Arizona enters conference play feeling very good. The team is riding a long winning streak, coming off its most impressive victory of the season and seeing possibly its most important player rounding into form.
Mustafa Shakur and the seventh-ranked Wildcats look to make an early statement that they plan on being a big part of what could be an intriguing Pac-10 title race as they host California on Thursday.
This strong start for Arizona (9-1) is only good enough for the fifth-best record in the Pac-10. Top-ranked UCLA and No. 20 Oregon are both 11-0—two of only four unbeaten teams in Division I—while Washington State is 11-1 and 14th-ranked Washington is 10-1.
The Wildcats begin Pac-10 play looking to go 7-0 in conference openers at home under coach Lute Olson, and trying to record their first 10-game winning streak since doing it twice in 2002-03.
The current run reached nine last Wednesday as the Wildcats won their first game of the season against a ranked opponent, 79-71 over then-No. 18 Memphis in the Fiesta Bowl Classic.
“This is not a team that’s going to plateau,” Olson said. “I think they’re going to be a team that will keep getting better because they play hard, they practice hard and they really enjoy playing together.”
Many feel Shakur is the key to that chemistry as the point guard and four-year starter who has played significant minutes alongside future NBA players Andre Iguodala, Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye and Hassan Adams.
Since getting held below eight points in three of the team’s first seven games, Shakur has become more aggressive offensively and it’s paid off. His scoring production has increased in three straight games as he’s averaged 18.3 points while shooting nearly 68 percent (21-of-31) from the field.
Shakur had 23 points, six rebounds and five assists against Memphis.
“He just is so different a player this year than he’s been before for us,” Olson said. “This is his team, it’s his leadership. He does a great job of breaking the defense down. It’s a difference between night and day, in my opinion, the way he’s playing.”
Shakur is one of five Wildcats averaging at least 13 points and came into this week ranked third in Division I with 7.4 assists per game.
“I’m obviously still looking for my teammates a lot,” he said. “I want to get them the ball. I feed off them. When people start doubling them, I am ready to shoot.”
Plenty of the Wildcats have been shooting well because they entered the week ranked ninth nationally with an average of 85.9 points. The starting frontcourt of Ivan Radenovic, freshman Chase Budinger and Marcus Williams is accounting for nearly 48 points per game.
That does not bode well for California (8-4), which is missing one of its top post players. Center DeVon Hardin will miss at least the next eight weeks following surgery for a broken foot.
The 6-foot-11 junior was averaging 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds, and leads the team with 21 blocks.
The team’s first game of the season without Hardin resulted in its most lopsided loss, 90-62 at DePaul on Saturday.
Ryan Anderson had 26 points and 16 rebounds, increasing his team-leading averages to 17.7 and 9.3, respectively.
All four of the Bears’ losses this season have come when they have allowed more than 70 points. They have given up an average of 55.0 points when they win.
Cal has lost its last 11 visits to Tucson, dating to a 74-72 win on Feb. 12, 1995—a game which the Bears later had to forfeit due to NCAA violations.