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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball opens Pac-12 play at Oregon State

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-osu-beavers-covid-pac12-tommy-lloyd-wayne-tinkle-2022-preview Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats hopefully begin Pac-12 play on Sunday when they visit the Oregon State Beavers in their first conference game under Tommy Lloyd.

No. 11 UA (6-0) was supposed to open its league slate Thursday at home against Washington but that game was called off due to COVID-19 issues within the UA program. The game has since been rescheduled to Jan. 25.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and OSU (1-7, 0-1 Pac-12) meet in Corvallis:

The road yet to be traveled

Arizona is one of 35 Division I teams yet to play a true road game prior to Sunday, though it has played twice away from home when it beat Wichita State and Michigan in Las Vegas two weeks ago. T-Mobile Arena, much like the MGM Grand Arena across the street, has become known as McKale North in terms of Wildcat fan support, so this will be the first time playing in a real hostile environment.

“Anytime you’re playing your first conference game, and you’re a new coach at a new job everything can be scary,” Lloyd said.

The UA went 5-5 on the road in Pac-12 play last season, and during the Sean Miller era the Wildcats were 59-41 in league road games. The Wildcats have won six of their last eight at Gill Coliseum, including a 98-64 blowout of the Beavers last January shortly after OSU came off a long COVID pause, prompting a Tucson-area TV reporter to ask Miller afterward if the game should have been played.

Arizona should get used to playing on the road, because six of its next nine are in that category. That includes a trip next Saturday to Illinois and then a 4-game road swing starting Dec. 22 at No. 13 Tennessee and then continuing after Christmas with visits to No. 5 UCLA, No. 20 USC and then ASU.

“We’re going to try to approach it day by day, week by week and do the best we can coming out on the right side of those games, but it’s a daunting schedule,” Lloyd said. “It’s going to be experiences this team needs. You can use the old adage oh, we’re gonna learn a lot about this team. Well, whatever. This team’s gonna need those experiences because they’re going to serve them well as you get into your January, February and hopefully your March to the postseason.”

According to Lloyd, who grew up about two hours north of OSU in Kelso, Wash., this will be his first time in Corvallis.

Bad News Beavers

While Arizona banned itself from the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, OSU went on a magical run that saw it parlayed the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tourney (that would have gone to the Wildcats) into a conference title and then a No. 12 seed in the NCAA field all the way to the Elite Eight.

What a difference a year makes.

OSU has dropped seven in a row since a season-opening win over Portland State, falling 73-61 at Cal. The Beavers have already played four non-home games against top-150 teams and also has 1-point home losses to Princeton and Samford.

“I can’t tell you when but we’ll get it turned (around) and we’ll stay positive because that’s our only thing,” OSU coach Wayne Tinkle said afterward.

The Beavers lost leading scorer Ethan Thompson and two other starters from last year’s squad but returned two preseason all-conference picks in forward Warithe Alatishe and guard Jarod Lucas. They’re the top two scorers, with the 6-foot-7 Alatishe shooting 56 percent and adding 7.1 rebounds per game, but no one else has stepped up offensively.

Keep on sharing, keep on drawing

The UA remains No. 1 in the country in assist rate, with 73.8 percent of its made field goals coming off passes. That number probably would be higher if not for the frequency that the Wildcats draw fouls on offense.

Arizona averages 26.8 free throw attempts per game, third-most in the country, and its free throw attempt rate (FT attempts per FG attempt) is 22nd nationally.

Neither the assists or the frequent trips to the line are the product of anything fancy, Lloyd said.

“It’s a system that emphasizes sharing the ball and making a bunch of simple quick decisions,” he said. “I always tell our guys, I’m not looking for perfect decisions. I’m looking for just quick, simple decisions. The baseball analogy is, you can win with walks and singles. If you get a lot of those, you’re gonna have runners on base and you can score. That’s kind of how we look at it, and then the players have to buy into that. They’re the ones out there making the passes and setting their teammates up, not me.”

Just over 21 percent of Arizona’s points this season have come from the line, where it is shooting 72.7 percent.

Minimizing the droughts

OSU hasn’t scored more than 80 points in a game this season, and it’s unlikely to be able to keep up with Arizona offensively. The Beavers average some of the longest defensive possessions in the country, trying to make it as much of a halfcourt game as possible.

The UA has found itself falling into offensive lulls from time to time this season, usually when it can’t get out in transition and settles for ill-advised 3-pointers.

But the Wildcats have yet to have a really long scoring drought, according to Their longest drought has been 3 minutes, 17 seconds, which is the shortest of any team in the country and 21 seconds shorter than the next smallest drought.