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New heights: Arizona women need to rise to the challenge vs Utah, Colorado

The altitude isn’t the only thing the Arizona women’s basketball team needs to contend with as they face the Colorado Buffaloes and Utah Utes this weekend. The Wildcats are also facing heightened expectations on their first Pac-12 road trip.

If Arizona can back up those expectations, they can solidify their position both in the conference and the national conversation. A let-down could cause the wheels to come off.

Opening conference play with an upset of then-No. 17 Arizona State was a strong statement. The Wildcats announced that they were ready to contend with some of the best teams in the Pac-12 and the nation. After building a 10-1 record against weak non-conference opponents, it eased some doubt about how real Arizona was.

Not only did the Wildcats jump 42 spots in the RPI immediately following their rivalry win, but they also got the attention of a few voters in both major polls. Arizona hasn’t been ranked since the 2004-05 season, but they finally found themselves being noticed on the national stage. A successful road trip could see them leave the “others receiving votes” note at the bottom of the polls and finally break the top 25 barrier.

On the postseason front, Arizona jumped into the “Next Four Out” of Charlie Creme’s bracket projections at ESPN. For a team that hasn’t sniffed a postseason appearance since 2010-11 and hasn’t seen the NCAA Tournament since 2004-05, even the suggestion of a return to the Big Dance is huge.

The Wildcats have gathered momentum. They had the interest of 5,000 fans and the local media against the Sun Devils. Even the national media is starting to notice. Now, they need to maintain it. A strong showing against Colorado and Utah is crucial.

After the trip to the mountain schools, Arizona will enter a treacherous portion of the schedule. They face four ranked teams in a row: No. 18 California and No. 6 Stanford at home followed by No. 11 Oregon State and No. 5 Oregon on the road. A poor showing this weekend could quickly saddle the Wildcats with a 1-6 conference record after that stretch of games.

Arizona would undoubtedly love to return to Tucson 3-0 in conference. It would certainly help maintain the buzz around the program both locally and nationally. Whether that’s reasonable or not is the question.

The Utes and the Buffaloes were picked to finish immediately ahead of Arizona in the Pac-12 preseason poll. The early season performances of all three have been similar. The three teams—picked to finish eighth, ninth and tenth in the conference—all have strong records built against weak out-of-conference opponents.

Colorado appears to be the easier of the two opponents. They have lost to two of the three major conference foes they have faced, including dropping their Pac-12 opener against Utah on Sunday. In the Wildcats’ favor, they will not be forced to face the Buffaloes and the thin air of Boulder after going up against a tough opponent, then traveling between states.

Will Colorado be able to use their home loss last weekend as motivation? Will Arizona suffer a letdown in their first road game of the conference season? Either outcome seems like a legitimate possibility.

With a returning All Pac-12 performer in Megan Huff and a star freshman in Dre’Una Edwards, Utah had the highest expectations of the three teams coming into the season. The 12-0 Utes haven’t given anyone reason to doubt them, but they also haven’t been tested. As a result, they have hung around in the “others receiving votes” lists of the major polls, but haven’t been able to break through despite their unblemished record.

In the non-conference portion of the season, Utah’s strength of schedule was only better than one Pac-12 opponent: Arizona. Yes, they beat two SEC teams, but neither Alabama nor Florida break the top 100 of the RPI. Their best win was the 15-point victory over Colorado to open conference play.

While it isn’t a “must-sweep” situation, it certainly feels like Arizona needs to take at least one game this weekend if they are to maintain the confidence coach Adia Barnes regularly talks about. With the top four teams in the Pac-12 waiting on the other side of the road trip, the Wildcats can use every momentum boost they can possibly find.

Can Arizona sweep the Mountain schools? Here’s how to find out.

The Wildcats game against Colorado kicks off at 7 p.m. MST on Friday night. It will be available on Colorado Live Stream.

Sunday’s game against Utah will air on the Pac-12 Networks beginning at 12 p.m. MST.