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What we learned from Arizona’s home sweep of Colorado, Utah

arizona-wildcats-weekend-sweep-what-we-learned-colorado-buffaloes-utah-utes-college-basketball Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Ready for another nine weeks of that, Arizona Wildcats fans?

Because how this weekend went is how the remainder of the Pac-12 schedule is going to go, and if you’re not mentally prepared for this it might be time to book some seats on the struggle bus.

Two days after an eight-point win over the Colorado Buffaloes, one in which Arizona couldn’t score to save its life, the Wildcats needed overtime to outlast a Utah Utes team that looked awful in nonconference play yet since league play began has become an offensive juggernaut.

Had the Utes’ best player, senior guard Sedrick Barefield, not fouled out with 1:44 left in regulation, Arizona probably heads out on its first conference road trip at 1-1 and at serious risk of losing the majority of its remaining games. Instead, they visit the Bay Area next week with a much-needed home sweep of the Mountain schools.

But there’s still that uncertainty, particularly since Colorado and Utah aren’t expected to finish in the upper half of a very average Pac-12.

There are 16 league games left and it’s not outlandish to say all 16 are going to be somewhat similar to the first two. Maybe one or two will be slightly less stressful, such as when Cal and Washington State come to Tucson in February, but more often than not the outcome will be in doubt at the final TV timeout.

Deal with it, fam.

Now that everyone has been able to unclench from the 84-81 OT win over Utah, here’s what we have learned about Arizona after one weekend of Pac-12 play:

Arizona is going to win with defense more than offense

Thursday’s 64-56 win over Colorado certainly wasn’t pretty, but based on how this season has gone that may be the best approach for Arizona in order to be successful.

Arizona is averaging 74 points per game and shooting 45.3 percent, the scoring rate the lowest since 2013-14 and the accuracy the worst since 2011-12. Most of Sean Miller’s teams haven’t had to be that great on offense—last year being the notable exception—because of how good the defense was, and that’s starting to look to be the case again this year.

Not surprisingly, Arizona is 8-0 when holding teams below its season average of 42.8 percent. The seven games the Wildcats have allowed above that average have included all four losses along with narrow wins over Connecticut, UC-Davis and now Utah.

Utah shot 56.6 percent, the third-highest field goal rate of a McKale Center visitor in the Miller era and the best by a team that didn’t win.

Opponents’ best scorers are crushing Arizona

While Arizona generally has done well defensively as a whole, there have been some glaring holes in their coverage. Namely to players who should have been the focus of all game-planning.

As mentioned in the intro, Utah’s Barefield picked up his fifth foul late in the second half. Before that he was pretty unstoppable, scoring 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting including 5 of 9 from three. That wasn’t just an outlier, it’s been a trend for the Wildcats when it comes to stopping opponents’ best scorers.

Rather, not stopping them.

Barefield is the ninth opposing leading scorer to post a total higher than his season average, a list that includes Alabama’s Kira Lewis, UConn’s Jalen Adams, Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and diminutive UC-Davis guard TJ Shorts, who had 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting in that escape act of a win for Arizona last month. All five scored at least 20 against the Wildcats.

There’s no questioning this team’s effort

It was this same weekend last season when, after losing at Colorado on the tail end of Arizona’s first Pac-12 road trip, Miller told reporters that he couldn’t get his players to put in maximum effort, saying “I have a hard time reaching our guys.”

This was incredibly frustrating for Arizona fans to hear, considering the amount of talent the Wildcats had on the roster. Future NBA players Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins along with seniors Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic should have been able to dominate almost every team on the schedule yet the Colorado loss was one of several games in which the lack of effort negated the massive amount of skill at hand.

Effort is not a problem this year. If anything, it’s what has kept a fairly average team from not being closer to .500.

Where this can be best witnessed is in how Arizona has been so good at forcing turnovers. Utah gave it away 17 times on Saturday, including thrice in the first two minutes of overtime, after the Wildcats forced 15 turnovers against Colorado.

More free throws, please

The 31 foul shots Arizona took against Utah were its second-most this season, behind the 36 taken in the season opener against Houston Baptist. Saturday’s figure was aided by playing an extra five minutes, not to mention a handful of possessions late in regulation and overtime when Utah was forced to foul to extend the game.

But when in the halfcourt and running its offense, Arizona has been far too passive when it comes to drawing contact and getting to the line for free throws. Which is unfortunate, because the Wildcats are shooting 73.6 percent.

They only took 12 free throws against Colorado and have been held to single digits three times (all in losses). Last year Arizona averaged 21.2 free throws per game and never attempted fewer than 10.