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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball visits Colorado

The Pac-12 title could be clinched

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-colorado-buffaloes-preview-clinch-pac12-title-analysis-2022 Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are on the brink of their first Pac-12 regular-season title since 2018, a feat they can achieve by beating the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday evening and getting some help later that night.

Second-ranked Arizona (25-2, 15-1) clinches a share of the crown with a victory in Boulder, where it hasn’t won since 2015. That game begins at 6 p.m. MT and should end right around the time No. 16 USC (24-4, 13-4) is tipping off at Oregon, which knocked No. 12 UCLA out of the title race on Thursday. A Ducks win, combined with a Wildcats victory, locks up the Pac-12 championship and the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament March 9-12 in Las Vegas.

If either of those things don’t happen, Tuesday’s makeup game at USC could be when the UA wraps up the title.

Beating Colorado is the main focus, though. Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Buffaloes take the court:

The ASU effect

A running joke in the Pac-12 over the years has been that, for teams on the Arizona road trip, those that play in Tucson first often get so amped for that game that when they visit Tempe a few days later they suffer a letdown. But what also tends to happen fairly often is a team gets beat handily by ASU—home or road—but when it faces the UA it comes out like gangbusters.

That was the case last Saturday when Oregon, still licking its wounds from a 24-point loss to the Sun Devils, was unstoppable early against the Wildcats at McKale Center. Arizona was down 12 points midway through the first half before rallying to win by three.

Now the UA is headed to face a Colorado team that just lost by 17 at home to ASU, its worst home loss since Arizona won by 27 there in 2015 (its last victory at the Coors Events Center). The Buffs had won their previous five, putting itself back into NCAA Tournament consideration as well as in the mix to get a bye in the Pac-12 Tourney.

Unless that result completely demoralized Colorado, expect it to come out hot early on. It will be Senior Night, with the seemingly forever Buff Evan Battey among those being honored, so this could be another case of Arizona’s opponent building a big lead out of the gate.

Kerr’s encore

Kerr Kriisa posted the seventh triple-double in Arizona history at Utah, the first since Andre Iguodala had his third in 2004. He drained seven 3-pointers in the first half, tying a school record for triples in a half, then after halftime did his best Dalen Terry impression by getting eight of his 10 assists and seven of his 10 rebounds, including one with 1:01 left after he had been put back into the game to try and complete the feat.

How does one follow up such a performance? Maybe like what Kriisa did the last time he faced Colorado, which came immediately after establishing his career high of 21 points that was matched on Thursday.

Kriisa had just two points against the Buffaloes in Tucson on Jan. 13, though he took only four shots. He had 10 assists in that game but missed all three 3-point attempts, the first of two times that would happen this season (the other was the 0 for 12, 0 for 9 game at UCLA on Jan. 25).

About the Buffs

Colorado (18-10, 10-8) shot just 38.9 percent against ASU, its lowest rate in seven games, and it was outrebounded by one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 in that category. Leading scorer Jabari Walker had 12 points but was 3 of 9 from the field, while big man Battey took more shots from the perimeter than in the paint.

Still, the Buffaloes are a formidable opponent that’s at home against an Arizona team with a lot more to play for, and two of their best defensive traits perfectly match a pair of the Wildcats’ best offensive weapons: free throw attempt rate and offensive rebounding percentage.

The UA is second in the Pac-12 in offensive rebound rate, while Colorado is second-best defensively. Arizona gets to the line more than 20 times per game in conference play, tops in the league, but the Buffs are second only to the UA in defensive free throw attempt rate.

Colorado is also great at getting to the line, so depending on how this game is called this could either be a free throw contest or one where the refs let them play.

Arizona is 14-0 this season when taking 20 or more free throws, something only three Colorado opponents (one in Pac-12 play) have accomplished.