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#3 Arizona at UTEP: Game Preview

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Sean Miller's 3rd ranked Wildcats roll into a sold-out Don Haskins Center Friday night. Here's a preview for the biggest game of the season for the Miners.

#3 Arizona is experienced and talented.
#3 Arizona is experienced and talented.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The History

All time series record: Arizona, 60-30

All time series record in El Paso: 22-22

Last meeting: Arizona-72, UTEP 51 in Tucson on Nov. 15, 2012

Best UTEP moment vs Arizona: 1987

The Similarities

Good Coaching

Arizona's Sean Miller has built a reputation as one of the best coaches in America after 10 years as the head man at Xavier and Arizona. In his 10 years at those 2 programs, his teams have never had a losing season and missed the tournament only 3 times. He's led teams to the Elite Eight 3 times and the Sweet Sixteen twice. The guy is a great recruiter whose teams are very balanced and difficult to play against. The Miners have a great coach of their own in the wise and crafty Tim Floyd. Floyd is smart enough to know that this is one of only a small number of teams he could face whose talent and depth is clearly superior to his team's, but interestingly enough as Miner fans, we've discovered that this is when Floyd is typically at his best. With his back to the wall against superior talent, he finds ways to keep his team in the game with a chance to win at the end. Don't believe me? See all of last year when the Miners had only 1 scholarship guard on the roster and finished only a game out of 1st place.

Strong Frontcourts

The Miners have faced strong individual frontcourt players already this season in Xavier's Matt Stainbrook and Colorado State's J.J. Avila, but this Wildcats frontcourt is a different animal in terms of combined quality as a unit. Arizona boasts of 7-foot junior Kaleb Tarzewski (who has anywhere from 5-25 pounds more weight on him than Matt Willms, depending on what source your using, probably closer to around 15 according to my eye test), an outstanding scoring power forward 6'8 junior Brandon Ashley, and a dynamic 3 forward in 6'7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Arizona's big three will clash with UTEP's big three of Matt Willms, Cedrick Lang, and Vince Hunter. We've seen improvement in Willms' play in the last few games in defensive presence and passing, but will that trend continue when the quality of opponent increases substantially? Lang's strength, effort, and experience should allow him to hold his own against any other forward as long as he can stay out of trouble. But the bottom line is that every Miner fan in the building should be salivating at the chance to see Vince Hunter play against Arizona. After just over a year, we as Miner fans finally understand what we have in Hunter. He's by no means a finished product, and can look very raw at times when he has to put the ball on the floor in traffic, but Hunter is only a few tools away from being the total package.

The Differences

Arizona's Experienced Guards

Wildcat fans are head over heels about their freshman swingman guard Stanley Johnson, who's leading the team in scoring and just being overall awesome, but the Arizona backcourt is still anchored by senior T.J. McConnell and junior Gabe York. These two guys have played in huge games on much bigger stages than the one that awaits them Friday night and when the Haskins crowd starts to get crazy and the Miners look like they are poised for a run, it will be these two guards who will be expected to stay calm and poised. The Miners counter with the "newly-out-of-his-slump" Julian Washburn, the  "suddenly in a Washburn-like slump" C.J. Cooper, the  "suddenly emerging" Earvin Morris, and "youngins" Omega Harris and Lew Stallworth. As much as I like our guards, I'd say advantage Arizona in this category.

Importance of the Game for UTEP

This game matters more to UTEP. Don't get me wrong. Sean Miller is a good enough coach to not overlook Floyd's Miners and the Wildcat players have been around the block before as well. But this game does mean more to El Paso and UTEP, which saw top 5 showdowns go away the minute Memphis decided to bolt for greener(?) pastures. What's more is that Tim Floyd has clearly internalized his status as the coach of an underdog program. Check out his quotes from a few days ago:

"It's what I hoped for and envisioned when I came back here, that we would play in games that were relevant nationally... It's a game that's meaningful for our fans and players, a game that we have recruited toward, knowing we would play these guys one time. It's a game that when you're building your season in terms of how you're going to play, you think about the best team you're going to play on your schedule and what would you give you an opportunity to compete and win that game. From all of those standpoints it's a very important game."

Yup. Cue the Rocky music and montage of Tim Floyd practicing his angry timeout-calling,  and sprinting up scenic drive before stopping at the best view and jumping up and down in imagined glory. Make no mistake about it, Floyd has thought about this game since he scheduled it and he will have his team prepared. Speaking of that team, it is still the most talented squad Floyd has had at his disposal in El Paso, and they should all have the Eye of the Tiger just like their coach. Washburn, Cooper and Lang have played enough ball to know that this game is big for their senior seasons and their overall Miner legacies. And Vince Hunter, as mentioned, should be looking forward to this game as his chance to challenge himself against elite adversaries. The most unlikeliest quote after Friday night would be, "Wow, UTEP squeaked that one out against Arizona even though Hunter didn't really play well." There's no way anyone says that Saturday morning. All possible scenarios where UTEP wins involve Hunter playing a monster game.

The Prediction

Arizona 68, UTEP 62

Even Rocky didn't win the match in the first movie. Hope I'm wrong, but Arizona looks like a force as of late. The Miners will frustrate the Cats at times and the Miners will play with tremendous effort thanks to a lift from the rowdiest crowd at the Don since the days Calipari's teams were visiting, but every strength UTEP has as a team is also more of a strength for Arizona. UTEP's excellent field goal percentage this season of 47.2%? Arizona's is an 8th best 51.1%. UTEP's improved rebounding average of 37.2? Arizona's is slightly better. UTEP's roster composed of maybe 2-3 possible pro prospects? Arizona probably has 4-5. The Miners can win, but they would need to play their most focused 40 minutes of basketball on both ends, something that we have yet to see this year from the Miners in any game.