The Arizona Wildcats (16-4, 6-1 Pac-12) have spent the last two weeks recovering from a surprising 80-77 road loss to the Colorado Buffaloes. Arizona’s remedy was running through the Oregon schools in McKale Center, followed by a road sweep in the Bay Area.
Now winners of four straight, the Wildcats appear ready for a rematch of their lone Pac-12 loss when they host Colorado (12-8, 4-4) on Thursday night.
Most recently, the Buffaloes dropped a home game to a tough Washington team. Truthfully, Arizona didn’t fare a whole lot better in their last game, escaping Palo Alto by the skin of their teeth with a 73-71 win after watching a double-digit lead turn into a double-digit deficit.
Can Arizona put together 40 consistently strong minutes on Thursday night? What do they need to do to avoid another slip-up against Tad Boyle’s Buffs? Here’s three keys to an Arizona win:
Attack the zone early and often
Ah yes, the zone defense that we keep having to talk about. Bottom line is, we’ll keep having to discuss it until the Wildcats break zone defenses regularly. And something tells me the Wildcats will keep seeing it until then as well.
Colorado’s zone stifled Arizona two and a half weeks ago throughout the first half, burying the Wildcats into a hole so deep, Arizona couldn’t pull themselves out of it by game’s end. The Buffs led by 20 at one point and that three-point loss felt like a 15-point loss for Arizona.
Just this past Saturday against Stanford, the Wildcats seemed baffled by the zone. After jumping out to a quick double-digit lead in impressive and dominant fashion, the Wildcats stalled, simply passing the ball around the perimeter, standing around and eventually chucking up a deep 3-pointer.
Arizona has some of the most offensively gifted players in the country but they need to cut their way through a zone to beat it. The Wildcats need to be aggressive, especially to start the game. Early pressure from Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins, using penetration and attacking the gaps of the zone will get the Buffaloes to shy away from using the strategy for long.
If they stay aggressive, the zone will go away, easy buckets will eventually be had and the Wildcats should shoot a ton of free throws.
Colorado ranks as the sloppiest team in the Pac-12, averaging the most turnovers per game and turning the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions.
The Buffs showed this in the second half against Arizona back on Jan. 6. The Buffaloes turned the ball over 15 times that day, 13 of which came in the second half as Arizona used that to claw back in the game.
Arizona won’t necessarily need quick, active hands or be masters in the art of the steal. They won’t even need to set traps or be overly aggressive and get themselves into foul trouble. The Wildcats simply need to be relentless with pressuring the ball and let Colorado do the rest.
Teams that turn the ball over at the rate the Buffaloes do don’t need much of a push to fall into their sloppy habits. Pressure will create a false sense of urgency early on and force teams like that to make mental errors. We saw that two and a half weeks ago during Arizona’s attempt at a comeback. They started the second half with pressure, grabbed a couple steals and before they knew it, Colorado was throwing the ball into the stands and bouncing it off their foot out of bounds.
Pressure and over-committing on defense can lead to open looks against teams that use smart ball movement. But it’s worth the risk against a team that turns the ball over as much as Colorado. Even with the occasional open look, it certainly can’t be expected that the Buffs will be able to shoot against Arizona like they did last time. Normally a 44 percent shooting team, Colorado shot 55 percent and 44 percent from deep in their upset win.
Own the inside
The Buffaloes have had success with shot blocking so far in Pac-12 play, sending back 33 shots in their conference games, tied with Arizona for second most. Beyond that, Colorado has just been a tough team to score on inside most of the season. The Buffs only allow teams to shoot 46 percent on 2-pointers and 42 percent overall.
Only three of Colorado’s 33 Pac-12 blocks came in their win over Arizona earlier this month. With Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic both standing at 7-feet or taller, blocking the Wildcats down low is not an easy job. It would be wise of the perimeter guys to force the ball into the middle ad nauseam.
The combination of Ayton and Ristic should be a bit much for Colorado. Last time out, Ayton led the Wildcats’ near comeback, scoring 26 points against the Buffs, 21 of it coming in the second half. Ristic couldn’t find his touch against the Buffaloes’ interior defense, shooting 6-for-16 and finishing with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Ayton is a beast and we all know that by now. But Ristic could be the real difference-maker. He’s coming off of what could be his best game of the season against Stanford where he tallied 18 points on 9-of-13 shooting and kept the Wildcats in the game with his shooting touch in the low post.
If he comes close to repeating that performance and Ayton is his usual monstrous self, the Wildcats can ride their big men to victory.