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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts Utah Tech

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-utah-tech-trailblazers-dixie-maui-tanner-christensen-2022 Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s first week of action was successful, with a pair of lopsided, high-scoring matchups against aggressive but overmatched opponents. Only one game is on the docket this week, with the 14th-ranked Wildcats hosting Utah Tech on Thursday night in their final warmup before heading to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA takes on the school formerly known as Dixie State:

Know (and fear) your opponent

Utah Tech (1-2) is rated No. 262 by KenPom.com, 16 spots lower than UA’s opening opponent Nicholls and 10 places behind last foe Southern. But those rankings are heavily impacted by preseason projections, as is Arizona sitting at No. 12.

Several major upsets have already occurred in the first 10 days of the 2022-23 season, with KenPom’s tracker listing 11 contests in which the winner entered with less than a 10 percent chance of victory. Three of those have involved Pac-12 schools, with USC losing its opener by 13 to Florida Gulf Cost while on Friday Oregon fell at home to UC-Irvine and Colorado lost at Grambling.

“In respect of all coaches, it’s hard to win,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “No matter what level you’re at, or what program you’re coaching, you should never take that for granted.”

Colorado’s game was part of the Pac-12’s legacy series with the SWAC, which ended in a 3-3 tie this year thanks to the Buffaloes, ASU (at Texas Southern) and Washington State (at Prairie View A&M). Arizona’s 95-78 win over Southern was also part of that package, with the Wildcats heading to New Orleans for a return game against the Tigers next November.

Lloyd said he understands if the Pac-12 schools that were made to play road games against low-major teams are upset about having to do so, but so be it.

“For all intents and purposes, the ideal of the home at home with the SWAC scores is great,” he said. “At some point, they deserve an opportunity. But if you’re a school in our conference, we need to be winning those games. I mean, that’s the bottom line, and I know it’s easier said than done, but you need to go out and you need win some hard games. Those schools probably feel like they weren’t put in an advantageous situation, but at the end of the day, you still gotta get the result.

“Hey, we got to play at Southern next year, and we got to go down there and we got to do the best job we can to probably win a tough game. I was fortunate to have a home game this year in that deal. But next year the shoe’s on the other foot, so we gotta go respond to the bell, answer the bell.”

The Pac-12 continues to rank sixth among all conferences, per KenPom.

About the Trailblazers

Utah Tech, which officially changed its name from Dixie State in July, is in its third season of Division I basketball. The Trailblazers were a junior college as recently as 2006 before moving to Division II.

Picked to finish second-to-last in the 13-team Western Athletic Conference, Utah Tech has lost games at Nevada and Washington and has a home win over Cal State Northridge. It led by six in the first half at Nevada and was up 36-34 at the half in Seattle on Monday.

“They’re definitely going to present challenges,” Lloyd said. “I watched parts of their Washington game and they were actually in control of that game for long stretches, and then kind of in the second half it kind of got away from them.”

Utah Tech coach Jon Judkins is the winningest college coach in state history, having compiled 591 victories at Tech/Dixie (2005-present) as well as Snow College (1992-05).

“He knows what he’s doing,” Lloyd said of Judkins. “I’ve got to watch them play a little bit this season and they have a plan. They’re well-organized. Maybe they’re a little more structured than the last two teams we played, but maybe not quite as frenzied and athletic.”

The leading scorer is 6-foot-10 forward Tanner Christensen, a transfer from Idaho who is averaging 14 points and 7.7 rebounds on 55.2 percent shooting. He had 26 on Monday against Washington and is a known entity by Lloyd, who said his son Liam played against Christensen in high school in Spokane, Wash.

Improvements from the lab

Arizona will have had five days off since its last game, a rather long break at any point in the season. That time off allowed Lloyd and his staff to review film from the first two contests and see where things need to be adjusted.

Lloyd said the last few days have been as much about working on his own team than specifically planning for Utah Tech.

“You’re getting games under your belt, you’re getting live reps,” he said. :Obviously, things are showing up that we need to work on and there’s other things that we need to add to the package and be prepared to play a hard 3-day tournament in Maui. You’re just trying to get your team prepared for that type of stuff.”

One player who may have the most room for improvement is wing Cedric Henderson Jr. The Campbell transfer, who has started at the 2 in place of suspended guard Courtney Ramey, is averaging 4 points, 3 rebounds and an assist and shooting a team-low 33.3 percent.

“I’m learning, that’s the best way I can say it,” Henderson said of his first week of action with Arizona. “It’s been a big difference for me. I think I can do better, I don’t think I’m at the best I can do. Coming from being the guy that had the ball in his hands a lot to playing with other guys that can do just as well as you or even better, and then having legit bigs does change the style of play. Me and Tommy have talked about it, I think I can run harder, I think I can play harder. Coach told me just crash harder, run harder and you’ll be able to get easier buckets.”