On Thursday night, the Arizona Wildcats have their first home game of the Pac-12 season, as the Utah Utes travel to McKale Center.
The Utes are searching for their first victory in McKale Center since joining the Pac-12 in the 2011-2012 season. In fact, Utah’s last win in Tucson came way back in December of 1986. A very long time ago.
The last time these teams met, Utah ended Arizona’s reign of terror over them, beating them 70-64 in Salt Lake City, ending the Wildcats’ 12-game win streak over the Utes.
But that was then and this is now and the Wildcats are coming off of their best offensive performance of the season, a 39-point thrashing of Stanford. Arizona continues to play fantastic basketball since their defeat at the hands of Gonzaga way back on December 3.
Here are three things to watch when the Wildcats try to make it eight in a row on Thursday night:
THE REBOUND BATTLE
These are two of the finest rebounding teams in the nation. Arizona’s size and athletic wings have combined to create a rebounding nightmare for opponents, especially over the last month.
But, oddly enough, Utah is one of the few teams, 12 to be exact, that have a better rebounding rate than the Wildcats this season.
With rebounding being a strong suit for each of these squads, you have to believe that the team that ends up with the edge on the glass will come away with the win.
The key to the boards might not be any seven footer or post extraordinaire. It might just be the Wildcats 6’5” freshman, Rawle Alkins.
Alkins is averaging nearly six rebounds a game and has proven to be an absolute bruiser on the glass.
Utah rarely allows offensive rebounds. They’re 25th in the nation in defensive rebound rate. Who’s number one in that category? That would be the California Golden Bears.
But when Arizona squared off with Cal last Friday night, Rawle Alkins was able to pull down five offensive rebounds against the best defensive rebounding team in the nation.
What the team does, and specifically Alkins, on the offensive glass, and getting the offense second opportunities will be something to keep an eye on.
Arizona’s offense tends to come and go. The first half against Cal was an example of bad Arizona offense. Shots not falling, the ball was sticking, they couldn’t get to the free throw line. Just an overall mess.
But then you have the Stanford game where the Wildcats dropped 91 on the Cardinal and made everything look easy.
So which is it? And which will we see on Thursday night?
The fact that could decide which we see on Thursday is that Utah is not a particularly good defensive team. They rank 90th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
Plus, they’ve been considerably worse away from home. They allow 45% from the field when they’re not in their home arena. And the key stat — they allow over 21 free throws a game away from home.
Arizona is a streaky shooting team. The only guy that has proven to be a consistent threat from outside is Lauri Markkanen. As a whole, though, the shots will occasionally fall in bunches or fail in bunches.
But the thing that Arizona has been fantastic at is attacking the rim, forcing the issue, and getting to the line. In four of their last five games, they’ve shot at least 23 free throws and made at least 20. Nobody knows if the jumpers will be falling in McKale tonight. But Arizona should see plenty of opportunities to get some freebies.
UTES AT FULL STRENGTH, CATS AS STRONG AS THEY CAN BE
Five games ago, Utah added two transfers and they have contributed immediately. Forward originally from Utah State, David Collette, has added a real post presence for the Utes. And former SMU guard, Sedrick Barefield has added a perimeter threat for the Utes.
Utah is 4-1 since adding these two and they’ve averaged 79 points per game with them in the lineup. The Wildcats have yet to surrender 70 points in a game this season so something will have to give.
But, the fact of the matter is, Utah is now at full strength, playing ten guys over ten minutes a game.
Depth has been a concern for Arizona but it’s rarely reared its ugly head for the Wildcats. Especially with Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s recent return, Arizona’s rotation is back to eight guys and, until anyone knows anything about Allonzo Trier, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
Utah adding depth and flexibility to their lineup does make them a more interesting matchup than they were a month ago. And the versatility that Utah has at the offensive end could make Thursday night’s game close to the end.