The Arizona Wildcats (17-4, 7-1 Pac-12) have won five straight and hold a half-game lead in the conference over USC as they look to complete another perfect homestand on Saturday afternoon against the Utah Utes (13-7, 5-4).
Arizona may have four losses on the season but none of them have come in their own backyard, sitting at a spotless 11-0 at McKale. Utah has the unenviable task of trying to hand Arizona just their third home loss in the last 84 games in Tucson.
Utah lost four games in a row a few weeks ago which all started when these teams met the first time this season. Arizona won that one in Salt Lake City, 94-82, behind a 24-point, 14-rebound performance from Deandre Ayton.
The loss sent the Utes on a bit of a tailspin but it would appear they’ve recovered, winning their last three games including Thursday night’s 80-77 overtime win in Tempe against Arizona State.
The Utes feel good as they enter the toughest place to win in the Pac-12 and the Wildcats need to be on guard to keep an upset from happening.
Here are three keys to an Arizona win:
Limit Utah’s 3-pointers
Since Pac-12 play started, nobody is launching it from deep like the Utes.
Utah has taken and made the most 3s in conference play and impressively sit at second in 3-point shooting percentage in Pac-12 play with 38.3 percent of their bombs going down.
Last time these schools met, that’s how Utah stayed in the game. Arizona was pummeling Utah on the glass and turning that into easy baskets at the other end. The Utes pulled themselves back into the game with supreme 3-point shooting, knocking down 12 3-pointers, tied for the second highest total the Wildcats have surrendered all season.
Arizona is coming off a performance that shouldn’t give Wildcat fans much faith in this area. Against Colorado, a team not known for its shooting, the Buffs hit eight 3-pointers and 50 percent of their tries from beyond the arc. The Wildcats have to fare better on Saturday because Utah will be taking much more than 16 triples.
In their last three games, all wins, half of Utah’s shot attempts are coming from deep. They’re averaging 11.3 makes on 30 attempts per game in the last three. Arizona needs to attempt to scare Utah off the 3-point line or hope that their length and the McKale crowd effects their shooting.
When up against a good 3-point shooting team like Utah, a sound strategy is to close out hard and keep the defense rotating as the offense has to keep the ball moving.
While still a good strategy for Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats will need to be extra careful with their defensive rotations as they play one of the finest passing teams in the conference.
Utah has the second highest total of assists in the conference and are averaging 18.3 per game on this three-game win streak. While they have specific shooters, they’re constantly looking for the best shot available. Look for Utah to capitalize on Arizona knowing about the Utes’ shooting prowess by moving the ball quickly around the perimeter, trying to catch the Wildcats’ defense out of position.
With the number of great athletes on this Arizona team, especially defending on the perimeter, they have the speed and quickness to stick with their guy in a man-to-man scheme. But this defense isn’t known for stops and could be exposed at points by the Utes’ ball movement.
Dominate the glass
Utah can study film of their last meeting with Arizona and come up with all kinds of ideas and schemes to help give them a different result this time around. But the one thing they can’t do is make themselves bigger or make the Wildcats smaller.
Arizona rag-dolled the Utes around the rim last time out, doubling them up in the rebound category, 46-23.
If Arizona does that at the defensive end again, they can get out in transition plenty and let Allonzo Trier go to work, like he did against Colorado.
But perhaps even more important, if they do it at the offensive end, all Utah can do to stop Ayton and Dusan Ristic when they pull down an offensive board is foul before they attempt at second chance points. Last time, Ayton, Ristic and Rawle Alkins combined for 10 offensive rebounds and by no coincidence, the three also combined for 20 free throw attempts (and exactly half of Arizona’s 94 points scored).
Alkins’ status for Saturday is up in the air, but Ayton and Ristic will be there and the Wildcats will have their size advantage in tow. That could ultimately be the difference as Arizona looks for their 15th win in 16 tries.