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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Stanford on Thursday night

arizona-vs-stanford-basketball-tv-channel-live-stream-game-thread-wildcats-cardinal-pac12 Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are back in action on Thursday night when they host the Stanford Cardinal at McKale Center.

Arizona (12-3, 6-3 Pac-12) is coming off a home-and-home sweep of ASU, including Monday’s 80-67 home win. Stanford (9-5, 5-3) knocked off first-place UCLA in overtime last Saturday.

The Cardinal beat Arizona 78-75 in Santa Cruz, Calif. on Dec. 19, snapping the Wildcats’ 20-game win streak in the series.

Thursday’s rematch will air on ESPN2 and will tip off at 8 p.m. MST after originally being set for 9 p.m. Here’s everything to keep an eye out for:

Will Benn play?

When Bennedict Mathurin crashed to the floor late in the first half against ASU on Monday, it was hard not to think the worst. The freshman lay on the floor almost motionless, clutching his right foot and not immediately answering questions from teammates when they rushed to his aid.

Turns out Mathurin was in a bit of a state of shock, according to coach Sean Miller, since it was the first time he’d ever sprained an ankle. X-rays were negative, and Miller said Wednesday the sprain is most likely of the Grade 1 variety, which is the most minor.

“He’s making progress,” Miller said. “I believe that every day that goes by moving forward, which includes going from today to tomorrow, he’s going to make significant progress just because it’s a soft tissue injury and it’s not as significant as it could have been.”

So that means Mathurin will play Thursday, right? Not necessarily, Miller cautioned.

“I don’t have a yes or no answer on whether he’ll play,” he said. “And then, if he plays, what role he’ll have or how effective he’ll be.”

Miller said Mathurin has not practiced since the injury and isn’t likely to do so prior to Thursday’s tip, thus giving him maximum time to heal. If he were available, he probably won’t start, Miller said.

A shrinking backcourt

If Mathurin can’t play that leaves Arizona with three scholarship guards: James Akinjo, Terrell Brown Jr. and Dalen Terry. That trio played 99 total minutes on Monday, including 56 of a possible 60 in the second half, and the combination of fatigue, foul trouble and ASU’s relentless pressure caused them to turn the ball over seven times in the second half.

Terry will most likely regain his starting spot that Mathurin took over two weeks ago, alongside Akinjo and Terrell Brown, but there’s no one to spell those guys off the bench. Instead, Miller said freshman Azuolas Tubelis could slide over to the small forward position “in a pinch” when one of the guards needs to go to the bench.

Beyond that, 6-foot-9 freshman Tibet Gorener or 6-foot-5 walk-on Matt Weyand could be pressed into action.

“But all that isn’t something that’s going to make us the best we can be,” Miller said. “It’s just a holding pattern and that would be the best that we can do in tomorrow night’s game based on everything that we’re going through right now.”

Stanford staying big?

A larger lineup might be the best move considering Stanford is probably going to be on the big side too, especially compared to when the teams met last month.

In Saturday’s win against UCLA the Cardinal started only one player under 6-foot-7 due to the absence of three key players, none of whom accompanied the team on the road trip. Guards Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills are dealing with injuries that have limited their play, while highly touted freshman forward Ziaire Williams won’t play again after sitting out the last game due to personal reasons.

Stanford only has one player—do-everything senior forward Oscar da Silva—who has played in every game, let alone start them all. Da Silva torched Arizona for 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting in the last meeting.

Little-used 6-foot-10 junior Lukas Kisunas played a career-high 33 minutes against UCLA, leading the team with seven rebounds, while 6-foot-9 Jaiden Delaire had 19 in that game as the Cardinal had a 36-20 edge in points in the paint.

Learning from a loss

Arizona’s 78-75 setback to the Cardinal was nearly six weeks (and nine games) ago, but looking back on it still has some value even though it featured all three of the Stanford starters who won’t play in the rematch.

That loss was the first time this season the Wildcats got dominated on defense, with Stanford shooting 52.7 percent and scoring at will near the rim.

“We gave them too many easy baskets,” Miller said. “Some of it was because of their halfcourt execution, some of it was blown assignments. We could almost not keep up with the speed of the ball and the speed of their movement. We’re better than that now. We have to be harder to score against the beat them.”

While the defensive breakdowns were hard to swallow, the offensive gains in that game were a pleasant surprise. Stanford ranks 17th nationally in defensive efficiency, per, yet the Wildcats’ 108.4 offensive rating was the third-best of any Cardinal opponent this year.

“We’ve gotten better on offense, for sure, but also on defense,” Miller said. “I think overall we have to just be a better overall defensive group.”

Winning (and losing) at the line

ASU played the foul game to try and get back into it on Monday, sending Arizona to the line 43 times, their most free throw attempts since a 2016 Pac-12 Tournament game against Colorado. The Wildcats made 32 of those 43 attempts, missing 10 second-half free throws, but it didn’t affect the outcome.

The same couldn’t be said for the Stanford loss, when Arizona was a putrid 12 of 23 from the line in a game it never trailed by more than 10.

Arizona has had five games this season where it’s missed 10 or more free throws, and its 71.8 percent accuracy would be the team’s worst since the 2013-14 squad shot only 65.9 percent from the line.

Stanford is third in the Pac-12 in defensive free throw rate, allowing only 17 attempts per game.