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Arizona at Gonzaga: West Coast elite programs to mix it up

Arizona forward Stanley Johnson (5) is fouled by Gonzaga guard Byron Wesley (22) in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP)
Arizona forward Stanley Johnson (5) is fouled by Gonzaga guard Byron Wesley (22) in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP)

It’s Dec. 4th, Gonzaga’s season is just six games old and one of the biggest contests – perhaps the biggest – is here.

Gonzaga (5-1) and Arizona (6-1) hook up Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center to resume what has been a short, but must-see series between arguably the two best programs on the West Coast. The similarities run deep.

Both were bounced in the Elite Eight last season. Both are ranked: the Zags are No. 13, the Wildcats No. 19. Both have narrow losses to a ranked opponent: GU to No. 18 Texas A&M, Arizona to No. 23 Providence.

Both are more defense-driven at this point. Gonzaga leads the nation in 3-point percentage defense (21.3 percent) and holds foes to 60.7 points per game. Arizona, which yields 62.9 points per game, is always stout on the defensive end.

Both have injury concerns at center. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, who played for USA coach Mark Few in the Pan Am Games last summer, is out for at least four weeks with left foot injuries. Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski missed Wednesday’s road win against Washington State with back spasms. He’ll be a game-time decision.

Both coaches seem genuinely thrilled the series will continue with at least three future meetings. They’re tentatively scheduled to meet next year at Staples Center in Los Angeles, in Tucson in 2019 and in Spokane in 2020. There’s also a chance they could meet in the 2018 Maui Invitational.

“The respect that we have for Gonzaga, their coach, their staff, the run they’ve been on, the two-decade long success story is unprecedented in the sport really,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “They have one of the elite programs in college basketball, not (just) on the West Coast or non BCS programs.”

The Wildcats hold a 5-1 series lead, but this is their first trip to the McCarthey Athletic Center. Gonzaga has lost twice at Arizona’s McKale Center, including a 66-63 overtime thriller last season. The Zags’ lone win came in the 2011 Battle in Seattle.

Arizona has ended Gonzaga’s season twice in the NCAA tournament, most notably an epic 96-95 double-overtime decision in 2003 in Salt Lake City.

“Sean is as good as there is in the game,” Gonzaga’s Few said. “They have the highest level athletes that there is out there in college basketball. They also have a plan and they stick to their plan.”

Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, battling ankle injuries of late, leads Arizona at 16 points and 10.2 rebounds. San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefsen averages 8 points. Gabe York has made 16 of the team’s 34 3-pointers but the Wildcats are shooting just 28 percent beyond the arc.

The Wildcats have committed more turnovers (99) than they’ve forced (95) but they’ve dominated the glass (plus 13) and attempted 56 more free throws than opponents. Gonzaga has similar stats but hasn’t made nearly as many trips to the free-throw line.

“The No. 1 factor for us on offense, forget who’s hurt, is turnovers,” Miller said. “Twenty-one times we didn’t shoot at the basket (versus Providence).”

Arizona has two wins over Boise State, coached by former GU assistant Leon Rice, and victories over the WCC’s Pacific and Santa Clara, the latter despite Jared Brownridge’s 44 points on 11-of-29 shooting.

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