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Arizona vs. Utah preview: Wildcats look to avoid sweep vs. Utes

This game will likely decide Arizona's Pac-12 fate

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 9 Arizona Wildcats dropped the first game of what Sean Miller considers to be the "toughest road trip of the conference" Wednesday night against the Colorado Buffaloes.

Now, the Wildcats are slated to square off against an even tougher opponent, the No. 22 Utah Utes, in Salt Lake City on Saturday. Not only are the Wildcats trying to avoid being swept on this road-trip, they're also battling for a chance to repeat as Pac-12 Champions.

Who to watch

The easy answer is Jakob Poeltl. The 7-foot center from Austria has been on an absolute tear lately. Before his seven-point outing against Arizona State (he only needed to play 23 minutes in that drubbing), he had scored 20+ points in seven of his last nine games, and, leading up to the ASU game, had recorded three double-doubles in a row.

Not only is he the largest big man the Wildcats will have faced this year, but he's the most talented too. Projected to be drafted seventh overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, Poeltl won't stretch the floor like other centers that have given Arizona trouble in recent years, but he's a monster in the paint. He has very good hands, and is mobile for his size, making him a prime pick-and-roll outlet. He's also capable of scoring with his back to the basket, with either hand, and has soft touch around the rim.

Right now, Poeltl is an NBA-caliber big man playing against college kids, but fortunately for Arizona, it might have the answer for him in Kaleb Tarczewski. Tarczewski has a rare blend of mobility, size, and strength, and therefore has a real chance to at least slow Poeltl down.

Aside from Poeltl, the other Ute I'd be extremely wary of is Jordan Loveridge. By now, Wildcat fans should be familiar with him, since he's a fourth-year senior. And if there's one thing he's always been able to do, it's shoot the basketball. Loveridge is averaging over six 3-point attempts per game, and is knocking down 42.5 percent of them. In total, he averages about 11 points per game, and he scored in double-figures in both match-ups against Arizona last season.

Utah is 22-7 and second in the Pac-12 for a reason -- it's a talented squad. Poeltl and Loveridge are great players, but that's not all the Utes have to work with. Forward Kyle Kuzma averages 11 points and six rebounds per game, and, even though he won't kill you from the perimeter, he's does feature a solid mid-range game, he can score in the low-post, and most importantly, does a nice job of playing without the basketball.

Brandon Taylor, Utah's point guard, hasn't been an efficient scorer by any means this season -- he shoots 38.7 percent from the field and makes fewer than one-third of his 3s -- but he can be dangerous. He's scored 15+ points six times this year, including a 21-point game at Washington State. And though he's been inefficient this season, in his first three seasons at Utah, he wasn't. Last season, for example, he shot 82-187 (43.9 percent) from 3-point land. Leave him open, as the Wildcats are prone to doing, and he can quickly put up points.

Dakarai Tucker is another shooter to watch for, and so is the team's fifth-starter -- Lorenzo Bonam, who averages just under 10 points per game and hits 3s at a respectable rate (37.8 percent).

Simply put, Utah is a balanced team with talented players manning each position.

What to watch

The Poeltl-Tarczewski match-up will obviously be front and center. It's not often that you get to see two NBA-sized centers go head-to-head in college basketball.

If Tarczewski can limit Poeltl under his season averages -- 17.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG -- I see Utah having a hard time winning this game. That's easier said than done, but, if previous match-ups between the two are any indication of how things might play out, Zeus might have a decent shot at doing it.

In two games against Arizona last season, Poeltl had just 10 combined points. A ton has changed since then, namely that Poeltl is much-improved and Arizona's defense isn't as stingy, but Arizona and Tarczewski have a better shot than most at slowing Poeltl down.

But as a whole, we can expect this to be a high-scoring game. Here are how the teams rate on both ends.

Teams Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
Arizona 113.6 94.9
Utah 114.6 99.6

Both teams sport an offensive rating in the top 25 (Utah is 16th, and Arizona is 25th) but, despite how inconsistent we may think Arizona's defense is, Utah's defense has been worse.

Utah is the worst team in the conference at defending the 3-point line -- teams shoot 37 percent against them from that range -- and so that's an area that Arizona, an above-averaging shooting team, should be able to find success. The Utes also have a worse turnover margin than Arizona this season (-1.18 to -1.3), and we know that Arizona is at its best when it takes care of the basketball.

But, frankly, this game is an even fight, and Utah's home court advantage may prove to be the difference.

As far as what this game means for Arizona, there's no way to understate it. Take a look at the Pac-12 standings:

A loss for the Wildcats means they'd be 1.5 games behind Utah and potentially two games behind the Oregon Ducks with the final two games to go. Granted, Arizona's last two games are at home against Cal and Stanford -- two games it should win -- but it would HAVE to win both even to have a shot at the Pac-12 title. And that's assuming that Utah and Oregon lose a game or two.

A win, on the flip side, means Arizona jumps ahead of Utah and would be potentially tied or a game back of Oregon. If that's the case, then the Wildcats' chances of winning the conference look much, much better.

So, when all is said and done, this game versus Utah will likely determine the Wildcats' fate in the Pac-12. Win, and a Pac-12 title is still well within reach. Lose, and a third or second-place finish seems certain.

Tipoff is at 12 p.m. MST, and the game will be televised on ESPN.