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What to watch for when Arizona hosts No. 20 Colorado on Saturday

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The Arizona Wildcats (12-5, 2-2) will look to pick up their first win over a ranked team Saturday when they host the No. 20 Colorado Buffaloes (14-3, 3-1) in McKale Center.

Tip-off is set for 12:30 p.m. MST on FOX. Here are some things to watch for.

Experience vs. inexperience

This game will mark the first time Arizona has endured the second leg of a Thursday-Saturday Pac-12 series. How UA’s freshmen, the key cogs of the team, respond to it will be interesting to see.

“That’s the hardest part about being a freshman,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “You have no recollection. There’s no ‘I’ve done this before.’”

The same cannot be said for Colorado, who returned all five starters from last season and rank No. 1 in the country in minute continuity. Arizona is 304th (of 353).

“Quick turnarounds are a big deal,” Miller said. “March Madness is a quick turnaround, (the) Pac-12 tournament is part of March Madness, winning three in three days or four and four days, that’s hard. It’s what’s so rewarding about March. But the Pac-12, along the way, it really prepares you for that. What we experienced in Oregon is the long extended trip, which I think is always more difficult on the road team. You leave on Wednesday and then you get back really early in the morning on Monday. But this quick turnaround is opposite. Tomorrow will be here before you know it, and then being able to play at 12:30, we have to be the most ready we can be for sure.”

An encore

The Wildcats went 15 for 29 from 3-point range against Utah, just the second time in the last six games they have shot over 30 percent from distance. Seven different players got in on the fun.

“Our 3-point shooting, the ball went in,” Miller said, explaining it the only way he knew how.

In that case, it would be easy to suggest Thursday was a fluke, but there is no doubt the Wildcats have a lot of quality shooters, capable of lighting it up on any given night. As a team, they shoot 38 percent, ranking 21st in the country.

Max Hazzard is the perfect example. The UC Irvine grad transfer broke out in a big way Thursday, draining six 3-pointers on his way to a season-high 24 points. He had scored three points or fewer in his previous four games.

But Hazzard has a long track record of shooting at a high level, and perhaps Thursday is a sign of what’s to come as he continues to get acclimated at the UA.

And when he is dangerous from the perimeter, the Wildcats are so difficult to defend because opponents already have to pay so much attention to Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green. What can be said for Hazzard is also true for Dylan Smith, Stone Gettings and Jemarl Baker Jr.

However, if there is any team that can lock down Arizona on the perimeter, it is Colorado. The Buffaloes are holding their past eight opponents to a 22.6% mark (35 for 155) from 3.

Really, Colorado has been stingy all season, ranking 17th in the country KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, the second-best defense Arizona has faced all season behind Baylor. (And we know how that went.)

CU coach Tad Boyle typically coaches man-to-man defense, but he has thrown plenty of zone at Arizona before.

Outboarding the Buffs

3-point shooting is one of the great equalizers; offensive rebounds are another. Led by Tyler Bey and Evan Battey, the Buffs can be lethal at times, ranking 59th in the country in that department. Battey’s 14.7 offensive rebounding rate is the 30th-best in the nation.

The Buffs are even better on the defensive end, where they rank 27th in rebounding percentage. Bey does his best work there, posting the 12th-best defensive rebounding rate in the country.

However, Colorado is prone to off nights as well, as we saw Thursday. The Arizona State Sun Devils, arguably the worst rebounding team in the conference, won the rebounding battle 42-40. (Though, Colorado still won the game.)

Arizona has struggled on the defensive glass all season, and with the frontcourt likely missing a body (more on that in a sec), it will need a team effort to ward off the Buffaloes, especially with Bey likely matching up with Nnaji, Arizona’s best rebounder by a mile.

And if Gettings is indeed starting again, he cannot have another game with zero defensive rebounds.

Jeter’s back?

It is unlikely Chase Jeter, who’s nursing a back injury, will suit up Saturday. He experienced some discomfort in Arizona’s first practice since returning from Oregon, and has not returned to the court since.

Miller was non-committal about Jeter’s status for Colorado, but knowing his injury history Arizona will be taking a measured approach with him.

That means another chance for Gettings (shooting and providing spacing), Ira Lee (rebounding), and Christian Koloko (rebounding/shot blocking) to step in and do what they do best.

Colorado likes to play small—Bey and Battey are 6-7 and 6-8, respectively—so for matchup purposes the Wildcats might be better off without Jeter in this one.

However, anytime you are down a player, fatigue and foul trouble have a bigger effect.

Nico Mannion vs. McKinley Wright IV

The Pac-12 is loaded with talented point guards this season, and we are in for another good matchup Saturday when Mannion lines up against McKinley Wright IV.

Here is a look at their numbers:

  • Mannion: 14.2 PPG, 6.2 APG, 2.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 2.6 TOV, 42.8 FG%, 34.1 3PT%
  • Wright: 13.4 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 2.8 TOV, 44.3 FG%, 34.8 3PT%

The 6-foot Wright has an extremely quick first step, and his dribble penetration can be devastating. Not just because he is a dynamic finisher, but also because the Buffaloes have lots of weapons around him, including Bey (their leading scorer) and two guys who shoot over 40 percent from 3 in Lucas Siewert and D’Shawn Schwartz.

Wright has elevated his game in conference play, averaging 15.8 points, 7.0 assists, and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3.

Mannion has been trending the other way, averaging 12.5 points and 6.0 assists in Pac-12 play, shooting only 42 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3.

The implications

Stanford and its elite defense lead the Pac-12 with a 4-0 record, but everyone else is jumbled in the middle.

Arizona is within one game in the loss column of Colorado, USC, Washington, Oregon State, and Washington, while tied in that category with Oregon and Cal. (The Ducks surprisingly lost at WSU on Thursday, which is a big help.)

A win Saturday could go a long way toward Arizona’s bid for a conference championship, assuming the Cardinal regress at some point.

Saturday’s game is also one of just five Arizona has left against KenPom Top 50 teams, and a victory would qualify as the Wildcats’ first Quadrant 1 win, what could be a big deal come Selection Sunday.

KenPom gives Arizona a 67 percent chance of knocking off the Buffaloes, with a projected score of 73-68. Colorado has never won in McKale, its last victory in Tucson coming in 1965 at Bear Down Gym.