The Arizona Wildcats can move closer to their first Pac-12 title since 2018 with a pair of wins this weekend, starting with Thursday night’s game against the Oregon State Beavers at McKale Center.
Third-ranked UA (22-2, 12-1 Pac-12) holds a 3-game lead in the loss column on UCLA, USC and Oregon, whom it hosts on Saturday night. Depending on what happens over the next few days, the Wildcats could be in position to clinch the regular-season title next week.
Here’s what to watch for when Arizona takes on OSU:
Not looking ahead
Oregon State (3-20, 1-12) is in last place in the Pac-12, coming to Tucson on a 10-game losing streak. KenPom.com gives Arizona a 99.6 percent chance of winning, and according to DraftKings Sportsbook the Wildcats are favored by 26 points. That’s the largest spread the UA has been favored by in a Pac-12 game since being 27.5-point favorites against Washington State in 2003.
Does this mean there’s a chance Arizona could overlook the lowly Beavers, particularly with Oregon coming in on Saturday and with ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasting from McKale?
“They better not,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “As a competitor, you only get so many nights you get to go compete against another team. I tell our guys, would you rather practice or would you rather play a game? Obviously we know what the answer is, so handle it accordingly. I’m not worried about that. Oregon State will get our full attention just like anybody else.”
This will be the eighth game this season in which Arizona is favored by 20 or more points. It has won the previous seven by an average of 29.3 points but is just 3-3-1 against the spread, failing to cover in the last four.
Bad news Beavers
Had bad is Oregon State? Really bad.
Only two games during it’s 10-game skid have been decided by single digits, and in conference play the Beavers have an adjusted defensive efficiency of 118.2. That would be the worst in the Pac-12 since Washington State was at 118.3 in 2017-18.
And to think, they return three starters from the squad that got hot last March and parlayed a Pac-12 Tournament title (as the No. 5 seed, which would have gone to Arizona had it not self-imposed a postseason ban) into a run to the Elite Eight.
So what’s gone wrong?
“I don’t know specifically what happened,” Lloyd said. “I’m preparing for them to play their best game tomorrow. I know what the team did last year in that run they got on where they kind of caught fire, which was pretty awesome. We were in the bubble with them (at Gonzaga), so we were side by side with them for a couple of weeks.”
OSU’s best player is junior guard Jarod Lucas, who shoots 38.8 percent from 3, while junior guard Dashawn Davis leads the Pac-12 in assists per game at 5.5. Lucas had 17 points and was 5 of 8 from 3 when Arizona won 90-65 in Corvallis in December, while Davis had 9 points and 8 assists in that game.
“They have pieces, there’s no doubt there’s talent there,” Lloyd said. “When you play against them, you feel their speed, their quickness, athleticism. They give you a lot to prepare for, that’s for sure.”
A better start
Arizona’s last game, at Washington, was the latest instance in which it stumbled out of the gate and found itself down big early. The Wildcats trailed 25-11 less than 10 minutes into the game, forcing Lloyd to call timeout.
The UA outscored the Huskies 24-4 after the timeout and ended up winning by 24. Five days earlier, at ASU, it fell behind 14-1 only to lead by 20 in the second half of a 12-point victory.
Arizona has trailed by eight or more points in the first half seven times this season, winning five of those games including four by double digits.
Lloyd calls dealing with those early deficits as a “good thing,” though he would like to pinpoint what’s at the root of those slow starts.
“I mean, you’re not wishing for him, but as you think you’re building your team to hopefully have a successful postseason, inevitably it’s gonna happen in one of those games,” he said. “How do you respond? I think our guys’ response, for the most part, has been pretty good. But also, I think we need to figure out why some of those slow starts are happening. Is it us, is it our opponent is really excited to play and makes a few shots and (is) playing better, or is it a combination of both? And usually it’s a combination of both. So, we’re definitely not going to overreact.”
Arizona actually trailed Oregon State by 6 about six minutes into the December game, but by halftime was up eight and built the lead to as many as 28 in the second half.
“I’ve been pretty pleased so far this year, when we’ve had to call those tough timeouts, how our guys have responded,” Lloyd said. “It’s not a guarantee when you call a timeout that you’re going to come out and things are gonna get better. But for the most part, this group has done a good job.”
Playing through the pain
Arizona has been very fortunate from a health standpoint, avoiding any COVID-19 issues within its own program and only dealing with minor injuries. The biggest issue was Azuolas Tubelis’ high ankle sprain, which caused him to miss a game and then play a few at below 100 percent.
Point guard Kerr Kriisa missed the Utah game after “getting hurt” during the pregame meal, though the injury was never disclosed. He’s also been playing with a left thumb injury that he needed to have taped up at halftime of the game at ASU and which he was icing on the bench late at Washington.
“It hurts,” Kriisa said of the injury. “It hurts when I play, it hurts when I eat. It’s really hard, because you just keep getting hit. Basically when you get it hit it just goes back to the beginning. I’ll be fine.”
Neither Kriisa or Lloyd think the injury, which is on his non-shooting hand, is contributing to his field goal percentages. Kriisa was 5 of 18 from the field on the 3-game road trip and for the season is shooting just 35.5 percent overall and 31.1 percent in Pac-12 play.
“It’s a game of averages, and I trust that shot,” Lloyd said. “So I feel really good about it this weekend. That’s how I’m looking at it. If you tell me there’s another coach in this league that’s comfortable when he’s shooting an open three, I’d like to know who he is. I mean, he’s a braver man than I am.”
Said Kriisa: “If I make every shot I would be in the NBA. It’s sports, it’s basketball. It’s an up and down game. The most consistent is always the best player on the court. It’s not that I’m not trying to be consistent, but it’s really hard because it’s the game of sports and it’s hard to always be consistent. But it’s more again mental. You have better games, you worse games. You learn from from both of these games, either it’s bad or good.”
He said he doesn’t know if teams are trying to go after his thumb, but he would if he were in their shoes.