Nothing’s certain until the teams hit the court these days, but the Arizona Wildcats should be hosting the Colorado Buffaloes on Thursday night at McKale Center.
It will be only the second game in 22 days for No. 6 Arizona (12-1, 2-0 Pac-12) after going 12 days between losing at Tennessee and beating Washington on Jan. 3, then having last weekend’s ASU game called off almost immediately after the UW win and being unable to either reschedule any of its previously postponed games or add a nonconference opponent.
Colorado (11-3, 3-1) had a COVID pause start prior to the Christmas break that saw it go 19 days between games before sweeping the Washington schools at home last weekend. Saturday’s win over Washington was the 300th for Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle, who in his 12th season is tied with Oregon’s Dana Altman as the Pac-12’s longest-tenured coach.
Here’s what to watch for when the UA, which is a 15-point favorite according to DraftKings Sportsbook, and Colorado tangle in Tucson:
That facing someone else feeling
One of the most common refrains from players and coaches in the days leading up to a season opener is about the excitement and anticipation of finally being able to face someone other than your own teammates. UA coach Tommy Lloyd is hoping his guys are in that mindset in what will in effect feel like the third start to the 2021-22 season after the traditional beginning in November and the first COVID-caused restart that happened last week.
“I always just tell our guys, don’t forget how excited you were to play in those first early games,” he said. “Sometimes that excitement and that energy wears off as you get into the kind of the routine of the season. I just reminded our guys, when we get a chance to play tomorrow night, let’s be thankful for it, and then the way you show how you’re thankful is you go out, you play incredibly hard and play together.”
Prior to its first extended break, Arizona had shown a tendency to start games slow, which contributed to the loss at Tennessee in which the Wildcats trailed 26-11 with 4:27 left in the first half only to fall by four. Against Washington last week, though, the UA came out of the gates hot, making its first six shots and leading 22-10 less than six minutes in.
“I don’t know how tomorrow is gonna go, and I imagine Colorado is going to have some input on how it goes,” Lloyd said. “I’m not worried about us being rusty. I’m not worried about us being unmotivated, because we have a choice in how we want to come out and play, and I’m hoping our guys choose the right things: effort, energy, excitement.”
The turnover tally
Arizona had a season-high 21 turnovers against Washington, which scored 25 points off those miscues. The Wildcats are averaging 13.5 turnovers per game, giving it away on 17.7 percent of possessions, with that rate over 20 percent on four occasions (it was 27.2 percent against the Huskies).
Not surprisingly, Arizona’s three worst games in terms of turnover rate came against Tennessee, Washington and Wichita State, who per KenPom.com have the three best defensive turnover rates of any opponent the UA is scheduled to face this season.
“We’ve had a couple games where we’ve turned the ball over against teams that are really good at creating turnovers,” Lloyd said. “We need to be better in those areas. We work on it every day, and we’re going to continue to work on it, and hopefully the the message has gotten through.”
Colorado forces 12.3 turnovers per game but also plays at a slower tempo, translating to a 17.8 percent turnover rate that ranks 240th out of 358 Division I teams. Instead, the Buffaloes rely on a defensive approach that tries to force an opponent to use the entire shot clock, which is completely counter to Arizona’s lightning-quick offensive pace.
“Where Washington maybe plays a style of play that you only play against a couple times a year, because it’s pretty unique, Colorado’s a little bit more traditional, probably aligns a little more closer to us,” Lloyd said. “Hopefully our guys can get out, we can we can get our offense burning and churning, we can get it to moving our bodies and moving the ball how we like to and then hopefully we get great opportunities off of that.”
One Wildcat in particular that needs to get better in the turnover department is Azuolas Tubelis, who has a team-worst 31 including five against UW (while also dishing out six assists, five to fellow big man Christian Koloko). He only took seven shots in that game and just 13 in the past two contests.
“He has a potential as a passer, he’s just got to tighten it up,” Lloyd said. “I love it when bigs pass together and play together, I think it’s really important because, usually in our offense, the bigs find themselves in the middle of the floor. When you’re in the middle of the floor, it’s hard to establish help-side defense. So if you’re bigs can play over the top to each other there’s opportunities there. We don’t want to live and die by it, but it’s definitely a piece of the offense that I like (in) both man and zone attacks.”
About the Buffs
Lloyd called Colorado “rock solid at both ends of the floor,” which is a good way to say average. The Buffaloes are 85th nationally in offensive efficiency and 82nd in defensive efficiency, and other than not force a lot of turnovers they don’t really struggle in any area.
They don’t excel in much, either, though they do get to the foul line quite a bit and are fairly good on the defensive glass.
Sophomore forward Jabari Walker has been the team’s star to this point, averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 assists, while 6-foot-8, 262-pound Evan Battey seems like he’s been around forever and last year averaged 19.5 points in a split with Arizona.
Colorado’s roster also includes guard KJ Simpson, who signed with the UA in November 2020 but got out of his National Letter of Intent after Sean Miller was fired. The 6-foot-2 Simpson is averaging 5.9 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 18.9 minutes per game.
More from the bench
Arizona’s rotation has been an 8-man one since Kim Aiken Jr. stepped away for personal reasons in December, and the trio of guard Justin Kier, wing Pelle Larsson and center Oumar Ballo had been consistently contributing until last game when they combined for just three (all from Larsson) points in 42 minutes.
Larsson also had a career-high eight rebounds along with four assists.
“We all kind of know our roles and we embrace those that we have right now,” Larsson said. “I’m not searching for role, I’m still trying to find ways to do that role even better every day.”
Larsson, who missed nearly all of the preseason recovering from surgery on his left foot, has twice sprained the ankle on that same side including against Washington when he had to limp to the locker room midway through the first half.
“I stepped on a guy’s foot and tweaked my ankle a little bit,” he said. “It’s happened, I think, two times. We went back in the locker room pretty quick and took care of it. And I started warming up again and stuff. A sprained ankle is not fun, but it’s not the worst thing that could happen. So I kind of just have to play through that one.”