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What to watch for when Arizona visits Utah on Thursday

arizona-wildcats-utah-utes-preview-miller-kerr-kriisa-alfonso-plummer-pac12-basketball-2021 Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are back in action on Thursday when they begin a weekend road trip by facing the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City.

Arizona (13-4, 7-4 Pac-12) has won four of its last five, most recently crushing Cal at home, while Utah (7-7, 4-6) is is coming off a 77-74 win at Colorado.

The game is set for a 5 p.m. MST tip off and will be aired on FOX Sports 1. Here’s what to be looking for in this matchup:

Here’s Kerrrrrrrrrrrrrr

The long-anticipated debut of freshman Kerr Kriisa should happen fairly early on Thursday, as coach Sean Miller has indicated he wants to get the Estonian point guard onto the court as soon as possible.

“He’s waited so long I think it makes sense to both give those guys (James Akinjo and Terrell Brown) a breather earlier, but also to allow Kerr to get in when the game is beginning so that he gets maybe an initial, quicker opportunity and he’s able to get in the game and get a good feel so that when he comes in again it’s not that first time where he’s just sitting there waiting,,” Miller said Monday during his weekly radio show.

The 6-foot-2 Kriisa was suspended by the NCAA for the first 17 games due to a youth contract he signed prior to coming to Arizona. He’s been practicing with the team since the summer, with the exception of in early December when he played for Estonia in a FIBA 2022 qualifying tournament and during a stretch in January when he was out with a concussion.

This isn’t the first time an Arizona player has made his collegiate debut well into the season, though not this far in. Kevin Parrom’s freshman year didn’t begin until the Wildcats’ 11th game of the 2009-10 campaign, though that was due to a preseason foot injury, and back in 2003-04 Ivan Radenovic didn’t join the team until the eighth game of the season.

Kriisa’s debut may be more akin to that of Allonzo Trier in 2017, when the sophomore missed Arizona’s first 19 games after testing positive for a banned substance. Trier was already an established college player, though, as he’d averaged 14.8 points per game as a freshman.

“He comes at a very good time,” Miller said of Kriisa. “With Jemarl Baker out for the season, you could see a wearing-down effect on our guards, simply because we’re razor thin. When Benn Mathurin went down with his ankle injury in the Arizona State game, and his being limited in the Stanford game in particular, it felt even more so. Players like James and Terrell will be able to take the rest that they need.”

Turnover troubles

Arizona is still in the top 100 nationally in offensive turnover rate, and fourth-best in the Pac-12, but it has been much sloppier with the ball of late. It’s not a coincidence that this has happened during the period of time when it’s been extremely thin in the ball handler category.

The Wildcats have turned it over on at least 18.8 percent of their possessions over the last four games, for a total of 58 giveaways. That turnover rate only happened four times in their first 13 games.

Arizona turned it over 11 times in its last game against Cal, but seven of those were in the second half and five in the last five minutes.

“That’s the thing about turnovers, you have to be able to do it for the entirety, do it in the first half and do it in the second half,” Miller said. “Our biggest wins on the road, I think, have always had an advantage where we did a great job of taking care of the ball.”

Arizona is averaging 11.8 turnovers per game on the road, compared to 12.8 at McKale Center.

Not home is where the heart is

The lack of crowds has also completely eliminated homecourt advantage in college basketball, with home teams winning only 57.6 percent of the time through Tuesday, per Since 1997 that win rate had never been below 59 percent.

Only 54 percent of the 55 Pac-12 games played on a team’s home court have been won by the host, which doesn’t include Stanford’s four victories when playing in Santa Cruz. Ironically, the Cardinal lost at home to USC on Tuesday in their first actual home game in nearly a year.

Arizona is 4-1 away from home this season—its only loss was to Stanford in Santa Cruz—compared to 9-3 at McKale Center. Utah is 5-3 at the Huntsman Center, losing to Oregon, Colorado and Cal, after going 12-2 there last season and 50-14 since 2016-17.

“We’ve played consistently, and I hope it continues,” Miller said of Arizona’s road play.

Arizona has dropped two of its last three in Salt Lake City, its most recent win there coming in 2018.

How Utah scores

The Utes are below .500 in Pac-12 play but have scored the exact same amount of points as their opponents in conference games. But how they go about getting those points is unique from the rest of the league.

Utah is the top 2-point shooting team in the conference, making 54.6 percent of its shots from inside the perimeter, while it ranks second-worst in 3-point accuracy at 31.4 percent. It gets more than 55 percent of its points on 2-pointers, tops in the league and 48th nationally, while its production from outside and at the foul line are both near the bottom of the Pac-12.

Junior forward Timmy Allen, who leads the team in scoring (16.8 per game), rebounding (6.2) and assists (3.8), has taken 161 2-pointers, second only to Stanford’s Oscar da Silva. Sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen leads the Pac-12 in 2-point shooting, making 74.2 percent of those attempts, and 7-foot sophomore Branden Carlson is a 53 percent shooter from inside the arc.

Even senior guard Alfonso Plummer, who set a Pac-12 Tournament record with 11 3-pointers against Oregon State (in a loss!) last season, makes more than 57 percent of his non-3s. Plummer is coming off a monster performance at Colorado when he had 23 points in 17 minutes off the bench.