LAS VEGAS—The Arizona Wildcats ran away from the field to win the Pac-12 regular-season title, but now the pursuit starts over with the Pac-12 Tournament. First up on its path to a conference tourney crown is the Stanford Cardinal on Thursday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena.
Ninth-seeded Stanford (16-15) advanced to the quarterfinals with a 71-70 win over No. 8 ASU in the first round, rallying from down 14 with just over three minutes left and winning on James Keefe’s basket as time expired.
Arizona swept two games from the Cardinal during the regular season, winning 85-57 in Palo Alto in January (despite losing Azuolas Tubelis to a high ankle sprain early on) and 81-69 in Tucson last Thursday.
Here’s what to watch for when the UA takes on Stanford in Vegas:
The opponent is secondary
Arizona flew to Las Vegas on Tuesday afternoon, despite not having a game until Thursday, and didn’t find out who it would be opening the tourney against until less than 22 hours before tipoff. No big deal, coach Tommy Lloyd said.
“There is no challenge,” he said. “It’s been beautiful to focus on yourself. We haven’t had this little 3-day window, the normal Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for a while. So just take a breath and just focus on Arizona basketball.”
The UA had assistant coaches scouting the ASU/Stanford game, with the team set to practice locally not long after that contest ended.
“We’ll kind of go through our script, put in the game plan for Stanford or ASU,” Lloyd said. “Probably touch on it again Thursday morning, then go play early.”
The Stanford game will be Arizona’s first in the Pac-12 tourney in two years, having sat out last season’s event as part of its self-imposed postseason ban. The only players on the Wildcats’ roster with conference tournament experience are Justin Kier, Christian Koloko, Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo, with Koloko the only one to log minutes with Arizona.
“We don’t have a lot of postseason experience,” Lloyd said. “The kids that were on the team here last year didn’t get to play a conference tournament. We’re gonna go in and we’re going to attack it and see how it plays out, and then at the end of the day, if it’s successful or unsuccessful, we’re gonna learn from it, and hopefully be better than the next week.”
A much less uncertain environment
The last time the UA played in the Pac-12 Tourney, the sports world came to a halt the next day.
The Wildcats, who had beaten Washington in the first round, were preparing for USC with film study the next morning when Koloko said he and his teammates received texts about an emergency team meeting. At that meeting they learned the Pac-12 tourney, like so many others across the country, had been canceled due to uncertainty surrounding the still-new COVID-19 pandemic.
Later that day, the NCAA Tournament was called off.
“It was crazy,” Koloko recalls. “You see on social media, all the conferences, they’re canceling their conference tournament, they’re postponing games. We were just like, ‘what can we do now?’ My sister was there. She was driving back from Vegas to LA, I just went back with her. That’s the last time we all saw each other together.”
Battling better on the boards
Stanford outrebounded Arizona in both games during the regular season, holding a 35-28 in last week’s matchup. The Cardinal had 11 offensive boards in that game but only turned that into 11 second-chance points.
Arizona has slipped to seventh in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding percentage, while Stanford is fourth-best on the offensive boards.
Lloyd said rebounding is always at the top of Arizona’s list of priorities, but he’s not worried about raw numbers since other circumstances factor into those things.
“Sometimes when you guys isolate stats, sometimes there’s a bigger picture to the stats,” he said. “Our defensive rebounding percentage probably isn’t great, but the other team misses a lot of shots. And we’re a rotation defense, so sometimes we’re not in the greatest rebounding position, but sometimes what’s better than rebounding is creating turnovers.”
Stanford is abysmal at taking care of the ball, turning it over on 23 percent of possessions in Pac-12 play including 17 times against the UA last week (that the Wildcats converted into 23 points). The Cardinal turned it over just 10 times against ASU.
No holding back
Lloyd subbed early and often in the regular-season finale against Cal, getting seldom-used freshman Adama Bal into the game in the first half and limiting the minutes his starters played. Don’t expect a similar approach against Stanford, even if the game gets out of hand, as a way to save his players’ legs for the rest of the tourney.
“It’s equal footing at this point,” he said. “I told the guys a lot lately, yeah, we’re in a tough stretch of the schedule, but no excuses. You should be ready to play today. Because eventually, if you want to win a Pac-12 tournament championship, you’re gonna play back to back to back days. Some days we rolled out, I made them practice in between those games, they weren’t super excited, but that’s what you have to do. You got to be ready physically to play the next day.”