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No. 4 Arizona looks to get back on track in clash vs. Cal

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No. 4 Arizona, after an arduous non-conference slate that includes losses in two of its past three games, will begin Pac-12 play Friday night against host Cal in Berkeley.

The Wildcats (9-2) are expected to mostly roll through the final season of the Pac-12, entering the week as the only ranked team in the conference. Arizona spent two weeks in December at the top spot in the polls before losing to now-No. 1 Purdue in Indianapolis on Dec. 16 and falling in double overtime to then-No. 14 Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Despite the loss to FAU, Arizona stayed at No. 4 in The Associated Press poll in advance of the game at Cal (4-7).

“There’s no shame in losing to Purdue,” Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd said. “There’s no shame in losing to Florida Atlantic.”

Arizona posted non-conference victories against Duke (in Durham, N.C.), Alabama (in Phoenix), Wisconsin (in Tucson, Ariz.) and Michigan State (Palm Desert, Calif.).

All four of those opponents were in kenpom.com’s top 21 team ratings entering the week.

Lloyd hopes that challenging his team early will pay dividends late in the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s why we set up this schedule,” he said. “I didn’t set up this schedule to go undefeated. If our guys found a way to win all the games, I would have been really proud of them, but I am super proud of them.”

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love has emerged as the team’s leading scorer (16.5 points per game). All five starters average at least 12 points per game for the Wildcats, who ranked second nationally in scoring (92.5) through Wednesday’s games.

Oumar Ballo (12.9 points, 8.1 rebounds per game) has been playing his best basketball, combining for 29 points and 33 rebounds in the past two games.

Cal is coming off a 71-67 home victory over UC San Diego on Dec. 20. The Bears rallied to win after squandering a 26-point lead and falling behind by three.

“A lot of teams in that situation would fold,” Cal guard Jalen Cone said.

“I think we did a good job of keeping each other lifted up and playing through adversity and staying together. We know that we’re about to get into conference play, and things are going to get tough.”

First-year Cal coach Mark Madsen has the Bears playing at a much slower pace than Arizona, but his team is getting healthier — and that includes the return of Devin Askew in the most recent game. Askew, who last season averaged 15.5 points, had missed five weeks with an injury.

Jaylon Tyson averages a team-high 19.4 points, while Fardaws Aimaq contributes a double-double with 16.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. Cone is at 16.3 points per game.

Arizona has dominated the recent history of the series, winning the past 13 meetings. The last 10 victories have been by double digits, with seven coming by at least 20 points.

–Field Level Media

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