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December 14, 2013

No. 1 Arizona expects 'one of stiffest tests' at Michigan



Top-ranked Arizona will be three days removed from its last contest and more than 1,600 miles away from home when it wakes up Saturday morning in Ann Arbor, Mich.

But the Wildcats (10-0) might not need much of an alarm clock or wake-up call for their internal clocks when they arrive at the Crisler Center for the 10 a.m. MT tipoff. That's because Michigan (6-3), ranked 25th in the coaches' poll, has had a week to prepare for the last big challenge remaining on UA's nonconference schedule.

Oh, and Wolverines head coach John Beilein had them in last season's national championship game, where they lost to Louisville

"They're a perennial NCAA tournament team and Michigan, I think, speaks for themselves. We know it will be one of the stiffest tests that we'll have all season long," said Wildcats head coach Sean Miller, who is familiar with Beilein from their days coaching against one another in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Miller was at Xavier (2001-09) when Beilein was coaching Richmond (1997-2002).

But stakes are much bigger this time around and their respective programs have much higher aspirations.

The Wildcats are off to 10-0 starts in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. In their first game as the No. 1 team in the country in more than a decade, there was little challenge in a 74-48 win over New Mexico State.

Despite seeing six different defenses from the Aggies, UA continued to show the resolve that led them past top-25 programs San Diego State and Duke earlier in the season. Both were away from McKale Center - the contest against the Blue Devils was at a neutral site - and point guard T.J. McConnell said the team has been able to treat all opponents equal through the undefeated run.

"We just go out there and play every team like it's we're playing a Duke every night," said McConnell, whose 6.7 assists per game puts him among the nation's 10 best. "We want to be the underdog even though we're No. 1."

And, for once, UA is the underdog. Michigan is between a 1- to 2-point favorite, depending on which oddsmakers you ask.

But the Wolverines are not exactly the same team that romped through last March. Gone is the starting backcourt of Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke, the unanimous national player of the year.

Also, stars Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary have yet to regain their form while Nik Stauskas (18.9 points, 50 percent from 3) carries the early load. Robinson III is shooting just 44 percent, while McGary continues to work himself back from a lower back injury that forced him to miss the first two games and come off the bench in four others.

But Robinson III scored 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting and McGary added 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a 107-53 win over Houston Baptist last Saturday. The Wolverines have not played a game in a week.

"It's going to be a big game on the road," said UA forward Brandon Ashley, who scored a team-high 15 points and added six rebounds against NMSU. "They're definitely a talented team. It's going to be a challenge and we're looking forward to it."

But while the 6-10, 255-pound McGary will be needed against Arizona's size, Beilein is just as worried about defending the UA backcourt. Wildcats junior Nick Johnson leads the team in scoring at 15.7 points and McConnell has flirted with a triple-double on pair of occasions already this season.

The Wolverines are young in the backcourt, particularly freshman point guard Derrick Walton.

"First of all, they've got a veteran backcourt," Beilein told WTKA 1050-AM in Ann Arbor earlier this week. "McConnell has been a key for them right now. … He's an Aaron Craft-type of player.

"Johnson is a Tim Hardaway-type of player. Not as big as Tim but he can really shoot. He can take the ball to the basket. He defends. He does a lot of good things.

"So, that backcourt of, really, a fourth- and third-year guy (counting McConnell's redshirt) is what's making them really go right now."

Michigan, ranked as a preseason top-10 team, has struggled at times this season with losses at Iowa State, against Charlotte in Puerto Rico and at Duke.

But Miller points to a "competitive schedule" and sees "an incredible home court" in Michigan.

"If you look at who they've played - if you play at Duke, your chances aren't very good," Miller said. "I know they've probably improved each and every week of the nonconference season.

"We'll see how ready we are. We can maybe go there and play a great game and not win. But I know trips like that and games like that will only make us better."

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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