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Prediction: Arizona Wildcats vs. Wichita State

Posted at 5:42 PM, Mar 16, 2016

Thursday night's first-round matchup in Providence, Rhode Island has all the makings of a popular upset pick.

The 11th-seeded Wichita State Shockers (24-8) are an experienced, defensive-minded team. The No. 6 seed Arizona Wildcats (25-8) have often struggled to put together a complete game.

And then, there's this.

Will the Wildcats be able to overcome a tricky Wichita State team on Thursday? Here are three questions and a prediction for that matchup, which will begin at about 6:20 p.m. on TNT.

1. Can the Cats overcome the Shockers' defense?

The Shockers are No. 1 in the Missouri Valley Conference in points allowed per game (59.2) and field goal defense (38.5 percent). Enter the Wildcats, who are second in the Pac-12 in points per game (81.2) and field goal offense (48.2 percent). Will WSU have success in slowing down UA's up-tempo offense?

2. Who wins the battle of the boards?

Arizona and Wichita State lead their respective conferences in rebounding margin per game this season. UA has enjoyed a plus-9.2 margin on the boards, while WSU is at plus-4.6. But while UA has two men (seniors Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarcweski) who average over nine rebounds per game, Wichita State doesn't have a single player who averages five. Will Anderson and Zeus be too much for the Shockers to handle?

3. Whose seniors will shine?

Few active players have as much NCAA Tournament experience as senior Wichita State guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, who helped lead the Shockers to a Final Four appearance as a freshman. UA will counter with three senior starters (Anderson, Tarczewski and sharpshooting guard Gabe York), as well as sixth man Mark Tollefsen. Which team will benefit more from its senior leadership?

Prediction:

The Shockers are the more disciplined team: Their plus-5.5 turnover margin per game is by far the MVC's best, while the Cats' minus-1.2 margin is the fifth-worst in the Pac-12. If those trends continue Thursday, the Wildcats could be in trouble.

But the Shockers haven't faced many teams as good as UA, as they only have one RPI top-50 win to speak of this season (at home vs. Utah). The Wildcats' combination of size and outside shooting is likely to be too much for the Shockers -- and keep in mind that UA coach Sean Miller has only lost one NCAA Tournament game to a worst-seeded team (vs. No. 2 seed Wisconsin in overtime two years ago).

On the surface, this game has all the earmarks of a first-round upset special. Don't take the bait. Look for the Wildcats to get past WSU on Thursday evening and live to fight another day.

Arizona 73, Wichita State 61