The last time the Arizona Wildcats faced Utah in Salt Lake City — toward the end of the 2015-16 season — they lost to the Utes for the first time in nearly two decades.
But Sean Miller doesn’t plan on reminding his players about that heading into Thursday’s rematch at the Huntsman Center.
“No, that’s like 15 years ago,” he scoffed. “That’s so irrelevant to the world today. Obama used to be the president, Trump is now. Khalil Tate is the quarterback. I remember Gronkowski was here. Sean Elliott used to play here. That doesn’t have a lot to do with today.”
The 14th-ranked Wildcats will focus on Utah’s current team instead, which has been one of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 this season.
The Utes (10-3) opened conference play with a road sweep of the Oregon schools last week.
“Utah is playing as well anybody in our conference,” Miller said. “They’re 10-3 and anytime you go on the road and win especially against the Oregon schools at Oregon, that has been a very, very tough game and for them to win that one in Oregon State I think says a lot about their team.”
Ranked 53rd in the nation by KenPom, Utah is an abnormally balanced team, boasting five players who score in double figures.
6-foot-10 forward David Collette leads the way, averaging 13.2 points per contest.
“I think he’s one of the best low-post scorers that we’ll face all year,” Miller said.
Right behind Collette is Long Beach State transfer Justin Bibbins, a quick, 5-foot-8 point guard who is averaging 13.1 points per game and shooting 49 percent from 3.
“We faced him when he was a point guard at Long Beach State, but he gives them that engine that runs the team,” Miller said.
“He makes the team easier for his teammates. He has a quickness defensively, takes a lot of charges. He’s in double figures, so he’s one of the five players that are in double figures as a point guard. That addition and being able to have Sedrick Barefield be able to move off the ball and free him up to score, make plays probably brings out the best in him as well.”
Barefield, a transfer from SMU, is averaging 10.6 points per game, though he is only shooting 33 percent from the field.
One of Utah’s most improved players is 6-foot-10 stretch-four Tyler Rawson who averages 11 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He transferred in from Southern Utah a few years ago.
“They do a real good job developing their players,” Miller said of the Utes. “Often times a player that you see in a given year returns to the next season and he’s that much better, and that’s a real credit to Larry (Krystkowiak) and his coaching staff as they develop the players they recruit. They’ve done a really nice job recruiting, blending in a number of different guys whether it be a transfer. I think Bibbins is a big, big addition to their team this year.”
Utah has the No. 62 offense in the country, per KenPom, and it plays at a slow pace, ranking 236th (of 351) in adjusted tempo. The Utes’ main weapon of choice is the 3-pointer.
44 percent of their shots come from behind the arc, and they shoot 36 percent from that distance. Nearly every player in their rotation shoots them, besides Collette and 7-footer center Jayce Johnson.
Utah defends the 3 well, too. Opposing teams are only shooting 30 percent from behind the arc against the Utes, whose defense ranks 52nd in the country.
“They’ve established themselves as a team that can be in this year’s tournament,” Miller said. “I know this is a big weekend for them.”
It is a big weekend for Arizona, too. Just in a different way.
If Arizona (11-3) beats Utah, its eight-game winning streak could last a long, long time. The Wildcats’ win lowest probability in their next 11 games after Thursday’s matchup is 77 percent when they face Washington in Seattle on Feb. 3.
So beat Utah and there is a good chance UA won’t lose against until it rematches ASU on Feb. 15 in Tempe.
But the Utes are no cakewalk as the Wildcats found out two years ago — even if Miller doesn’t think that game is relevant anymore.
“Larry Krystkowiak does a great job with his program and coaching his team,” he said. “We know that’s a great homecourt that they have in Salt Lake City so we’re going to have to be ready to go.”
Arizona still solidifying its bench
A key in any game for Arizona this season is its bench production.
The Wildcats’ starting lineup is better than any they will face in the Pac-12 this season, but finding consistent contributors from other players has been challenging at times.
Against ASU, UA got nine points from Dylan Smith and five points from Brandon Randolph, but goose eggs from Alex Barcello and Ira Lee. Keanu Pinder and Emmanuel Akot did not play.
“I’ve talked about the guys that don’t start the game and how important it is for our coaching staff to continue to develop them so that if you judge them as players in the months of November and December … we can point to their comfort and how they’ve settled in, how they’ve found their role and now they’re doing their role really well,” Miller said.
“Dylan is on his way to doing that. Brandon Randolph has done the same thing in a number of different games where he’s been a double figure scorer. I believe he’s learning our defense more and more. Every time he plays a game he gets more comfortable. Same for Ira and Alex Barcello.”
Arizona nearly blew a double-figure lead against ASU because its starters were wearing down. Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, Deandre Ayton, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright all played 33 minutes or more.
Dusan Ristic played 28 minutes.
“We want to develop (the bench) because I thought the last six to eight minutes of the ASU game, we wore down a little bit and that’s to be expected when you’re playing hard at both ends in a pressure game like that,” Miller said.
“We need to be able to sub and when you sub you not just want to give your starters a rest, you want to get productivity from the bench like Dylan gave us. A big part of our season is … we want to add to our depth and continue to solidify those younger players and those guys we can count on. Injuries happen, foul trouble happens, sickness happens and no team can do with like a group of three, four, five. You need eight or nine, nine or 10 guys everyday. We know that, we’ve talked a lot to our team about that.”
Barcello feeling better
Barcello had been dealing with a left ankle injury that he suffered early in December, but Miller said it is no longer bothering him and that Barcello had a “really good” practice Monday.
The freshman point guard has missed two of the last four games and has not scored more than four points in a game since November after getting off to a hot start.
“In my mind he was hitting his stride and then the injury derailed him and now he’s working his way back,” Miller said. “He’s completely healthy, but now he has to regain that confidence and I think the way that he played in the Texas A&M game, he like Dylan was a big factor in that game that helped us.”
Miller did not provide an update on Akot this week. The freshman forward has been in and out of the rotation due to knee tendinitis.
Arizona leads the all-time series 31-29, which includes a 1-10 mark since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12.
The Wildcats won last season’s only meeting between the two teams, 66-56, in Tucson, but Utah won the previous meeting that was played at the Huntsman Center.
The Utes earned a 70-64 win over the Wildcats back on Feb. 27, 2016.
Utah is 20-10 all-time when facing the Wildcats at home, but Arizona has managed to win seven of the past eight meetings in Salt Lake City, which dates back to 1993.
How to watch Thursday’s game
Game time: 7 p.m. MST
TV channel: ESPN
Live stream: WatchESPN
Announcers: Dave Pasch (play-by-play) and Bill Walton (analyst)
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire