The calendar turns to December on Thursday, and with it comes the start of Pac-12 play as the fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats face Utah in Salt Lake City.
The Wildcats (6-0) are defending conference champions, both in the regular season when they set a record with 18 victories and by sweeping through the Pac-12 tourney in Las Vegas. The UA was picked to finish second this season, getting three of 32 first-place votes, while the other teams getting first-place votes (26 for UCLA, 3 for Oregon) have combined to lose six games already.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats battle the Utes at the Huntsman Center:
Early Pac-12 play
The Pac-12’s move to 20 conference games a few years back necessitated starting the league slate earlier, with each team playing twice before finishing up their nonconference schedule. As a result, this will be Arizona’s earliest Pac-12 game since 1989 when it opened conference play at Oregon State on the final day of November.
After coming back from Utah, the Wildcats will host winless Cal on Sunday and then play five non-league games between Dec. 2-22. Pac-12 play resumes Dec. 31 at ASU.
Last year the Wildcats only had one pre-Christmas conference game, a 25-point win at Oregon State, because their originally scheduled conference opener against Washington was postponed to early January because of COVID issues within the UW program.
The need for early conference games has popped up all over Division I the last few seasons, but UA coach Tommy Lloyd didn’t have to deal with that at Gonzaga. In fact, the West Coast Conference actually decreased its number of league games (from 18 to 16) in 2018-19 in an effort to give its teams more nonconference opportunities to build its resume.
“I have spent zero time thinking about it,” Lloyd said of the split schedule. “It’s how the Pac-12 decided to do it long before I became part of the Pac-12, so I don’t spend any time rehashing their decisions, because what’s that do for me?”
Since 2010, Arizona is 7-1 in December conference games. The only loss was against Stanford in 2020 in a game that was played in Santa Cruz, Calif., due to Santa Clara County’s stringent COVID restrictions.
Fighting fatigue in the altitude
Salt Lake City is more than 4,200 feet above sea level, nearly double Tucson’s 2,389. Arizona’s most recent games, in Hawaii, were more or less at sea level, so the possibility of fatigue could be an issue for some players.
“This would be my first time doing it, so I don’t really know anything about it,” guard Courtney Ramey said. “I just know for the past few days I’ve been working super hard and fighting fatigue.”
Ramey, who sat out Arizona’s first three games while serving an NCAA suspension, said he was tired early in his debut with the Wildcats but that was more because he was out of game shape.
Going into the Mountain road trip last season, Lloyd said the best way to deal with altitude is “don’t acknowledge it.” But while Arizona breezed past Utah to open the trip, with Kerr Kriisa dropping a triple-double along the way, the Wildcats got run over by Colorado two days later.
There’s no trip to Boulder this season, the first time Arizona won’t play at Colorado since the 2019-20 season, so there won’t be the same concern about recovering from the thinner air.
About the Utes
Utah (5-2) was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, and its No. 63 rank on KenPom.com is currently eighth-best. The Utes’ best win is a neutral-site victory over Georgia Tech, while they’ve lost to unbeaten Mississippi State in Florida and fallen at home to Sam Houston State, which also has a win at Oklahoma.
Second-year coach Craig Smith has pretty much the same rotation as he had a year ago, when Utah went 11-20 overall and 4-16 in Pac-12 play.
“They got a lot of returning players that are probably more comfortable with what he wants to do,” Lloyd said. “And to me, it looks like they’re off to a pretty good start. I think they lost one game at home. I think Sam Houston is really good, they’re a really good team that probably no one knows about. They got my full attention, and we’re gonna go up there, and we understand it’s a road game and a tough place to play.”
7-footer Branden Carlson and guard Gabe Madsen are both averaging 13 points per game for Utah, but its the Utes’ defense that has been the story so far. They’ve held every opponent to 66 or fewer points, sitting second in the country in defensive field goal percentage (33.7), and their average length of possession on defense (19.5 seconds) is second-longest in Division I.
Defending without fouling, if possible
Arizona faced significant foul trouble against San Diego State and Creighton in Maui, regularly having to sit key players in the second half to avoid them fouling out. The Wildcats weathered those storms, but that doesn’t figure to be a sustainable long-term solution.
“Obviously we’re trying not to foul, but fouls are part of the game,” Lloyd said. “Maybe we have to get a couple guys a little cleaner with their technique, and understanding that you’re not going to win every single battle. So if you’re not going to win that battle, don’t compound it by making an egregious foul.”
Ramey, who came from Texas with a reputation for being a tough defender, has said that fouling a ball handler early on can help send a message.
“When you’re aggressive, fouls are gonna happen,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. Teams that don’t foul are playing passive. Of course we can limit some of them, with better technique.”
Ramey is also still figuring out Lloyd’s defensive approach, which he said differs greatly from the ones he played in at Texas under Shaka Smart and Chris Beard. Attacking screens has been a challenge for him, he said.
Lloyd said he’s given Ramey some freedom on defense, but there’s a limit to that.
“I have a few non-negotiables that I’m going to make sure that he executes and understands why he needs to execute them, and how good he is when he does execute those things,” Lloyd said. “We’re gonna have we’re gonna drill it the next couple days, and hopefully he cleans it up a little bit. I think a little bit of it’s just learning what my expectations are, and hitting our coverages. He’s a great guy, and he wants to do right by the team. He’s not necessarily sitting out there fighting me on it, maybe it’s just his habits aren’t as polished enough into what we want to do, so we just got to help him.”