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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball faces No. 14 Indiana in Las Vegas

arizona-wildcats-mens-college-basketball-preview-indiana-hoosiers-las-vegas-trayce-jackson-davis Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After a brief sojourn into Pac-12 play, with mixed results, Arizona is back in a nonconference stretch that will see it play five games over a 13-day span before the holiday break. And to start off that stretch is arguably the toughest opponent in the lot.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats (7-1) face No. 14 Indiana (8-1) Saturday afternoon in the Las Vegas Clash at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA takes on the Hoosier for the first time in program history:

A matchup 40 years in the making?

Arizona is 40-35 all-time against teams currently in the Big Ten Conference, a record that will balloon in a few years when UCLA and USC leave the Pac-12 for that league. Yet Indiana has never been on the same court as the UA, the only Big Ten school it has yet to face.

Coincidence? Most likely, though coach Tommy Lloyd speculated that the programs’ leadership over the years may have influenced the lack of a meeting.

“He competed against Indiana when he was at Iowa,” Lloyd said of legendary UA coach Lute Olson. “And I’m sure he probably didn’t want to play against Indiana anymore, so he probably had a lot to say for that and he was here for a long time.”

Olson’s last season was 2006-07, but no matchup materialized during the early years of Sean Miller’s tenure and then Indiana hired Archie Miller in 2017-18, likely killing any chance the brothers would voluntarily face off.

“There probably wasn’t very many opportunities for this game to happen for 40 years because of just the dynamics of the coaching staffs on both programs,” Llyd said. “But now it’s a great opportunity for both of us, and both of our fan bases. And I’m sure you that arena in Vegas is going to be electric come Saturday.”

This will be the third of four power nonconference opponents Arizona has faced (other than in multi-team events like the Maui Invitational) under Lloyd, the first in a neutral setting. Last year the Wildcats won at Illinois before falling at Tennessee, and they’ll host the 7th-ranked Volunteers on Dec. 17.

“When it came up it made sense for us,” Lloyd said of the Las Vegas Clash, which will feature Washington State and unbeaten UNLV in the first game of the doubleheader. “I love trying to be involved in some of these neutral-site games. I mean, I think we all love home and homes, but it’s just hard. It’s hard to get home and homes, so these neutral games seem to be easier, and Vegas seems to be a great destination, so it made a lot of sense.”

Teams on parallel paths

When December began, this matchup looked like one that could feature a pair of unbeaten Top 10 teams. But within the first three days of the month both lost, and in eerily similar fashion.

Arizona lost 81-66 at Utah, posting season lows in points and field goal shooting while getting massively outrebounded. Indiana went to Rutgers and laid an absolute egg, falling 63-48 with season lows in points and field goal percentage while getting massively outrebounded.

“Both us and Indiana got off to a good start, and then we both played road games against pretty good teams that are gritty and knew us well, and I think you saw us both struggle,” Lloyd said.

The UA and IU each bounced back at home against conference opponents that are expected to finish near the bottom of their respective leagues.

Furthering the similarities are that Lloyd and Indiana coach Mike Woodson are both in their second seasons of their first college head coaching gig. Woodson, however, has been a head coach in the NBA before taking over his alma mater.

“They’re in a similar situation that we’re in a little bit program-wise, you got a coach in his second year, and obviously their coach is a lot more experienced than I am,” Lloyd said. “But I think you can see the comfort level of the players growing. They have a lot of returning players.”

A game plan for 5, not 1

Indiana’s top player is senior Trayce Jackson-Davis, a 6-foot-9 forward who is the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. He leads the Hoosiers in scoring (17.5 points) and rebounding (8.9) and in Wednesday’s 81-66 win over Nebraska recorded the third triple-double in school history.

Even more notable, his overall stat line hadn’t been produced since a former UA star did it 20 years ago:

Lloyd said Jackson-Davis will “have our full attention” but he won’t be who Arizona builds its gameplan around. Not with so many other good players on Indiana.

“We’ve played against good players before, and it’s not to say he’s not one of the better ones, but we’re gonna go into their battle and we’re just going to try to win a basketball game,” Lloyd said. “We’re not gonna caught up in a 1 in 5 version of this deal, he’s just one player on a really good team.”

Arizona may be able to focus on Jackson-Davis a little more depending on the status of Indiana’s point guard, freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino. He’s missed the past two games with a sore back, and while fill-in Trey Galloway had 20 points against Nebraska he was scoreless in 30 minutes in the previous game.

The other McKale North

Arizona won five games in Las Vegas last season, beating Wichita State and Michigan in November and then sweeping through the Pac-12 Tournament in March. Those games were at T-Mobile Arena, while Saturday’s tilt will be across the street at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

That’s where the Pac-12 held its conference tournament from 2013-16, and the Wildcats went 7-3 there including the 2015 tourney title. Arizona won three of the four Pac-12 tourneys it has participated in (and which were completed) at T-Mobile, with the 2020 event stopped after the first day due to COVID and the 2021 tourney not including the UA following its self-imposed postseason ban.

Indiana doesn’t count out West much, and when it does the results haven’t been great. The Hoosiers lost to Saint Mary’s in the first round of last year’s NCAA tourney in Portland, and in 2015 they went 1-2 at the Maui Invitational.

But don’t be surprised if IU has almost as many red-clad fans in attendance at the 15,000-seat arena as Arizona. Last month Illinois faced UCLA and Virginia at T-Mobile and its fans far outnumbered their opponents’ supporters.