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6 storylines in the Arizona-Oregon State game

Will Arizona continue to show improvement defensively? Will Dusan Ristic get his 110th win?

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 14 Arizona Wildcats are on the road Thursday to take on the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis at 7 p.m. MST on FOX Sports 1.

Arizona (21-6, 11-3 Pac-12) won the first matchup in Tucson, 62-53.

Here are some storylines to keep an eye on during the rematch.

Arizona vs. Oregon State’s zone

Arizona had a heck of a time trying to solve OSU’s zone last time. The Wildcats shot just 42 percent from the field, and 29 percent from 3 against the Beavers

It was arguably their worst offensive performance all season.

Arizona coach Sean Miller credited that to OSU’s stingy defense, which was incredibly disruptive and did a tremendous job keeping Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton from getting the ball on the low block.

The two combined for just 22 points on 16 shots.

“We did not generate enough good shots,” Miller said. “That had a lot to do with their defense, we had large segments of that game where we didn’t play exceptionally well. And I think that had a lot to do with it. And we’re going to have to be better this time around, for sure.”

Oregon State also controlled the pace, mucking the game up for the first 32 minutes until Arizona finally pulled away at the end.

So getting out in transition could be crucial for the Wildcats, who are looking to avoid a repeat of the first matchup.

“[Oregon State is] a very physical team,” Miller said. “They’re a team that takes a lot of pride in their defense, their half-court defense. They do it by playing a lot of zone, not all zone, even when they’re man-to-man, they’re very physical.”

Oregon State’s defense ranks just 107th in the country — worse than Arizona’s — but it ranks fourth in league play. UA’s is fifth.

The Beavers have been exceptional at defending the 3, holding Pac-12 foes to 33 percent shooting beyond the arc.

Will Arizona’s defense continue to show improvement?

Arizona’s defense, not its offense, is still its biggest issue, but there have been positive developments on that end of the floor lately (which I wrote about here).

The Wildcats are on a two-game winning streak, beating USC and ASU, and they had two of their best defensive performances all season in those games.

Maybe even the best.

“I could say that our defense might have been the best it’s been all Pac-12 season, because they scored quite a few points off our turnovers,” Miller said of UA’s defense vs. ASU. “Considering that, they weren’t necessarily scoring as easily against our half-court defense. But we’re making improvements.”

But will those improvements last? Probably not if we’re basing our answer on Arizona’s body of work this season. The Wildcats have taken two steps back after every step forward defensively this season. There is a reason why they rank in the 90s in defensive efficiency even though they once ranked in the 50s and 60s.

Yet, maybe Arizona will turn in another quality defensive performance against the Beavers and show that, hey, maybe this team is legitimately better on that end of the floor now.

Never swept

Getting a road sweep in the Pac-12 is difficult for anybody, even Arizona which has been the class of the conference more often than not under Miller.

And the Oregon road trip has been particularly tricky for the Wildcats, who have never won both games of it since Miller took over as head coach in 2009-10.

But neither Oregon school is particularly good this season — Oregon is 17-10 overall and 7-7 in the Pac-12. Oregon State is 13-13 and 5-9, respectively — so maybe this will finally be the year the Wildcats will sweep them. But they know that won’t be easy.

“The Oregon schools are really good, even though their record isn’t that good,” UA center Dusan Ristic said. “They have talented players. They play well. They have a few bad losses, but they’re good teams. Both of them.”

Well rested

One thing Arizona has going for it this week is it is well-rested. The Wildcats were able to take Friday and Sunday off since their only game last week was Thursday’s tussle at ASU.

That is potentially big news for Arizona’s starters, particularly Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton, who have been playing heavy minutes lately.

Trier has cracked the 38-minute mark in each of the last two games.

“This rivalry week came at a good time for us,” Miller said. “Each year it’s different. Sometimes we had it on the last week of the regular season. We’ve had it separated by like three or four weeks, almost like the Colorado-Utah deal this year where we played and a couple weeks went by and we played again. But I think we had a real healthy stretch of playing two games a week, and you start getting towards the end of February and you can sense you need a break. And we did and we have to take advantage of it now. We gave guys a couple days off, we have an extra day to practice here, and I’d like to think we’ll enter this Oregon swing fresh and healthy.”

Rawle Alkins is another beneficiary of the extra time off. Miller said the sophomore has “zero pain” in his previously-injured right foot, and is now practicing the same amount as every other player on the roster (at Alkins’ request).

“He’s able to do whatever he has planned and this break comes at a good time for him as well, because he’s been able to get a couple days off and focus for the stretch run,” Miller said. “Like I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we were hoping that the pain would subside and he could be with us in everything that we do all the way until the end. And knock on wood I think that’s where he’s headed right now.”

Arizona moving closer to Pac-12 title

Arizona currently holds a two-game lead (in the loss column) over USC and UCLA atop the Pac-12 standings. The L.A. schools are both 10-5 in conference play, but still have to play each other one more time, so that is a disadvantage for one of them.

The Wildcats only have four games left, so every win from this point on makes it extremely likely that they will be Pac-12 champions.

KenPom once projected Arizona would win the Pac-12 by three games, but now that number is down to two after USC swept the Oregon schools at home last week.

An Arizona sweep of the Oregon schools means the UA would clinch at least a share of the Pac-12 title — and obviously it would help its NCAA Tournament seeding, too.

Arizona is currently projected as a 4-seed, but could theoretically jump all the way to a 2-seed, depending how it closes out the season.

Ristic would tie all-time wins record with victory at OSU

As I wrote, Ristic is two wins away from becoming UA’s all-time winningest player, which means he is only one win away from tying Kaleb Tarczewski and Matt Muelebach for the program lead.

Will that happen Thursday? Or will Ristic have to wait a few more days to get his 110th win?

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire