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What to watch for when Arizona visits Oregon State on Thursday

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 31 Arizona at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats will look to get back in the win column when they visit the Oregon State Beavers on Thursday night.

Arizona (9-3, 3-3 Pac-12) is coming off a home sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles schools, falling three games back of the top spot in the conference. Oregon State (5-4, 1-2) has not played since Jan. 4, having paused its program due to COVID-19 issues.

The game is set to be shown on FS1 at 9 p.m. MST. Here’s what to look out for from Gill Coliseum:

A whole new lineup

Arizona has only used two starting lineups in its first 12 games, swapping in Azuolas Tubelis for Christian Koloko after six contests. But after losing guard Jemarl Baker Jr. to a broken wrist, not to mention a pair of home games, coach Sean Miller is shaking things up.

Tubelis and point guard James Akinjo will remain in the lineup, with Tubelis moving from the 5 to the 4, while Terrell Brown Jr. will take Baker’s spot at the 2. Additionally, Bennedict Mathurin replaces Dalen Terry at the 3 and Koloko returns to the starting group in place of Jordan Brown.

The last time the UA had three different starters from the game before in the same season? It’s been a while. In fact, it’s never happened during the Miller era.

How about that bench?

By inserting Brown and Mathurin into the starting lineup, Arizona’s bench will look entirely different. And, as a result, potentially much less productive.

Brown and Mathurin were averaging a combined 18.2 points per game as reserves, helping the Wildcats’ bench contribute nearly 31 points per contest. Now the highest-scoring non-starter is Jordan Brown, who averages 9.8 per game but his individual outputs have ranged from 3 to 19, with only 20 in the past three contests.

Miller said Brown didn’t do anything wrong to warrant losing his starting spot, but noted that Brown does have a propensity to get into early foul trouble.

“Sometimes what helps a player like Jordan is to allow those first four minutes, first couple of minutes of the game get going where he can visualize it, see it from the bench,” Miller said. “He can bring more of a scoring punch off the bench.”

Terry, at 4.0 points per game, scored less as a starter than Ira Lee has as a reserve despite 100 more minutes, so if that duo were to sub in at the same time there could be some lean offensive stretches.

Hardly used freshman Tibet Gorener could also see more minutes—Miller referred to him as Arizona’s ninth man—though it would likely depend on the situation.

“If called on, he could be both a perimeter player or a post player for a window of time in any game moving forward,” Miller said.

Defensive corrections

Arizona has allowed 80-plus points in three straight games, which hadn’t happened since a 3-game road trip to Los Angeles and ASU in January 2019. That previous stretch was at the outset of a 7-game skid that eliminated any chance of the Wildcats making the NCAA tournament that season.

The NCAA tourney isn’t an option this year, nor is the Pac-12 tournament, but pride still exists. Miller has always been able to tolerate offensive struggles as long as the defense is doing its part, but not the other way around.

Miller has identified two main areas in which Arizona hasn’t to improve on defense: off the dribble and with fouls. They actually go hand in hand.

“We’ve had a hard time guarding the dribble, different types of players taking our players off the dribble,” Miller said. “In college basketball, especially the way the game is now, when the ball is driven, straight-line driven, into the middle or down the baseline, the next thing that happens is either fouls or it forces help. When one of your teammates has to help you because you got beat, that opens up the floodgates for other things. Passes, a pass or one more pass creates open 3-point shots. Then it sometimes creates a second drive. The first drive kind of loosens us up and then the second drive punishes our defense.

“And really what I would say is, we’re fouling way too much right now. We fouled more last year but it was camouflaged because we did so many other good things. If you look at our statistics last year we emerged as one of the Pac-12’s best defensive teams, but it still wasn’t because of our fouling. A year earlier when we were clearly undermanned, we fouled a lot. We’ve got to get back to fouling less.”

Arizona is only allowing assists on 47.3 percent of made field goals, which is among the top 100 in the country, but while UCLA only had six assists on 24 baskets it had 10 offensive rebounds and cashed in on most of them. Meanwhile, USC only had three offensive boards but assisted on 16 of 31 field goals as the Trojans’ ball movement usually led to an open man taking the shot.

UA opponents are averaging a free throw attempt for every 2.67 field goal tries, which is in the bottom 100 nationally, and the Wildcats’ last three foes have taken 92 foul shots compared to 159 for the first nine.

A rusty opponent

Oregon State will be coming off a nine-day break due to COVID concerns, and it’s unclear if it will be without any of its rotation players for the Arizona game.

The Beavers are one of the most experienced teams in the country, per KenPom, yet the group Arizona will face is a lot different from a year ago. Most notably, Tres Tinkle is no longer around to score in bunches against the Wildcats (or injure their post players), while also gone is shot blocker Kylor Kelley.

There’s still senior guard Ethan Thompson, who leads OSU in scoring (16.3) and assists (4.0), while sophomore guard Jarod Lucas is averaging 12 per game and hitting 39.6 percent of his 3-pointers and 95 percent of his free throws.

OSU is the third-best team in the nation in assist rate, leading the Pac-12 with 16.8 per game, and it doesn’t turn the ball over much. But while the Beavers make opponents work for their points on defense they have even worse fouling problems than Arizona.

Arizona has won eight of nine in the series but its last trip to Corvallis was a beatdown, getting outscored by 17 in the second half in an 82-65 loss last January.