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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts unbeaten Wyoming

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-wyoming-cowboys-preview-pac12-mountain-west-unbeaten-net-2021 Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are one of just 12 Division I teams yet to lose this season, and on Wednesday night they’ll host one of the other 11 as the unbeaten Wyoming Cowboys come to McKale Center for a better-than-expected nonconference matchup.

The UA (7-0, 1-0 Pac-12) is 11th in the latest Associated Press poll, the same place it was a week ago, while Wyoming (8-0) has not received any AP votes despite its best start since 2012-13.

This is the first meeting between the ex-Western Athletic Conference foes since 2004, when the UA won 98-70 at McKale. The Wildcats are 20-15 all-time against the Pokes including 14-3 at home.

Here’s what to watch for from this mid-week clash in Tucson:

A better start

Arizona won 90-65 at Oregon State on Sunday, but early on the Wildcats looked very out of sorts on both ends of the court. The Wildcats only had seven points in the first 6:55 of game action, going a season-long 4:12 without scoring before running off 16 straight points to take control and never look back.

Coach Tommy Lloyd cited Arizona having gone nearly a week without playing—having the Washington game canceled due to COVID-19 issues contributed to that—as well as being on the road for the first time as potential reasons for the slow start.

The UA turned it over six times in the first seven minutes, then just six times the rest of the way. It also shot better than 50 percent after a 2-of-10 start.

Back to the bigs?

Thanks to his 29-point outburst at OSU, Bennedict Mathurin is Arizona’s leading scorer on the season at 16 points per game, but the UA’s most consistent scorers have been big men Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis, both of whom average 15.6 per game.

They had 12 and 10, respectively, against the Beavers, but were just 7 of 13 from the field as a duo with Tubelis attemping a season-low five shots.

Arizona fed the post frequently early on against OSU but it wasn’t working, so it moved away from that approach. Wyoming doesn’t start anyone over 6-foot-9, so this could be another opportunity for the Wildcats’ frontcourt to establish itself from the outset.

NET implications

The NCAA released its first NET rankings on Monday, a metric that plays a big role in how the selection committee picks and seeds the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona is third in the initial rankings, while Wyoming is No. 12, making this a huge game for each team in terms of beefing up their strength of schedule.

The Wildcats have yet to play an opponent classified as a “Quadrant 1” foe, which means in the top 30 if at home, top 50 at a neutral site or top 75 on the road. Arizona’s wins over Wichita State (66) and Michigan (63) at the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas are both currently Quadrant 2 wins, while the other five are Quadrant 4 victories.

Michigan and Wichita could both climb into the top 50, while Wyoming figures to fall out of the top 30 once it moves into Mountain West Conference play next month.

As it stands now, Arizona has seven other Quadrant 1 games on the schedule, including four in its next six games. The Wildcats play Saturday at Illinois, which is No. 48, go to No. 11 Tennessee on Dec. 22 and then visit No. 33 UCLA and No. 7 USC.

About the ‘Pokes

Wyoming comes to McKale Center having already won three times on the road, tied for second-most in the country, winning at Washington, Grand Canyon and Cal State-Fullerton.

The Cowboys are in the top 15 nationally in field goal percentage and field goal defense, shooting 50.1 percent and holding teams to 36.1 percent from the field. Their 2-point percentage (59.1) is seventh nationally, just a bit behind fifth-place Arizona (59.6 percent).

Defensively, Wyoming is 10th in Division I in 3-point defense, allowing only 24.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and it’s 16th in 2-point defense (42.0 percent) while Arizona is first at 37.6 percent.

The similarities go away when looking at how Arizona and Wyoming operate on offense and defense, though.

While Arizona leads the nation in assist rate, at 71.9 percent, Wyoming is near the bottom at 39.1 percent. Senior guard Hunter Maldonado averages 5.4 assists per game, more than any UA player, but eight of the Wildcats’ nine rotation players have at least 10 assists while four of Wyoming’s eight most-used players have seven or fewer.

Wyoming is also near the bottom nationally in turnovers forced, getting one on only 14.5 percent of defensive possessions, and its steal rate (4.4 percent) is third-worst among 358 D-I teams.

All five Wyoming starters average double figures, with Maldonado (18.9) and sophomore forward Graham Ike (20.8) the top contributors. Ike also averages nine rebounds per game.

The Cowboys average 82.3 points per game but are on the slow end in terms of tempo, with none of their games against Division I opponents (that didn’t go to overtime) having more than 70 possessions.