The Arizona Wildcats are coming off their biggest win of the season last Saturday night, a six-point win over then-No. 3 Arizona State to open up conference play. Arizona is now winners of eight straight and among the hottest teams in the country heading into their first Pac-12 road trip.
Elsewhere in the conference, the Utah Utes completely changed the trajectory of their season with a successful road trip this past weekend. The Utes came out of the difficult Oregon trip unscathed, knocking off the Oregon Ducks by 10 and the Oregon State Beavers by two on their respective home floors.
And that’s who the Wildcats face first on their Rocky Mountain road trip as they travel to the Jon M. Huntsman Center to take on the Utes this Thursday night. The last time Arizona traveled to Salt Lake City to play the Utes was back in February of 2016 when Utah finally beat Arizona in Pac-12 play for the first time since joining the conference, 70-64.
Plenty has happened since that day and these are two completely different teams. But what hasn’t changed is the difficulty of this trip for Arizona and to make matters worse, lying in wait is a Utah team riding high at 2-0 in conference play.
Here are three keys to the Wildcats knocking off the Utes:
Force the ball inside
Utah’s defense is their biggest strength, particularly against opposing shooters. First off, the Utes have only allowed 70 points one time in their last five games and have really clamped down in their last three, allowing just 60.7 points per game in that time.
They rely on strong perimeter defense forcing bad shots and it’s worked plenty up to this point. Utah allows teams to shoot only 30.1 percent from long range, ranking top 30 in the country in that category.
Arizona has some good 3-point shooters and a few guys that can catch fire. Allonzo Trier has had his moments this season. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a dead-eye from deep. Rawle Alkins is a much improved spot-up shooter. Dylan Smith and Brandon Randolph can come in and immediately contribute from beyond the arc. But this is what Utah wants. They want teams to settle for shots. The Wildcats can’t forget where their bread is buttered and that’s down around the basket.
The Wildcats’ shooting percentage is up to 51.5 percent, top five in the nation. That includes 57.3 percent on 2-pointers. Arizona must remain aggressive and get the ball inside. They’re at their best when they’re controlling the pace. Feeding it to Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic and letting them go to work should collapse the defense and eventually open up the perimeter.
Get out in transition
When Arizona was really pushing the pace on the Sun Devils this past Saturday night, that’s when they found some separation on the scoreboard. The guys in red and blue will generally have an athletic advantage over every opponent they face.
That’s why their lack of forcing turnovers can be so maddening. With a team so athletic, this team could be a fast break nightmare for opposing teams. It would behoove Arizona to find that on Thursday night.
The Wildcats’ half-court offense occasionally gets stagnant and they end up relying on 3-pointers. As was just pointed out, that’s not ideal against Utah. So when forcing the ball isn’t working out or if the attack isn’t quite there on offense, the Wildcats must attack on defense. The long arms and active hands of Arizona’s perimeter defenders need to get going to get some easy baskets.
Even on Utah misses, with Ayton on the floor, a defensive rebound is almost a guarantee. When he pulls down a rebound, the Wildcats’ wings need to sprint down their lanes and try to find separation for outlet passes. This is a game where Arizona’s athleticism can really set them apart. Getting out in transition gives them their best opportunity.
Keep Utah off the free throw line
This will be one game to leave the silly fouls behind. As good a free throw shooting team Arizona is at 76 percent, good for 34th best in the nation, the Utes are even better.
Utah shoots the ball at a 78 percent clip from the charity stripe and rank right outside the top ten in the country.
The Utes take a ton of 3-pointers which actually could benefit Arizona. If Utah isn’t attacking the rim, it could keep Arizona out of foul trouble. Plus, the Wildcats are plenty familiar with that. They just played a team that lives and dies by penetration and 3s.
But it will be important for Arizona to play smart basketball and keep Utah out of the bonus at least until late in each half. If this one turns into a free throw contest, it could be anybody’s game.