Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.
Arizona is 13-2 against Utah in the Sean Miller era. The Wildcats had won four straight in this series before dropping a road game in Salt Lake City last season. Due to the Pac-12’s imbalanced schedule, Arizona will not be playing at Utah (or Colorado) this season.
Here are some things to look for in Thursday’s rendition.
Rebound by rebounding
I already wrote extensively about Arizona’s rebounding issues, but it is important to reiterate that resolving them is the No. 1 focus moving forward.
The Wildcats are 0-3 when they get outrebounded and 11-1 when they outrebound their opponent. Zeke Nnaji has done a tremendous job in that department lately, averaging 12.4 boards per game over his last five contests.
The rest of the team? Not so much.
Josh Green had been doing pretty well on the glass until he only snared three boards in the loss at Oregon State.
“We gotta block out,” Miller said. “We’ve had some guys here in our program that play different positions. Kadeem Allen, T.J. McConnell, that have had big defensive rebounding games and they’ve bolstered a win. But we haven’t been able to establish that. And if you look that one statistic, it’s certainly revealing towards us, but we’re the group of coaches that have put this team together and we recruited these guys, and it’s up to us to coach them and motivate them, and hold them accountable and make them better in an area that is really important for us to have a chance to win.”
Coincidentally, Utah ranks 143rd in offensive rebounding percentage and Arizona ranks 143rd in defensive rebounding percentage, so something will have to give. Ideally, this will turn out like the ASU game, where Arizona looks determined from the get-go to destroy an inferior team on the boards.
Possible lineup changes
On Wednesday, Miller was twice asked if Arizona will be making any lineup changes this week. The first time he said, “No, I think so.” The second time he said. “Yeah, I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Miller was more straightforward when he said he’d like to get Ira Lee and Christian Koloko more minutes. Perhaps at Chase Jeter‘s expense?
“One of the things we look at closely is just the start of each half. That’s the telltale sign in many ways because you’re not evaluating just one player, you’re evaluating the group that you believe gives yourself the best chance to win,” Miller said. “... We got off to a slow start against Oregon State, we got off to a good start against Oregon, got off to a very good start against Arizona State. That really hasn’t been an issue. I would say that just rebounding in general (is the issue).”
UA reserve Max Hazzard was expected to provide a boost off the bench when he transferred in from UC Irvine, but he has practically been invisible the last four games, scoring three points or fewer in all of them. Over that stretch he is 4 for 15 from the field.
Him catching some fire would be huge to take some pressure off the freshmen. Stone Gettings is in a similar boat, averaging just 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in 18.3 minutes since returning from a concussion, shooting just 33 percent from the field.
Utah is capable of pulling off a big win...but kinda sucks defensively
For a team that is not good, the Utes do have some quality wins. They have beaten Kentucky, Minnesota, BYU and Oregon State this season. However, they also have losses to Coastal Carolina and Tulane.
In general, the Utes are pretty average. They are 60th in NET and 112th in KenPom, with the No. 63 offense and No. 161 defense in the country.
They are coming off a putrid defensive performance at Colorado, where they allowed 1.43 points per possession in a 91-52 blowout in Boulder. That was Utah’s second-worst performance in the KenPom era (2001-present).
However, that’s only slightly worse than the 1.29 points per possession Arizona allowed at Oregon State, so both teams will be looking sharpen up on that end of the floor. Utah, like Oregon, likes to mix it up on that end of the court.
Keeping Allen under 20 in his homecoming
Utah’s Timmy Allen, from Mesa, is the top scorer in the Pac-12 this season, averaging 20.2 points per game on 48 percent shooting.
The 6-foot-6 wing does almost all of his work inside the arc, and is very consistent, scoring in double figures in all but one game. His season-high is 27 points (vs. BYU).
Here’s how important is he is for Utah: The Utes are 3-4 when Allen scores 19 or fewer points, and 7-1 when he scores more than 19.
This is a good opportunity for Green to flash his defensive ability.
“He really has a unique skill set of scoring close to the basket, even though he’s a wing player,” Miller said of Allen. “He’s incredibly skilled and crafted, and when you watch a wing player score around the rim, there’s always that see maybe he’ll score that way against this type of team, but when the athletic big teams come to town, maybe his production won’t be as good. And that’s never been the case with him. He just plays his style and his game regardless of who the opponent is, and that’s going to be a really, really difficult matchup.”
Other than Allen, you probably won’t recognize much of Utah’s roster. The Utes added 12 newcomers, 11 of whom are freshmen. Only Navy and TCU have as many freshmen.
The other newbie is junior college transfer Alfonso Plummer, a 6-foot-1 guard who averages 5.2 points per game off the bench.
Altogether, Utah’s 2019 recruiting class ranked 46th in the country and sixth in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports.
“You could tell they’re building something special with that freshman class because those guys are going to grow and get older together,” Miller said. “And I think at some point when they’re veterans, they’re going to be an excellent excellent basketball team. They’re a very good team right now.”
If there is one freshman to know, it’s 6-foot guard Rylan Jones, who was the highest-ranked recruit. The Utah native is averaging 10.1 points and 4.9 assists per game, while shooting 47 percent from the field, 48 percent from 3, and 88 percent from the free-throw line.
“I love their freshman point guard,” Miller said. “He’s very, very smart. He can shoot the basketball and he makes his teammates better. They have some young big guys. Similar to how we feel about Christian Koloko, I’m sure Utah feels that way about their three freshmen bigs. And they’re very well coached team as always.”
Aside from Allen, one name you might actually recognize is Both Gach (pronounced “booth gotch”). The 6-foot-6 sophomore is Utah’s second-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game. He shoots a respectable 47 percent from the field, but has been struggling with his 3-point shot, converting just 32 percent of his 95 attempts.
“He can really get it going from 3,” Miller said anyway. “He’s also very clever using the middle ball screens.”
If Arizona wants to win a Pac-12 championship, it probably needs a sweep this weekend. Stanford, which beat UCLA on the road Wednesday, is already 4-0 in the conference, and the Wildcats don’t get the luxury of hosting the Cardinal in McKale Center this season.
As far as NCAA Tournament seeding goes, the Wildcats do not have many big games left on their schedule, which means they really need to win the ones they are supposed to in order to stay off the bubble. This definitely qualities as one of those games.
Arizona is favored by 13 points by Vegas oddsmakers, while KenPom projects the Wildcats have an 89 percent win probability, with a predicted final score of 79-66.
Utah has not won in McKale Center since 1986.