The Arizona Wildcats left Tucson on Wednesday afternoon for their final road trip of the regular season, and depending on how it goes—and what a few other teams do—they could return to town next week as Pac-12 champions.
Second-ranked Arizona (24-2, 14-1) has a 3-game lead in the loss column on USC (23-4, 12-4) and UCLA (20-5, 12-4) with five games remaining. If the Wildcats win their next three, starting Thursday at Utah and continuing Saturday at Colorado before going to USC on Tuesday, they would clinch at least a share of the regular-season title, while any losses by the Bruins or Trojans would speed up the process.
UCLA and USC both play at the Oregon schools this weekend, and UCLA is at Washington on Monday.
That’s the big picture. The smaller one is Thursday’s game in Salt Lake City. Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats visit the Utes:
Staying consistent, regardless of the start
Arizona had another one of its scary-at-the-time starts in its last game against Oregon, trailing by 12 points midway through the first half. But like so many other times, the Wildcats had nearly erased that deficit by halftime and ended up coming out on top.
And because of that, Tommy Lloyd remains unconcerned about this continuing trend.
“We talk about it all the time, these games are long, and how many times have you guys seen a team get out to a fast start, and then it’s tied up by halftime?,” he said. “It just happens all the time, you just got to hang in there and kind of go possession by possession, and I think we got a gritty group.”
Senior guard Justin Kier said Arizona’s ability to remain consistent enables it to shake off such starts.
“When we get rattled, I think that’s the best thing about this young team is, when we’re down at the beginning of the first half or whatever, we don’t panic,” he said. “That’s the biggest maturity that you could have your team is not to panic. You panic you turn that 10 (point deficit) into 20. And we’ve always been able to come back for it.”
Kier said Arizona’s coaches also do well to keep the team poised.
“Even if we’re panicking mentally, they let us know, hey, calm down, we’ll be fine,” he said. “We’re not playing our best. Pick it up a notch, pick it up on defense, take great shots, don’t be hesitant, stuff like that. They give us a lot of confidence to play. I think that’s why we’re having so much success.”
The air up there
The Rocky Mountain trip presents some challenges that are unique to it, compared to others in the Pac-12. It’s one of two (along with the Washington trip) that requires a flight between games, but it’s the only one in which the games are played at altitude.
Salt Lake City is 4,226 feet above sea level, nearly twice Tucson’s 2,389 feet, while Boulder is at 5,318 feet. With the higher elevation comes concerns over fatigue, but Lloyd has a very simple approach to that:
“Don’t acknowledge it,” he said. “I’ve played at altitude a lot of times. I think every guy that’s ever started the game has finished the game, we haven’t anybody go to the hospital, nobody died. It’s just the same deal. Go play the game.”
Lloyd said the games will dictate if he subs differently, not the thinner air. It’s how he and Mark Few did it when Gonzaga would go to BYU.
“I remember we played a lot of good teams down there,” he said. “A lot of times you go down there you started out slow and then by halftime you were tied, and you just got to take the same approach.”
Arizona has lost its last two games at Utah, including by 15 last season, and hasn’t won at Colorado since 2015.
Checking in on the Utes
Arizona beat Utah 82-64 at McKale on Jan. 15, a result that came in the middle of a 10-game losing streak for the Utes (11-16, 4-13). They’ve won three of their last five, sweeping the Bay Area schools on the road last weekend, and are as healthy as they’ve been all season.
The Wildcats didn’t have to deal with 7-footer Branden Carlson in the previous matchup, which changes things. The junior is Utah’s leading scorer, at 13.5 points per game, and since returning from injury he’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3.
“He’s tall and he’s talented,” Lloyd said. “He makes threes, he finishes above the rim. He’s a good rim protector. I think that’s gonna obviously be a little bit of a difference maker for them.”
The Utes no longer have 6-foot-10 senior Dusan Mahorcic, who had 10 points against Arizona last month. He entered the NCAA transfer portal a week ago, leaving Utah with one less big to contend with the Wildcats’ imposing frontcourt.
This will be Pelle Larsson’s first time playing at the Huntsman Center since he transferred from Utah over the summer, and it will also be the first time he plays in that arena in front of fans. Larsson’s lone season with the Utes was the COVID year in which the Pac-12 didn’t allow crowds at games.
With that in mind, Larsson hopefully will get the kind of reception that former UA guard Terrell Brown Jr.—whose one season with the Wildcats was also fanless—got when he came to Tucson with Washington in early January.
“Pelle’s a great human being, and I’m assuming the fans in Utah are respectful and understand a lot of things happened, that weren’t part of Pelle’s doing, that ultimately ended up (affecting) the decision he was going to transfer,” Lloyd said. “I’m sure it’ll be great and I’m sure he’ll play fine.”
Lloyd said that, when Larsson told him a few days ago he had a sore neck, he joked that “I didn’t have you as being a guy who was faking of injury before we played Utah.
“He gave me a dirty look.”
Larsson, who started 18 games at Utah as a freshman, is averaging 8.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game for Arizona in Pac-12 play. While the production has been slowing increasing, so has the team’s dependence on him on the defensive end. “
“He’s as big as most people’s 4-man, so I’ve got no problems putting him on anybody,” Lloyd said. “We were working on a plan this year when we played Illinois, I don’t think we got to the game, but there were certain segments of the game when he was going to guard Kofi (Cockburn). He is a very versatile defender. He’s big. He’s tough. He’s physical, he takes pride in it, and he plays with great effort. He checks all the boxes.”
Recognizing, but also ignoring, the distractions
Arizona is the first Top 2 team to come that Utah has hosted since beating No. 1 Alabama in 2002. The Utes have hosted four Top 5 teams since joining the Pac-12, losing each time, including No. 4 Arizona in 2014.
Even before the UA got to such a high ranking, though, this game was highlighted on Utah’s home schedule, so much do the program will be donning special USS Salt Lake City uniforms.
Chalk that up as another case of Arizona’s return to the top of college basketball also bringing about added attention, and in many cases potential distractions. Same goes with Saturday’s game at Colorado, which will be Senior Night and the first time the Buffs have hosted a Top 2 team since 2010.
It comes with the territory, Lloyd said.
“To be a team that plays deep into a postseason, you’ve got to be able to handle a little bit of the extra attention or the chaos that’s going on on the outside, but it’s always going on on the outside,” he said. “That’s what you have to remind them. The main thing is always the main thing, and that’s basketball, and winning basketball games. Because that’s the reason the distraction is there. So you acknowledge that. That’s why I think even having College GameDay down here last week was a good deal. I mean, we weren’t looking for the extra attention, though, when it came, you don’t push it aside because you kind of want to get used to operating maybe when you’re under a little more scrutiny or under the microscope a little bit, because that’s part of the process.