It’s a tale of two teams trying to rebound from losses to the same opponent. No. 14 Arizona and No. 10 Utah face off in Salt Lake City after losses to unranked Colorado in Boulder. The Wildcats just do it with much less rest.
The Utes dropped their first game of the season when they visited the Buffaloes on Jan. 6. They have not played since. Their game on Friday was declared a forfeit when Arizona State canceled due to having too few healthy scholarship players. While the game doesn’t affect Utah’s overall record, it did give them an extra win in conference play and allowed them nine days to prepare for the Wildcats and two straight weeks of only playing one game.
On the other bench, Arizona finished a run of five games in 11 days last weekend when it defeated Oregon at home, and now must face another opponent who has an advantage when it comes to rest and practice time. The Wildcats will be playing the second of three straight games on the road and will be in the midst of a run of five of seven games played away from McKale Center. After ESPN Bracketology moved them up to a No. 4 seed last week, it’s a stretch that’s likely to have them once again projected outside the top 16 slots that get to host opening round NCAA Tournament games.
On the court, the Wildcats face one of the best offenses in college basketball on Sunday. The Utes score 87.3 points per game and 115.7 points per 100 possessions. The points per game are fourth in the nation and the points per 100 possessions are third.
Arizona must protect the 3-point line. After allowing Colorado’s Frida Formann to go off on 5-for-8 outside shooting and the Buffs to connect on 7 of 15 shots from beyond the arc, the Wildcats have an even more formidable task on Sunday.
The Utes hit 8.5 shots per games from outside the 3-point line. That’s the best in the Pac-12. They also have the player with the highest 3-point percentage in the conference with Gianna Kneepkens hitting 48 percent of her shots from the 3.
This year, Arizona can at least counter that 3-point power with Jade Loville and Madi Conner. Loville is 12th in the league at 40.6 percent from outside while Conner is 13th at 40 percent.
On the other hand, Utah can counter Arizona in what has traditionally been the Wildcats’ superiority: defense. Last season, the Utes ranked in the 270s in points allowed per game and per 100 possessions while Arizona was in the top 60 in both categories. This season, the Utes are 63rd in opponents’ points per game and 16th in opponents’ points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats are 114th in opponents’ points per game and 54th in opponents’ points per 100 possessions.
While fans have been harping on the offense, there’s a reason that Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has been far more concerned about the defense this season. The Wildcats simply aren’t the same defensive team they have been in recent years. While their offensive prowess is far superior to what it has been, it hasn’t caught up to where Utah is in that area but the Wildcats have lost ground on the other end of the court. Arizona is 25th in points per game and 29th in points per 100 possessions compared to Utah’s fourth and third, respectively.
It’s not just a matter of protecting the 3-point line, either. The Utes got a huge transfer in former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Alissa Pili.
Pili had not lived up to that in the last two years, but she has come back with a vengeance since transferring from USC in the offseason. Utah head coach Lynne Roberts has said it’s merely a case of renewed commitment, noting that even Pili would admit that she hadn’t worked as hard as she should have the last few years at USC. That’s no longer a concern.
Pili is third in the conference with 19.3 points per game. She’s 18th in rebounds per game with 5.9 boards per contest.
The boards are one area Arizona will need to exert its dominance against the Utes. Another aspect of the Wildcats’ game that is different from recent years is its skill on the boards. Most of that is due to the addition of Esmery Martinez whose 8.5 rebounds per game are fifth in the Pac-12. However, Cate Reese is providing a nice second option with her 6.4 rebounds per game placing her 13th in the league. At just 14.5 minutes per game, Maya Nnaji is grabbing 4.2 rebounds for the ‘Cats, putting all three of Arizona’s healthy posts in the top 40.
Arizona also needs to make good use of its transition offense. The Wildcats have four players in the Pac-12’s top 12 in steals per game led by Helena Pueyo at first with 2.8 per game. Against Colorado, they initially struggled to turn those steals into points, though. That helped give them a 10-point deficit after the first quarter.
Sharing the ball will also be incredibly important. Colorado had 16 assists to Arizona’s 12 in their last game. Utah’s Ines Vieira is sixth in the league with 4.2 assists per game. She’s joined in the Pac-12 top 20 by Kennady McQueen at 18th with 3.1. The Wildcats counter with Shaina Pellington at 10th with 3.8 and Pueyo at 19th with 3.1.
Utah’s point guard and Arizona’s pair of point guards all take care of the ball well. Vieira is second with 2.9 assists per turnover. Pueyo and Pellington are third and fourth with 2.7 and 2.6, respectively.
If the Wildcats are going to get the upset in Salt Lake, they need to be on point in all aspects of their game. It has been rare for them to have two below-average games in a row, but the Utes are a formidable opponent even under the best of circumstances.
No. 14 Arizona Wildcats (14-3, 4-2 Pac-12) @ No. 10 Utah Utes (15-1, 4-1 Pac-12)
When: Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023 at 12 p.m. MST
Where: Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
TV: Pac-12 Network, Pac-12 Arizona, and Pac-12 Mountain
Streaming: Streaming is available via the Pac-12 Now app or online. Both options require a subscription via a TV provider. Streaming is also available with a subscription to a TV package that includes the Pac-12 Network via Sling, Fubo, or Vidgo.
Radio: Listen to the call by Derrick Palmer online on The Varsity Network or on the radio at KTUC 1400 AM.
Stats: Utah Live Stats
Rankings: Arizona is ranked No. 14 by the Associated Press and No. 10 by the WBCA. Utah is ranked No. 10 by the media and No. 8 by the coaches.
Projections: Her Hoop Stats strongly favors Utah no matter where this game is played. In the Huntsman Center, they have a 77 percent win probability and are projected to win by 9.5 points. The point total is projected to be 147.