Arizona faced two ranked opponents en route to winning the Maui Invitational last month, then last weekend handled 14th-ranked Indiana in Las Vegas despite a partisan crowd that wasn’t in the Wildcats’ favor.
Now comes the biggest matchup yet this season, a visit from No. 6 Tennessee to McKale Center for a nationally televised clash. The Volunteers (9-1) handed the Wildcats (9-1) their first loss last season, 77-73 in Knoxville the Wednesday before Christmas.
The UA is 1-4 all-time against Tennessee, its only win coming in the 1998-99 opener in Albuquerque, but has won 24 in a row at McKale.
Here’s what to watch when the Wildcats and Vols meet late Saturday:
Start strong, finish stronger
When Arizona entered Thompson Boling Arena last December it sported a perfect record. It left with its first loss under Tommy Lloyd, and he knows exactly why.
“Sixteen to two,” Lloyd said Tuesday, after the win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, on what he remembers most from that game. “16-2. That’s my memory.”
Arizona fell behind 16-2 just over five minutes into the game, leading to Lloyd using an early timeout, something he does not like to do. The Wildcats trailed by 13 at the half but got within four by the first media break of the second half and tied it with 5:08 to go but never took the lead.
Forward Azuolas Tubelis, who played only 13 minutes in Knoxville because of foul trouble, admitted that he was lost, “I didn’t know what I was doing on the court.”
Arizona ended up having another slow start in its final game that season, the Sweet 16 loss to Houston, and this year’s lone setback at Utah saw the Wildcats stumble out of the gate and never recover.
Tuesday’s game saw Kerr Kriisa start, as usual, but only play until the first timeout, after which he went to the locker room and didn’t return. The school issued a statement shortly after halftime that Kriisa was dealing with a “non-COVID illness,” and afterward Lloyd confirmed that Kriisa hadn’t been feeling well lately.
Will that illness affect his status for Saturday night?
“Not in my opinion,” Lloyd said.
Kriisa did not look his best in that limited action, missing his only shot and turning it over three times. His absence wasn’t felt in that game, as Arizona won by 38 and had eight different players hit a 3-pointer, but not having him available (or less than 100 percent) for Tennessee would be a different story.
Handling the ‘fistfight’
That’s how Lloyd said the matchup with Tennessee would resemble, and he wasn’t exaggerating. The Vols come to town with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, per KenPom.com, allowing 51.4 points per game and 32.7 percent shooting.
Only three teams have scored more than 50 points against the Vols, ironically both Pac-12 schools, with Colorado and USC the only squads to make more than 33 percent of their field goals.
Tennessee isn’t doing this by playing at a snail’s pace like some other defensive-minded teams do, either. Its adjusted tempo and average defensive possession length are both middle-of-the-pack, due heavily to the third-best turnover rate (27.4 percent of possessions) more than 11 steals per game.
Arizona gives it away 14.6 times per game, or 19 percent of possessions, with opponents averaging 17.3 points off those takeaways.
The foul line could be where this game gets decided. Both teams are in the top 30 nationally in free throw attempt rate, but the Vols are more susceptible to putting opponents on the line than Arizona. Tennessee may choose to hack Oumar Ballo rather than give him clean looks at the basket, and his foul shot accuracy has dipped to 52 percent with only 20 makes in his last 49 attempts.
Inside or out?
Ballo and Tubelis are arguably the best 1-2 inside tandem in the country, averaging 38.3 points on 66.4 percent shooting. They’re the main reason Arizona leads the nation in 2-point shooting (63 percent) and has KenPom’s No. 1 adjusted offensive efficiency.
But Tennessee allows only 41.4 percent shooting on 2s, ninth-best in the country, and figures to overload the paint with defenders to deny Arizona’s bigs the ball and force the Wildcats to launch from outside.
Arizona just hit a season-best 15 3s against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and despite a 3-game lull from the perimeter (that included the Utah loss) is shooting 39.3 percent from deep. It will be hard-pressed to do that well from the 3 against Tennessee, which leads the nation in 3-point defense (20.1 percent) with USC’s 33.3 percent and Colorado’s eight triples (on 26 tries) the best anyone has done out there against the Vols.
Per KenPom, this will be the eighth time the No. 1 offensive team has faced the No. 1 defensive squad. The defensive squad has won four of seven matchups, though most games have been fairly high-scoring.