Arizona vs. Utah: A loss to the Utes would truly signal panic time

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Two losses in a row aren't the worst thing in the world for the Arizona Wildcats, but a loss to the Utah Utes would make it clear that Sean Miller's team is tumbling.

Time: 1 p.m. MST

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Sean Miller refuses to believe that two losses in a row to Cal and then Colorado means his Arizona Wildcats are in trouble.

Indeed, there's no reason to panic. It's mid-February. At the same time, Arizona has hit critical junctures in the past two Februarys that were definitely much more telling of where it would finish come the end of the year. A loss to the Utah Utes on Sunday, however, might be time to sound the alarms.

Two years ago, the Wildcats went to Los Angeles in late February and fell to a fairly bad USC team before getting whipped in the UCLA Bruins' final game in the pre-renovated Pauley Pavilion. It was such a meltdown -- though a historic going away party for UCLA -- that Miller only allowed reporters (me included) to talk to Kyryl Natyazhko afterward. Yeah, that bad.

The Wildcats responded by winning four in a row before falling in overtime to the Washington Huskies behind a gutsy performance from Isaiah Thomas, who hit that fateful game winner at the buzzer that sent Arizona into the NCAA tournament with a lesson in how magic works its wonderful ways during the postseason. That did them pretty well moving forward.

Last year, the final defining moment was a sleepy performance against ASU, where a bad Sun Devil team outplayed and outmatched the Wildcats. That and a Pac-12 tournament loss to Colorado in a sloppy championship game said it all.

So here we are; Miller reminds us that the Wildcats are 20-4. It's an odd place to be, where a team with a great record has earned it with questionable efforts, maybe, and a lack of urgency, for sure.

Cal is hot. The Buffs aren't bad. But Utah is 11-13. Though the Utes are coming off a win against ASU, which itself is impressive, the Wildcats losing would make it time to call in the authorities -- maybe only on the level of that meteorite smashing some windows in Russia, but it's still a bit scary.

Miller hinted to Bruce Pascoe that there could very well be a change in the starting lineup. It's hard to say if that'd be enough to spark Arizona, but anything at this point would be welcome. After all, about the only consistency is coming from Solomon Hill, and arguably Mark Lyons, which doesn't mean he's not struggling to run the point.

Angelo Chol could be an answer to create a defensive energy to start. He might wake up the lack of attack coming from the freshmen big men and Nick Johnson, who has been too quiet for a player so dynamically connected to Arizona's success. Kevin Parrom might deserve some consideration to start as well.

Energy is what could undo the Wildcats against Utah. Though lacking in talent, the Utes have never failed to bring a good defensive effort and effort in general against UA. And they might be thinking they have a chance after the win against ASU.

No way is it time to think that this Arizona team is the one we'll see come the postseason. But it's creeping up on the period where there's bound to be a season-defining win or loss.

Sean Miller coaches his teams to grow. He often overcoaches by design, then letting off the reins as his teams push toward March. If they have it in them, they'll start playing more together, with more confidence and better execution. If not, they'll be making a quick exit from the Big Dance.

Keys against the Utes

Arizona won 60-57 against Utah at McKale Center this year, and the frontline got outplayed by Utah big man Jason Washburn and forward Jordan Loveridge. Washburn is coming off a dominating performance where he scored 26 points against ASU center Jordan Bachynski. He should be UA's biggest concern.

Utah let the Sun Devils shoot 22 shots from deep, but they weren't good shots -- ASU hit just seven of those shots. Coincidentally, that 31.8 percent three-point defense was exactly the same accuracy that the Wildcats shot when Utah nearly upset them in McKale earlier this season.

Arizona must create and take good three-point opportunities. The Utah defense is aggressive, and a halfcourt, low-scoring game will play into the Utes' hands. And on the other side, Arizona can't let a bad Utah offense get good looks from deep, either.

Pac-12 standings

The Wildcats now have a good reason to feel some pressure. A bye in the Pac-12 Tournament's first round is at stake.

TEAM CONF GB OVR
#23 Oregon 10-3 -- 21-5
UCLA 9-4 1 19-7
#9 Arizona 8-4 1.5 20-4
Arizona State 8-5 2 19-7
California 7-5 2.5 15-9
USC 7-5 2.5 12-13
Colorado 7-6 3 17-8
Stanford 6-7 4 15-11
Washington 5-7 4.5 13-12
Oregon State 3-9 6.5 13-12
Utah 3-9 6.5 11-13
Washington State 2-11 8 11-15
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