The Arizona Wildcats return to the court Saturday when they host the UTEP Miners at 4 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network. This matchup was originally scheduled for Nov. 29 but was postponed after the Miners reported a COVID-19 case within their program.
Arizona (4-0) is coming off an 85-60 win over Cal State Bakersfield, their fourth straight game against a mid-major opponent. Coming off a 17-15 season, the Miners (2-1) were picked to finish eighth in the Conference USA preseason poll.
The Wildcats lead the all-time series vs. UTEP, 62-30. They last played on Nov. 14, 2018 in Tucson. Arizona won 79-46.
Here are some things to keep an eye on in Saturday’s rematch in McKale Center.
A speed test
I just wrote an in-depth piece about how Arizona is playing at its fastest pace in the Sean Miller era. The Wildcats were even able to force the issue against Cal State Bakersfield, a team known for slogging the game down.
UTEP will be another test for the Wildcats. The Miners were 224th in tempo last season and pride themselves on their transition defense. They don’t even bother crashing the offensive glass, ranking 305th in that category last season.
“They play with great energy and effort, and I think they they might be the most talented group that we’ll face this year when they show up to play here on Saturday,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Wednesday.
The Miners’ star player has scored 20+ points in every game so far, averaging 26.0 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 51 percent from the field, 55 percent from 3 and 91 percent from the free throw line.
Two of UTEP’s three games have been against non-D1 schools, but Boum did have 21 points on 16 shots in the loss to Saint Mary’s, a decent mark against a traditionally solid defensive team. He went 3 for 5 from 3 that night.
Listed at 6-foot-3, the Wildcats could throw a bunch of different defenders at Boum, an Oakland native just like Arizona point guard James Akinjo.
Which shooting team will show up?
Arizona has been a streaky shooting team, going 25 of 40 from 3 in its last two games after going 12 for 40 in its first two.
It’s been the same story at the free throw line, where the Wildcats are shooting 70.7 percent, kind of a skewed number since they just shot 19 for 21 from the line against Cal State Bakersfield after struggling in their first three games.
Jemarl Baker Jr. has been torching the nets lately, making 10 of his last 18 3s. Hopefully the two days off didn’t cool him down.
More small ball
Like every team the Wildcats have played so far, UTEP is small. All of their rotation players measure at 6-foot-9 or shorter.
That means we can expect to see more of those small-ball lineups with Dalen Terry and Benn Mathurin at the 4. It could also mean a reduced role for Ira Lee and/or Christian Koloko. Lee’s minutes have decreased from 20 to 13 to 11 in the three games since his return from a concussion.
It will be interesting to see if Jordan Brown can feast on this UTEP frontcourt. He has been good one game then quiet the next. Assuming that trend continues, Brown should be in for a big game.
- vs. Grambling State: 33 minutes, 19 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks, 8-10 FG, 3-5 FT
- vs. Eastern Washington: 18 minutes, 6 points, 3 rebounds, 5 turnovers, 5 fouls
- vs. NAU: 23 minutes, 17 points, 11 rebounds, 6-6 FG, 5-5 FT
- vs. CSUB: 16 minutes, 3 points, 2 blocks, 3 fouls, 1-3 FG, 1-2 FT
UTEP’s road struggles
Per research done by the El Paso Times, the Miners have not beaten a team with a winning record on the road since 2016-17. Snapping that skid is a big emphasis for players and third-year coach Rodney Terry.
“A win-on-the-road mentality, for us, we have to bring our defensive effort every night,” center Bryson Williams said (via the El Paso Times). “We know we have to come in and be ready to have a physical mindset. Coach Terry talks about that every day, that if you want to get wins on the road you have to bring your defense, you bring your effort and you have to make free throws. Those are some main points for us and we know we’re going to have to do that coming in tomorrow night.”
The Miners did not do that in the 73-61 loss to Saint Mary’s, per Steve Kaplowitz of ESPN 600.
“The team’s extended scoring droughts, defensive shortcomings, and lack of adjustments were on full display as they could not overcome a St. Mary’s team that looked polished, well disciplined, and in-sync all game long,” he wrote.
After the CSUB game, Miller said that he expects freshman Kerr Kriisa to be cleared by the end of the week. He later clarified that he meant Kriisa would be cleared with the program’s COVID-19 protocol not the NCAA Clearinghouse.
So there’s no reason to think he is eligible play Saturday, but let’s keep an eye on that just in case.