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November 19, 2012

Miller not overlooking 'tough-minded' Long Beach State

The nation's 12th-ranked team will meet a program Monday night that has done nothing but litter its schedule with the country's elite for each of the last six seasons.

Arizona will seek a 3-0 start for a third consecutive season against the road warriors from Long Beach State. Tipoff at McKale Center is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST.

The Wildcats (2-0) are coming off a 72-51 win over UTEP, which battled with 8 minutes to play but was unable to overcome a 35-15 rebounding margin and nine Wildcats 3-pointers.

UA closed the game on a 15-2 run and held Miners leading scorer John Bohannon scoreless. Bohannon, a 6-10 center, was unable to compete with the Wildcats' size before fouling out, and the 'Cats will look to impose their size against LBSU's 6-9, 255-pound center, Dan Jennings.

Among the areas to watch will be the rebounding, where the 49ers (1-2) were manhandled, 55-39 - including 23-12 on the offensive glass - in a 78-63 loss to No. 11 North Carolina last Friday.

Fourth-year Wildcats head coach Sean Miller looks at the Big West Conference preseason favorites as a cross between UA's first two opponents, Charleston Southern and UTEP, with a mixture of size and a "transition-based" style.

"Long Beach State is going to represent a quality opponent," Miller said Saturday. "I think out of the three teams that we've played, from a talent perspective and just watching them on film, it could be our toughest challenge to date."

While Jennings produced nine points and 10 rebounds in the loss to the Tar Heels, LBSU's frontcourt has struggled to produce against bigger teams to start the year.

In three games, Jennings, Kyle Richardson and the offensively limited Nick Shepherd have combined to shoot just 35.3 percent (12 of 34), and the team has converted just 37.4 percent of its shots. But the opposition has combined to shoot just below 40 percent, as well.

"We feel like those guys have started to give us a little bit of inside presence," sixth-year LBSU head coach Dan Monson told GOAZCATS.com after practice Sunday night at McKale. "Jennings and Richardson gave us some inside presence against North Carolina. But it's a good game for us because we go up against tremendous length and size. Our bigs are going to have to understand that they're not going to be able to play alone in there and they're going to have to play together, which is things that we're trying to work on."

This season, point guard Michael Caffey and athletic wing James Ennis have combined to produce a little more than 49 percent of LBSU's points.

Beyond the duo, however, the 49ers are still a work in progress and are now without key reserve Branford Jones. The true freshman injured a leg in the team's season opener and will miss eight to 12 weeks.

"Those two guys, Caffey and Ennis, are the two players that give you the most fear of Long Beach," Miller said.

Monson called his team a "melting pot," with four returners, four Division I transfers, three redshirts and three freshmen on the roster. Unavailable and awaiting clearance by the NCAA to play this season are DePaul transfer Tony Freeland and Arizona State transfer Keala King.

"So we're coming from four different ways, trying to get them all together," Monson said. "We're a long ways from as good as we can be.

"We're not a young team, we're just a new team. We have a lot of juniors who have played for a couple years - but at different places and have redshirted."

Miller is not expecting an intimidated group, as the 49ers earned an automatic bid into last season's NCAA tournament. The Beach caught the nation's attention when it upset a ranked Pittsburgh team and ended the Panthers' 58-game home winning streak last November.

The 49ers also handed a top-15 Xavier team a 10-point loss in last season's Diamond Head Classic, although Mark Lyons - now at Arizona - did not play for the shorthanded Musketeers because of suspension.

This season, Monson also has trips scheduled to No. 4 Ohio State, No. 8 Syracuse and No. 13 UCLA. Already, LBSU has losses at USC and at home against the Tar Heels, who led by just a point at halftime before pulling away to snap the nation's second-longest home win streak at 23 games.

"[The schedule] tests them and it breeds that toughness that we all love about our teams, if we can get it," Miller said. "I believe they're a tough-minded bunch. They're a confident group, they've played against two really quality opponents already. A year ago, a number of their players played one of the most difficult schedules in the country and had success."

Unlike in past seasons' daunting schedules, the 'Niners no longer have the seasoned quartet that made up Monson's first recruiting class, spearheaded by back-to-back Big West player of the year Casper Ware.

But in his place is Caffey, who emerged as a true freshman and valuable sixth man last season.

"I think that he could play just about anywhere in the country, and he does a lot for their team," Miller said.

Caffey enters the contest as the team's second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. Against UNC, the 6-foot, 170-pounder scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds but shot just 5-of-21 from the field.

Caffey said he is still learning the ropes and transitioning from "being a follower to a leader." That maturation process will be up for a test against Lyons, a pesky defender on one end and a proven scorer with the ball in his hands.

In both games, Lyons has led the Wildcats with an identical 17 points, and the 6-1 guard is coming off a 5-of-9 shooting performance.

"Mark Lyons is a man," Monson said. "Mike is still kind of a young man. He's still trying to feel his way of playing 35 minutes a game, instead of 20. Still trying to figure out and trust his teammates, doing the right thing.

Added Caffey: "He's, I think, probably one of the top guards in the nation right now. I'm ready for it. It's always a good opportunity when you play against somebody at a high caliber."

The recipient of many Caffey's passes has been Ennis, who has the ability to finish above the rim. The long-armed, 6-7 senior scored a game-high 18 points and made 8 of 16 shots against the Tar Heels.

A preseason All-Big West selection, Ennis has averaged a team-leading 16.7 points while shooting better than 48 percent through three games.

"James Ennis is very talented," Miller said. "A scorer who can do it a lot of different ways.

"He's long as a wing player, can beat you on second shots, can score close to the basket. Certainly, very athletic up and down the court."

While some have scoffed at the Wildcats' nonconference slate, Miller has identified the 49ers as a squad "capable of beating any team on their schedule."

"We respect them a great deal," Miller said. "We're not walking into McKale as a tune-up.

"We're going to have our hands full on Monday, and we want to make sure that we're really prepared and ready to go."

Pregame notes: UA forward Solomon Hill did a little everything against UTEP, recording 10 points, six rebounds and four assists. Now, the senior is just 14 points shy of becoming the 47th player in school history to reach 1,000 for his career, and three rebounds away from 600. The Arizona frontcourt of Angelo Chol, Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski has combined to shoot 51.6 percent (16 of 31) and average 25.5 points and 17.5 rebounds per game. Sixteen of the group's 35 rebounds have come on the offensive glass. The back-to-back games against ranked opponents marks the third time Long Beach State has done so under Monson's guidance. The program has done so just once under any other coach, when Tex Winter's team did so in 1979.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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