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What to watch for when Arizona visits Colorado on Saturday

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Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats will look to bounce back from arguably their worst game of the season when they visit the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday.

Arizona (13-5, 7-5 Pac-12) fell 73-58 at Utah on Thursday, registering season lows in points and field goal shooting while also playing porous defense. Colorado (13-5, 7-4) has not played since blowing a 19-point lead at home to the Utes last Sunday.

The Wildcats beat the Buffaloes 88-74 in Tucson on Dec. 28, the day before announcing a self-imposed postseason ban. They’ve won 14 of the past 17 matchups with the Buffs but haven’t won in Boulder since 2015.

Here’s what to look out for as Arizona tries to avoid being swept on the road for the first time this season:

Righting wrongs quickly

The Thursday/Saturday format that the Pac-12 uses for most of its scheduling doesn’t allow for much time to make adjustments between games, even less so when its on the road.

But Arizona has a lot to work on after posting its second-worst offensive efficiency and second-worst defensive efficiency of the season against Utah.

“If we’re not prepared for the game that’s on the head coach, right?,” coach Sean Miller said Thursday night. “So, I have to do a better job. I’ll make sure that I speak to the guys and make sure we get on the same page, and I’ll do a better job, at least try to do a better job — our staff and me — of preparing them for Colorado. We’ve got to work longer hours, go at it a little bit harder, communicate better, but that’s unacceptable. We have to do a better job so that our players feel prepared. If they don’t feel prepared, that’s 100% me, that’s on me.”

Arizona has lost the front end of a weekend series twice before in this season, with varying results in the follow up. The Wildcats lost 81-76 at home to UCLA two days after losing by 14 to USC, and last weekend they rebounded from a late collapse at home to Stanford by rolling over Cal.

Defense first

While Arizona has had its two worst offensive outputs in the past three games, Miller is confident in his team’s ability to score consistently. The same can’t be said for the other side of the ball, where the Wildcats haven’t been able to string together two straight solid performances.

The UA ranks sixth in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, but 68th nationally. If that ranking holds it would the third-worst of the Miller era, behind his first team in 2009-10 (108th) and, surprisingly, the 2017-18 squad that won the conference regular season and tournament titles but was 83rd in the country on defense.

Utah was just the third team to shoot 50 percent against Arizona this season but it was the eighth instance (seventh in Pac-12 play) that an opponent has made at least 50 percent of their 2-point shots.

No whistles, please

As much as Arizona likes getting to the line—only Minnesota and Texas Tech get more of their points off free throws among power-conference teams—this is one of those games where it would be best to avoid having a lot of fouls called.

That’s because Colorado is far and away the best foul-shooting team in Division I, making 84.1 percent of its free throws. Next best is Virginia, at 81.7 percent, and Oregon State (77.4) is the closest to the Buffs in the Pac-12.

Colorado’s top nine players, in terms of minutes per game, shoot at least 81 percent from the line. Thankfully, the Buffaloes don’t find themselves there that often, ranking last in the Pac-12 in free throw rate, and in their collapse against Utah last week they only had six free throw attempts/

McKinley vs. Akinjo, Round 2

Here’s hoping James Akinjo can continue his trend of having some of his best games against the top point guards in the Pac-12, since he’s coming off a major dud.

Akinjo, who went scoreless for the first 26-plus minutes at Utah before finishing with 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting, has four 20-point games this season and three have come when matched against a well-regarded Pac-12 PG.

He scored a season-best 25 points while facing UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, dropped 24 in Tempe against ASU’s Remy Martin and had 22 when he faced off against Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV back in December. He also had eight assists against both UCLA and Colorado, and shot a combined 46.7 percent overall and 60.9 percent from 3-point range in those three games.

Wright, a senior, is averaging 13.2 points and 5.6 assists in Pac-12 play, while Akinjo is at 14.6 and 6.3.

What’s up with Benn?

It’s very rare for Miller to not go with the same starting five to begin the second half as he does for the opening tip off, but when Arizona came out of the locker room at Utah the first five on the court featured Dalen Terry instead of Bennedict Mathurin.

“I didn’t like Benn’s attitude,” Miller said. “Benn has to have a great attitude and has to play with a total effort towards winning the game, both on defense and offense. His body language has to be great, and he has to give us everything that he has. When he does that, he’s a very, very good player. But I didn’t like the way he played, and I thought it was a reflection of really our whole team.”

Mathurin played only nine minutes in the second half, his 21 for the game his fewest as a starter other than the Jan. 25 game where he injured his ankle late in the first half. He scored four points on 1-of-6 shooting.

Terry wasn’t any better, going scoreless in 18 minutes.

Kerr’s second act

The long-awaited debut of Kerr Kriisa didn’t exactly produce the kind of results his hype warranted, as the Estonian freshman point guard missed both of his shot attempts while recording two assists and a steal in 19 minutes off the bench.

Miller cautioned fans and the media not to expect too much from Kriisa from the outset, though the coach was very pleased with the effort and energy he saw from him.

“He’s gonna give us everything,” Miller said of Kriisa. “It was nice to have him out there. He deserved to be out there, and you could kind of see his spark a little bit. He helped us. He did some good things and he’ll continue to get more comfortable as the schedule moves forward.”

If anything, Kriisa’s presence should help fellow ball handlers Akinjo and Terrell Brown Jr. from getting fatigued. They played 30 and 32 minutes, respectively, at Utah, with Akinjo’s minutes the fewest he’d had in a Pac-12 game.