Given that it’s the beginning of college basketball season, not many of the top teams have compelling matchups to start the regular season. Every PAC-12 team is expected to win its opening game handily, except for Arizona. The tenth-ranked Wildcats open up their season against the twelfth-ranked Michigan State Spartans in the Armed Forces Classic. It is one of two matchups between top 25 teams on Friday, the only one involving a PAC-12 team. It’s a game that Arizona obviously has the ability to win, but a victory will not come easy for the shorthanded Wildcats.
Although Arizona and Michigan’s programs are drastically different from last season, both are looking to bounce back from disappointing losses in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Arizona may have been upset by Wichita State, but Michigan State was embarrassed by Middle Tennessee in one of the most stunning losses in NCAA history. Coaches Tom Izzo and Sean Miller will each be ready to prove that his team is ready to put last season behind them.
The Wildcats and Spartans will likely be a competitive game, but Arizona has some issues that it may not be able to shake off in its first game. First, Ray Smith’s third ACL tear in three years caused the redshirt freshman to announce his retirement from basketball last week. Top returning scorer Allonzo Trier did not travel with the team for reasons still unknown to the public. Arizona also did not look to be dominant in its final exhibition game against Chico State, winning 78-70. Arizona did not have a lead in that game until late in the first half and trailed by 12 at one point. The good news for Arizona is that Chance Comanche travelled with the team and will likely play. The returning sophomore was suspended for academic reasons, but will luckily be back for the regular season.
Michigan State will also be shorthanded with Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter each out due to injury. Both teams will be forced to display talented freshman classes early. Sean Miller and Tom Izzo each boast top recruiting classes -- with Izzo holding the slight edge this year -- so one of the biggest stories for Friday will be which coach handles his newcomers most effectively.
Arizona will probably be a different team in March than it will be Friday, but the team still has a lot to prove. Arizona could struggle like it did against Chico State, only allowing an elite team like Michigan State to jump to an early lead would be much more difficult to recover from. The Wildcats just need to ignore the early season distractions and remember that they are an extremely talented team. If both teams come out focused, expect a close and competitive matchup between two of college basketball’s finest.