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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Colorado in Pac-12 opener

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 PAC-12 Tournament - Colorado v Arizona Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats (9-4) are set to host the Colorado Buffaloes (9-3) on Thursday to open Pac-12 play.

Tip-off in Tucson is set for 7 p.m. MST on FOX Sports 1. Here are some things to watch for.

Starting on the right foot

The Pac-12 is up for grabs this season, so what a better what to begin conference play than with a win over a decent Colorado team?

The Buffaloes are easily Arizona’s strongest opponent in the first two weeks of conference play, ranking 77th in the country in KenPom’s efficiency rankings. KenPom projects Colorado will finish 10-8 in the conference and Arizona will finish 11-7, so Thursday’s game could be one that has major implications come March.

And seeing how the Pac-12 might only be a two- or three-bid league this year, it is imperative that Arizona beats all the quality teams this conference has to offer and also avoid home losses.

Defensive battle

Colorado is a defensive-minded team, ranking 59th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Buffaloes don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they dominate the glass.

Colorado has a defensive rebounding percentage of 77.5, the seventh-best mark in the country. Sophomore forward Tyler Bey has the second-highest defensive rebounding percentage in college basketball (31.5), despite standing at 6-foot-7. Arizona coach Sean Miller said Tuesday that rebounding is an area in which the Wildcats desperately need to improve, and the Buffaloes are plenty capable of exploiting their weakness.

Colorado is known for its man-to-man defense, but the Buffs mixed in some zone last year against the Wildcats and it was effective. The teams split the regular-season series.

Arizona has struggled vs. zone defenses again this year, so watch for the Buffs to stray from their usual man-to-man tendencies.

Transition defense

Colorado has typically been a slow-it-down team under coach Tad Boyle, but the Buffaloes are pushing the issue this season, ranking 63rd in the country in adjusted tempo. Last year they were 193rd.

It helps that Colorado is able to go deep into its bench, regularly playing nine guys, sometimes even 10 or 11.

The Buffaloes’ offense ranks 11th in the Pac-12, so it is important Arizona makes them work for baskets and doesn’t bail them out by giving them easy opportunities in transition.

Naturally, that means winning the turnover battle is crucial.

A potential brick-fest

3-point shooting is another area of concern for the Wildcats, who are making just 32.6 percent of their triples this season. Colorado isn’t much better at 33.9 percent.

Both teams are good at defending the 3, too, so this could be a good old-fashioned brick-fest. If there is one guy who can shoot Colorado to victory, it’s Brazilian big man Lucas Siewert, who is 20 for 41 from distance this season.

Same goes for Justin Coleman on Arizona’s side. The senior is shooting 41.9 percent from 3.

Colorado’s super sophomores

We talked about Bey and his rebounding already, but Colorado has another outstanding sophomore in McKinley Wright IV. Wright is the team’s leading scorer (13.8) and assister (5.8). The 6-foot guard is also a surprisingly good rebounder for his size, averaging 5.6 boards per game.

Wright had 16 points and 10 assists when Colorado beat Arizona last year.

“That’s a big, big day, and he’s capable of being a player that can have that type of number,” Miller said. “So our ability to not just block him out, keep him off the glass, make sure he doesn’t have a big scoring night, that’s only part of it. The other part is to not allow him to survey the court as best we can, not allow him to get in the lane and find his teammates because when he does that he really makes his teammates better and that’s when Colorado’s at their best.”

The last time Arizona took the court it was burned by UC Davis point guard T.J. Shorts II, who scored 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting.

Colorado’s keys

Boyle outlined the Buffs’ keys to the game earlier this week:

“There’s four things,” he said (via BuffZone). “We’ve got to compete our tails off. So competing is the No. 1 thing, defend, rebound and take care of the ball. Those are the things we have to do a good job of down there, because if you don’t take care of the ball in Arizona’s building, that turns into transition baskets and their crowd gets involved. That’s why their record is what it is at McKale.”

Second-half surge

Perhaps the Christmas break is exactly what some players needed to find their stride in the second half of the season.

Needless to say, it would be massive for Arizona if some of its lesser contributors like Devonaire Doutrive, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee, Emmanuel Akot, Ryan Luther or Dylan Smith start providing more consistent production, bolstering a Wildcats team that has pretty much relied on the quartet of Brandon Randolph, Chase Jeter, Brandon Williams and Justin Coleman this season.

Pac-12 pettiness

Boyle stirred up this series last season when he said beating Arizona was extra satisfying because of its involvement in the federal investigation into college basketball.

“Absolutely,” Boyle said after the Buffs took down the Wildcats in Boulder. “It’s ironic we’re playing Arizona. I’ve got great respect for Sean Miller and the type of coach he is. They recruit very, very well. USC has recruited very, very well. The two most talented teams in our league from top to bottom are USC and Arizona. So, hell yes there’s extra satisfaction.”

Miller put a damper on the animosity by shrugging off Boyle’s comments when he was asked about them before the teams rematched in Tucson later that season.

“My focus is just on coaching our team,” Miller said at the time. “We have to be a better team this time around, more ready for the game than we were the last time. And that’s my focus.”

Arizona won the rematch, and some wondered what the postgame reaction would entail. Would Miller and Boyle exchange words after the game? Would they avoid each other in the handshake line?

It turns out nothing out of the ordinary transpired. The same was true in the Pac-12 Tournament when Arizona topped Colorado for the second time in a row.

So it seems unlikely there will be any friction between Boyle and Miller in McKale on Thursday, but you never know. Perhaps Boyle will drop another one-liner if the Buffaloes escape with a win.