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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Oregon State on Thursday

arizona-wildcats-osu-beavers-preview-travel-covid-mathurin-pac12-analysis-kriisa-2021 Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats will look to snap a two-game skid when they take on the Oregon State Beavers on Thursday night at McKale Center.

The UA (13-6, 7-6 Pac-12) is coming off a tough trip to the Rocky Mountain schools, losing by 15 at Utah before falling by 3 at Colorado in a game it rallied to lead late after trailing 19-2. Oregon State (10-8, 6-6) lost by 29 at Colorado on Monday in a rescheduled game.

Arizona crushed the Beavers 98-64 in Corvallis in January and have won nine of the last 10 meetings in the series. OSU has lost eight in a row in Tucson, its last win in McKale coming in 2010.

Here’s what to look for in this matchup, which is set for a 6 p.m. MST tip and will air on the Pac-12 Network:

Staying motivated

With no NCAA or Pac-12 tournaments to look ahead toward, Arizona is running out of both games to play and reasons to stay the course.

When the self-imposed postseason ban was first announced, coach Sean Miller pointed to the regular season championship as a key goal that could still be achieved. The chances of that took a major hit after the Wildcats were swept at home by the Los Angeles schools a month ago and is dead in the water following the latest two losses.

As it stands now, Arizona is sixth place, one spot worse than a year ago, and KenPom has it projected to finish 11-8 (assuming the game at Oregon isn’t rescheduled).

So what’s left to play for?

“When you’re in the Pac-12 season, you look at the week ahead,” Miller said. “Even more so because we’re not pointing towards anything beyond the regular season. It’s all we have, to be the best team we can be and have the most success. We judge ourselves by the Pac-12. We just have to finish the best we can.”

Miller believes he has several players who will be in consideration for all-conference honors, including all-defensive and freshman teams, which provides individual motivation. Beyond that, he hopes the team can continue to excel offensively—Arizona is on pace to finish in the top 20 in efficiency for the sixth time under Miller—while improve on defense, where the Wildcats have dipped to 81st nationally after the two bad performances on the road.

Kerr the reliever

Kerr Kriisa played a combined 35 minutes on the road trip, his first action after having to sit out the first 17 games due to an NCAA-imposed suspension. He only made 1 of 6 shots in those two game, a 3-pointer that gave the Wildcats their first lead at Colorado since 2-0, and also recorded three assists and a steal.

He also drew an impressive charge on Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV.

“If we would have won the game against Colorado I think that would have been one of the signature plays of the game,” Miller said.

While Kriisa’s offensive contributions have been minimal to this point, his work on defense has stood out. And his presence in the rotation should enable Arizona’s other ballhandlers to be better defensively down the stretch since they’re able to get more breaks with Kriisa serving as their fill-in.

This is especially true for point guard James Akinjo, whom Miller calls Arizona’s “heart and soul” but whose heavy minute load is leading to some defensive lapses late in games.

“We’re looking for ways to maybe get him a break,” he said. “No doubt Kerr could be the the person that allows him to get a little bit more rest, and I think that what you can get is maybe some better overall defense, maybe just him being a little bit fresher down the stretch and all those things are very good for both James and our team.”

Akinjo is averaging 34.4 minutes per game, the most of any player in the Miller era, and 35.2 in Pac-12 games, yet in the two games since Kerr became eligible he averaged 31.5 minutes.

A very different Oregon State

When last we saw Arizona against OSU, the Beavers were playing their first game in 10 days after going on a COVID-related pause. And not surprisingly, the Wildcats dominated,

Arizona shot 57.4 percent, its 1.38 points per possession the best of any Pac-12 game. Bennedict Mathurin and Jordan Brown both recorded career highs, scoring 31 and 25 points, respectively.

The game was so noncompetitive it even prompted one reporter on Miller’s postgame Zoom to ask him if it was fair for Arizona to have faced OSU when it had only had two practices prior to tip.

“We caught them at a very vulnerable time,” Miller said. “We recognize Oregon State has played some very good basketball since then.”

OSU won its next three games after that, knocking off Pac-12 co-leader USC in the process, and the Beavers are 5-3 since Arizona won by 34 in Corvallis.

Miller said the Beavers “going inside a little bit more,” but that hasn’t necessarily been met with more success in the paint. OSU is last in the Pac-12 in 2-point shooting, at 44.8 percent, and for the season it gets only 46.2 percent of its scoring on 2-pointers (Arizona gets 51.2 percent).

Finally, the more rested team

COVID-related postponements have made this Pac-12 schedule unlike any before, with Arizona twice having had to play three games in a week with one of those instances resulting in four contests in 10 days. The Wildcats went 7-1 in those contests, but immediately after each stretch they lost their next two games, almost as if going from having no break to a regular break was too much time off.

Even in its last game, at Colorado, the Wildcats were playing their second game in three days while the Buffaloes had gotten a full week off due to their scheduled Thursday game with ASU getting postponed.

“We’ve been on the tail end, or each end of that this year,” Miller said. “Playing three games in a week two different times, or maybe playing against somebody that their one and only game is you.”

For once, though, Arizona will be the more rested team since OSU played Monday at Colorado after sweeping the Washington schools at home. To help offset that, the Beavers fly directly from Boulder to Tucson after their last game and will end up spending a full week in Arizona since their game at ASU is set for Sunday evening.

“Wayne Tinkle, there’s no doubt he’s a smart man,” Miller said. “I mean, Corvallis, Oregon (on) February 9th, Tucson, Arizona (on) February 9th.”