freshman wing Rawle Alkins.

And yet, even in games in which they didn't appear to be on top of their games and didn't shoot well, all did indeed end well. Markannen had 13 points and 10 rebounds while Alkins had 10 points and nine boards. Not bad.

As for Comanche, he and other UA big men had trouble early with defensive rotations, but he had what Miller (correctly) called the play of the game. With 10:33 left and the game tied, Comanche got the ball on the left block with his back to the basket and made a spinning move that drew the fourth foul on Rabb. Comanche converted a 3-point play.

When Rabb returned about four minutes later, the Arizona lead was up to six.

"Ivan lost some playing time in the second half," Miller said. "Cal with him and without him are two different teams."

Ristic is heating up

Arizona loves to go to its big man early in games, and it pays off. Ristic gets involved and defenses have to be wary of his low-post skills the rest of the way, opening up room for everybody else.

Ristic struggled early in the season, and didn't look confident, but that has changed. The junior is shooting 64.2 percent in the past six games (34 of 53) and 67.6 percent in the past four (23 of 34).

Combine that with the outside shooting of Markannen -- and the way he drove the ball to the basket off ball screens against Cal -- and there are no easy defensive answers against Arizona's European Connection.