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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts Stanford

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-stanford-cardinal-preview-pac12-championship-letdown-rebounding Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona has won its first Pac-12 regular-season title since 2018, locking that up with a dominant performance Tuesday night at USC. But the work is far from over, as the Wildcats still have two more games left before the postseason begins.

So rather than celebrate too much, beyond the on-court and postgame locker room elations, second-ranked Arizona (26-3, 16-2 Pac-12) is right back in action when it hosts Stanford on Thursday night at McKale Center.

“To get it done here today is pretty special,” coach Tommy Lloyd said after the USC win. “But the reward we get is we get Stanford on Thursday.”

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats face the Cardinal:

Letdown alert

Arizona’s 91-71 win at USC marked the first time since 1981 that a team won by 20 or more on the road against an opponent with 25-plus victories. It was a heck of a way for the Wildcats to lock up the Pac-12 title, particularly after playing so poorly in their previous game at Colorado.

Can the UA maintain that high for a game that, for the most part, is meaningless?

Any losses between now and Selection Sunday could impact Arizona’s chances at a No. 1 seed, which it hasn’t had since 2014, so that motivation still exists. Whether that’s enough is unclear, so the conditions could be ripe for the Wildcats to have one of their slow starts before flipping the switch.

“We got two more games left to finish off this thing,” guard Justin Kier said.

A win would be Arizona’s 17th in conference play, tying the Pac-12 record that it has achieved five times but not since 2002-03. With the league going to a 20-game schedule, the Wildcats also have the opportunity to be the first 18-win team if they sweep the Bay Area schools.

Stanford’s situation

When Arizona blew the doors off Stanford in Palo Alto on Jan. 20, winning 85-57, it shot 55.4 percent and held the Cardinal to 30 percent shooting, which at the time was a season low. Since then the Cardinal (15-13, 8-10) have gone 5-7, dropping their last three including an abysmal 53-39 loss Saturday at rival Cal.

Stanford is projected to finish ninth in the Pac-12, per KenPom.com, which would put it in the 8/9 game next Wednesday in Vegas that will provide the UA’s quarterfinal opponent on March 10.

The Cardinal are in the bottom half of the league in most offensive and defensive metrics, but the one thing they do well on both ends is rebound. They’re fourth-best on the offensive glass and tops in preventing offensive rebounds, an area they could exploit Arizona.

USC pulled down 19 offensive boards against the UA, converting those into 23 second-chance points, and finished plus-9 overall in rebounding. The Wildcats’ only worse rebounding game this season was at Stanford, when it grabbed only 43.8 percent of all missed shots.

Climbing the charts

Arizona, which leads the nation in assists per game at 20.2, is on pace to shatter the single-season school record as long as it doesn’t flame out in the postseason. The Wildcats have dished out 586 dimes in 29 games, which is seventh-most in school history, and would crack the Top 5 with another 25-assist game (which it has done five times already).

The record is 677, set by the 1997-98 squad that played 35 games. Arizona is guaranteed to play 33 but could play as many as 40.

Three more blocked shots and the UA will sit fourth on that single-season list. It has 171 so far, 21 shy of the record from 1999-2000 done in 34 games. That team included Loren Woods, whose 102 swats are the individual single-season record; Christian Koloko, with 84, is tied for third and would move past Channing Frye for second with two more blocks.

Kerr Kriisa, who is up to 73 made 3-pointers, needs three more to crack the Top 10 at Arizona. He’d have to have a few more Utah first halves to catch record holder Salim Stoudamire, who nailed 120 3s in 2004-05.

As a team, Arizona has hit 231 triples for an average of just below 8 per game. The school record is 296, in 2010-11.

Honoring Lute

Thursday night’s contest will also serve as the Tribute to Lute Olson Game, which was originally scheduled for Dec. 2 against Washington before that game was postponed due to the Huskies’ COVID issues.

Olson, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 85, is Arizona’s all-time wins leader with 589 from 1983-2007. He went 327-101 in the Pac-10, leading the Wildcats to 11 conference regular-season titles, four Pac-10 Tournament crowns, 23 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances, 11 trips to the Sweet 16, seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours and the 1997 national championship.