It’s technically the third week of full Pac-12 play, yet Saturday will mark the first chance the Arizona Wildcats have to complete a full weekend slate of games when they host the Utah Utes at McKale Center.
No. 6 Arizona (13-1, 3-0) is coming off a 76-55 win over Colorado on Thursday, while Utah (8-8, 1-5) hasn’t played since Jan. 8 when it fell at home to Washington State for its fourth consecutive loss.
The Utes have lost 10 in a row to the UA in Tucson, though their last win at McKale came in 2005 when they beat UTEP and Oklahoma in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s what to look for when Arizona and Utah meeting at 6 p.m. MT:
No time to rest
After playing just two games over a 22-day span, Saturday’s contest will tip off less than 43 hours after Thursday’s game ended. That doesn’t leave much time for recovery from any injuries that may have happened, or to tweak the gameplan for Utah based on how things went against Washington.
Utah, on the other hand, will come to McKale fresh after its game at ASU was moved from Thursday to Monday.
Coach Tommy Lloyd acknowledged that Arizona’s lull during the latter part of the first half against Washington, when it was outscored 18-7 and turned it over five times, may have been a result of fatigue. In other words, the Wildcats’ lack of games may have caused them to get out of game shape.
“I have been really steadfast in not using this lack of games as an excuse, (but) I think that played into it a little bit,” Lloyd said. “I think the guys maybe got a little bit tired, maybe a little bit selfish, and that’s not a good combination.”
Dalen Terry and Azuolas Tubelis only played 12 and nine minutes in the first half, respectively, because each had two fouls, yet in the second half four of the five starters played 14 or more minutes despite the game getting lopsided.
Getting one day off between games is the norm during Pac-12 weekends, and next weekend the UA will play three games in six days at Stanford, Cal and UCLA, so eliminating fatigue will be key.
Making the free ones
Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in free throw rate, meaning the frequency of getting to the foul line per field goal attempted. The Wildcats are taking 21.3 foul shots per conference game but are only 7th-best in free throw percentage, at 67.2.
Against Colorado the UA was 11 of 19, missing 7 of 14 free throws in the second half. In the 4-point loss at Tennessee last month the Wildcats missed six foul shots.
Utah, on the other hand, leads the Pac-12 in foul shooting at 79.4 percent and overall is shooting 78.6 percent from the line. The Utes’ top 10 scorers all shoot at least 70 percent, with four guys over 80 percent, while Arizona’s most frequent foul shooter (Tubelis) is only 65.2 percent from the line this season.
Pelle playing some old friends
The real homecoming won’t be until Feb. 24, when Arizona is scheduled to visit Salt Lake City, but Saturday will mark the first time Pelle Larsson has played against his former team since leaving the Utes after one season.
“It’s going to be really fun, especially some of those guys I played with last year,” said Larsson, who started 18 games for Utah in 2020-21 and averaged 8.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
Larsson is coming off one of his best games with Arizona, scoring 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting (including 2 of 3 from 3) with five rebounds. The game before he had eight rebounds and four assists and for the season is averaging 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists.
“Pelle is really coming on,” Lloyd said. “I really feel that and see that. I think he’s really about to turn the corner and is gonna be a significant contributor the second half of the season.”
An even better crowd?
The announced crowd for Thursday’s game was 13,515, the second-largest of the season but still more than 1,000 below McKale’s capacity of 14,644. The Zona Zoo was full, however, and contributed to the best pre-game atmosphere so far and made for an overall lively environment.
“It felt pretty good,” Lloyd said of the vibe on Thursday. “Hopefully people are getting excited. These players are doing a great job and they’re very deserving. And it’s a special group of young guys and I know they appreciate the support. With everything going on in the world, it’s great to have a loyal fan base that comes out in trying times so I was happy with the crowd tonight.”
The players certainly seem to be enjoying it, particularly a guy like Kriisa, who earlier in the week tweeted out his plea to have more fans at games.
I actually signed up for full house of McKale that I haven't seen yet! Lets get this thursday McKale rocking! BTFD!— Kerr (@KerrKriisa) January 10, 2022
Kriisa is one of several UA players that appear to feed off the crowd, often interacting with them at times. Lloyd said he’s cool with that.
“I think the game’s best played when it’s played with passion,” he said. “Passion and emotion are part of it. They can add fuel to the fire. I enjoy that stuff. I think that it makes it a fun event for everybody. And as long as it fits into a guy’s personality and he can try to get the crowd revved up and try to get his team more energized, I’m all for it.”
KenPom.com gives Arizona a 95 percent chance to win, predicting a final score of 87-69. That margin is slightly below the UA’s average so far in Pac-12 play, 20.7 points.
The last time the Wildcats won their first three conference games by an average of 20 or more? 1987-88, when they beat Cal, Stanford and Oregon State by a combined 76 points en route to a 17-1 league record and the program’s first Final Four appearance.
The UA’s fourth conference game that year was a 16-point win at Oregon, so if Arizona beats Utah by 30 it will match that season’s win margin after four contests at 23.