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3 up, 3 down in Arizona’s win at Utah

Some takeaways from the Wildcats’ road win in Salt Lake City

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Utah Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats got the job done for the ninth consecutive time Thursday night, defeating the Utah Utes, 94-82, in their first road conference game.

The Wildcats’ offense dominated to establish a double-digit lead in the first half and even appeared to be on their way to a blowout victory at certain points. They led by as much as 17 and took a 14-point lead into the break.

The Utes used a 3-point barrage to open up the second half to draw the game closer, eventually tying Arizona at 77 with just 3:45 remaining in the game after a rare five-point play.

The Wildcats took over from there though, using some well-timed defensive intensity to cause bad shots and turnovers and go on an 11-0 run to put the game away.

Arizona goes for 10 in a row this Saturday night when they square off with the Colorado Buffaloes and try to make their first road trip of the year a perfect one.

While there was certainly much to be impressed with on Thursday night against Utah, there are some underlying issues as evidenced by the Wildcats surrendering a 17-point lead on the road and nearly letting a surefire victory get away.

Here’s three up and three down for Arizona’s win in Salt Lake City:

3 Up

The offense

Arizona dropped 94 points on a team that hadn’t given up more than 64 to their last three opponents and had only given up more than 75 on three occasions this season. Utah’s defense was riding a high coming into Thursday night’s game and the Wildcats sent them back to the drawing board with 46 first-half points.

Utah came out and for the most part played much better defense in the second half. Arizona put up another 48 just for good measure.

What’s most notable about this offensive performance though is the fact that it came from the inside. The Wildcats scored 94 while only making four 3-pointers, their lowest total since Arizona’s unspeakably bad performance against Purdue back in November, which was also their last loss. But what’s most encouraging is that Arizona didn’t settle for 3s against the Utes. They took only 12 shots from beyond the arc, their lowest of the season.

Instead, Arizona picked and prodded at the Utes’ defense with an attack coming toward the rim. If the Wildcats weren’t finding an easy bucket, they were getting to the free throw line. If a jumper wasn’t falling, Arizona was grabbing missed left and right and filling it up with second chance points. Arizona finished with 14 offensive rebounds.

It was a truly dominant effort from an already potent offensive attack.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright

This guy deserves a lot of credit for the offense running as well as it did.

Just a few days after Sean Miller described Jackson-Cartwright as the “perfect point guard” for Arizona, PJC orchestrated the offense well. He finished with three assists, his 12th consecutive game with at least three dimes.

Beyond that though, Jackson-Cartwright hit big shots and finished with a season-high 19 points. He made three of Arizona’s four 3-pointers.

PJC’s 3-point shooting has been better and better in his time at Arizona and Thursday night showed how reliable he’s gotten. He’s now shooting over 52 percent from deep, way up from an already respectable 42 percent from last year.

Ideally, the Wildcats’ offense can be their big three surrounded by shooters. And when one of the big three doesn’t show up on offense, the hope is either Jackson-Cartwright or Dusan Ristic fills in nicely. On a night where Allonzo Trier only scored seven points, PJC’s offensive eruption was timely.

Triple A

Speaking of Arizona’s big three — Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins — they were dynamic on Thursday night.

Ayton was his usual beastly self, tormenting the Utes on both ends with 24 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks. Utah had no chance of stopping Ayton when he received the ball in the post and he attacked the glass like a man possessed. As a whole, the Wildcats destroyed Utah on the boards with a 46-23 advantage.

Alkins put the game away with slick defense and attacking the rim to get to the line. He came away with 22 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. Four of his rebounds came on the offensive end.

Rawle represented Arizona’s athletic advantage over Utah as the Utes couldn’t seem to do anything to match the Wildcats’ speed and length. If there’s one downside to Alkins’ game on Thursday night, it was his 3-point shooting where he finished just 1 of 5 and forced a couple of bad ones.

And that brings us to Trier, who was extremely quiet by his standards on the offensive end. Trier finished with only seven points and took only five shots. But if you’re looking for a reason that Arizona was able to hang 94 points on Utah without doing much work from 3-point land, Trier was the engine that made the offense go.

He shot zero 3-pointers on Thursday night, the first time he’s done that all season. He didn’t force any bad shots. A knock on Trier since he started at Arizona was the fact that he forces things and tries to make too much happen. He deferred to his teammates against Utah and ended up with five assists. He also has shown an increased level of effort on defense as of late and that showed up in the box score with Trier grabbing one steal and one block.

It’s always nice to see Trier go out and get 20 points but Thursday night was a great example of Zo helping the Wildcats, a team that occasionally struggles with playmaking and ball-handling, in other ways.

3 Down

Perimeter defense

Nearly half of Utah’s 26 made field goals were from deep on Thursday night and it really kept the Utes in the game. They sank 12 3-pointers with nine of them coming in the second half.

Utah was firing them all game and Utes guard Sedrick Barefield caught fire in the second half leading to his team-high 23 points and six 3-pointers.

Plenty of Utah’s made 3s were just good off-the-dribble shot making skills coming from their guards but it still showed a hole in Arizona’s defensive scheme. This was the ninth time this season that Arizona has surrendered at least eight 3-pointers to their opponent and they’ve been hurt by corner 3s in particular all season long.

On nights that the offense struggles, which admittedly are hard to imagine, giving up 24 points to the opponent on 3-pointers could be killer.

A game of runs

While it’s the nature of the beast in basketball, giving up a 17-point lead with a team as talented as Arizona has is pretty rough.

Granted, the Wildcats were playing in a difficult arena against an opponent that knows how to shoot the 3-ball. Plus, every Pac-12 opponent and every opposing Pac-12 crowd brings their best when Arizona is in the building.

But we’ve seen Arizona struggle to put teams away in the last few weeks and in particular these last two games. They’ve given up double-digit leads and let their opponents stick around far too long before finally putting the nail in the coffin and ending up with a win.

The win is the most important part and Arizona is now at nine in a row. But we saw a lead vanish in last year’s Sweet Sixteen and a run by the opposing team snowball into a disappointing loss. This problem of letting teams comeback and hang around too long could result in a loss for the Wildcats and this issue needs to be fixed before that loss happens at the worst possible time.

The schedule

As has been talked about, Arizona is now heavily favored in their next 11 games with their lowest win probability sitting at 76 percent in that span, per KenPom. The Wildcats are now expected to come into their next game against Arizona State with a 20-game win streak.

On the surface, this is great. Conceivably, this road win at Utah was their last game to really worry about until mid-February. But that also brings with it some pressure.

This means that Arizona needs to be on permanent upset alert for the next month and a half. The Bahamas trip feels like a distant memory and more importantly, a completely different team. When the lights were on bright and the eyes of college basketball were focused on Tucson, Arizona beat the No. 3 team in the country. The Wildcats are looking golden in the eyes of the selection committee right now.

But what happens if Arizona has a slip up in these next 11 games? How much would it hurt their eventual NCAA Tournament seeding if they were upset by a conference foe as a major favorite? What happens if Arizona drops one on Saturday to a Colorado team more confident than ever?

The easy schedule could feel like a blessing. But on a bad day, it could turn into a curse.