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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts Rocky Mountain schools

arizona-wildcats-college-mens-basketball-preview-utah-utes-colorado-buffaloes-nnaji-josh-green-2023 Photo by Chris Gardner/ Getty Images

Arizona is officially in the home stretch of the 2022-23 regular season, with only five games remaining before the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.

The next three of those are at McKale Center, beginning with Thursday night’s visit from Utah (17-9, 10-5 Pac-12) and a Saturday night clash against Colorado (14-12, 6-9). The home finale is Feb. 25 against ASU before the Wildcats (22-4, 11-4) head to USC and UCLA to wrap up the schedule.

Here’s what to watch for this weekend when the UA takes on the Utes and Buffaloes:

More revenge

Just like Arizona has shown the ability to bounce back after a loss, under Tommy Lloyd it has also managed to avenge each setback the next time it faces the same opponent.

The Wildcats are 5-0 in revenge games under Lloyd, most recently beating Oregon 91-76 at home to atone for their 19-point loss in Eugene a few weeks earlier. Now comes the chance to make up for that admittedly lackluster performance against Utah back on Dec. 1.

“We really were not motivated to play that game against Utah,” center Oumar Ballo said of the 81-66 loss to the Utes. “At the same time, that game really taught us how valuable each Pac-12 game is. Dropping games early in this conference, it costs you a lot.”

Lloyd remembers that Arizona got “punched” by a Utes squad that ended up starting 5-0 in conference play. The Wildcats, coming off an impressive run at the Maui Invitational, were 4 of 28 from 3-point range, got outrebounded by nine and allowed a season-high 42 points in the paint, the same number it gave up in its most recent loss at Stanford.

“I just remember after the game, I was disappointed in the way we play, and I was thinking that Utah is a pretty good team,” Lloyd said.

The Utes, currently

Utah has gone 5-5 in Pac-12 play since that hot start, but Lloyd says its still pretty much the same team in terms of its schemes.

“They’re a good defensive team, and offensively, they share the ball and they have skilled players and they play really well together,” he said. “I think the sneaky thing they do is they’re a great offensive rebounding team. Some of their role players have strengths in that area, and they’re tough to keep off the glass.”

Junior guard Gabe Madsen hasn’t played since late January due to a high ankle sprain and isn’t expected back anytime soon, so Arizona won’t see the same starting lineup and rotation as last time. But it will still have to deal with 7-footer Branden Carlson, who is averaging 16.4 points and 7.6 rebounds and against the Wildcats got 15 of his 22 points via five 3-pointers.

Lloyd said Arizona will have to decide whether to guard Carlson closer when he’s on the perimeter, either with Ballo or via switches, or “live with” the chance he can hit from outside and focus on taking away other parts of Utah’s offense.

Ballo, for one, is ready.

“For me to guard him is a challenge, but it’s a give and take,” he said. “He has to guard me. I’m just gonna do the best thing that I can do for the team to win.”

Bigs bouncing back

After scoring in double figures the first 20 games, Ballo has been held to eight or fewer points in three of the last six contests. He had eight (on just five shots) at Stanford, but that was still much better than Azuolas Tubelis’ 4-point, zero-rebound output.

Tubelis’ rough day was at least partly due to foul trouble, which limited him to a season-low 17 minutes, while Ballo played only 28 as Arizona went super small in its attempt to come back.

Ballo said he wasn’t surprised at Stanford’s gameplan, and expects more of the same from opponents the rest of the way.

“Every scouting report is gonna be me and Zu, we’re gonna be like always on top of the scouting report,” he said.

For Tubelis, it was the first game all season he didn’t have at least 12 points and six rebounds, and his frustration was visible both on the court and when he spent the final 3:08 on the bench.

“Zu’s fine,” Lloyd said. “He’s had an incredible year and I’m sure he’s not happy with how it went. Whether it’s being in foul trouble or even some of my decisions, some of the lineups. Zu is a great player, and we’re gonna ride with him all the way till the end. I don’t think there’s anything to be panicked about or worried about.”

For the first time this season, Arizona played significant minutes without a big on the court, going with an all-guard lineup that had 6-foot-5 Pelle Larsson essentially playing the 5. It’s something the Wildcats have practiced, and Lloyd said he’s comfortable going with that quintet, but don’t expect it to become too prevalent.

“Obviously our bread and butter is our big guys, and we’re not going to go away from that,” he said.

A more balanced offense

Arizona’s 35 3-point attempts at Stanford were its most in a game since taking 36 (and making 18) against the Cardinal in 2016. The longball accounted for 57.4 percent of the Wildcats’ shots, third-highest since 2001.

The Wildcats also made 14, most in a Pac-12 game since 2020, and as much as Lloyd prefers 2-point shots he felt most of those in Palo Alto were good looks.

“You can probably look at 28 or 30 of those shots are probably pretty good shots,” he said. “We could have easily made 17 or 18 and we’re probably sitting here thinking, wow, maybe we should shoot 30 threes a game, but it’s just not how we’re going to play.”

In addition to reducing Ballo and Tubelis’ impact, an over-emphasis on the 3 also takes away one of Arizona’s best attributes: the ability to get to the line. Its free throw attempt rate was 18 percent, less than half its season rate of 36.6 that ranks 51st nationally.

The UA is 42nd nationally in 3-point percentage, at 36.8 percent, but also 12th-best on 2s (56.6 percent). Utah has the top 3-point defense in Pac-12 play, holding opponents to 27.6 percent shooting, and is also tops in preventing teams from getting to the line as well as third-best defending the 2.

Another Saturday slump?

Since getting into the meat of the Pac-12 schedule, with two games each weekend, Arizona has recorded three sweeps and three splits. And all three losses have come on Saturday.

Coincidence, or signs of a theme?

“If that’s something we got to figure it out, but I also know we’ve played really well on other Saturdays, so I’m not going to overthink it,” Lloyd said. “I think the theme is, when we play well and spirited we’re hard to beat. When we don’t? We’re beatable. It’s not much more complicated than that.”

Asked if Arizona’s 7-man rotation might be leading to fatigue on the back end of Pac-12 weekends, Lloyd noted that his team “played our best second half of the year” at Washington on Jan. 28 to finish off that road sweep. The Wildcats are 3-1 on Saturday since shortening the bench.

“We just got to play better,” Lloyd said. “If they want it bad enough, they got plenty in the tank. The tanks not on empty. We just got to step up and play better.”

More Ring of Honor ceremonies

Ernie McCray joined the Ring of Honor during the UCLA game on Jan. 21, and two weeks later Al Fleming was posthumously inducted during halftime of the Oregon matchup (and nearly had his McKale Center scoring record get eclipsed by Tubelis).

Now come two more ceremonies, but these are for former Wildcats whose exploits in Tucson are much fresher in fans’ memories.

Josh Green will be inducted during halftime of the Utah game, with Zeke Nnaji going in during the Colorado intermission. Both were one-and-done members of Arizona’s 2019-20 squad that went 21-11 but due to the COVID-19 outbreak never got a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Green, currently in his third season with the Dallas Mavericks after they took him in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft, was eligible for the Ring of Honor thanks to being part of Australia’s bronze medal-winning team at the Tokyo Olympics.

Nnaji, also a 2020 first-round pick who’s in his third year with the Denver Nuggets, made the cut by winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Arizona has one other Ring of Honor induction yet to schedule, for Bennedict Mathurin, who gets in thanks to winning Pac-12 Player of the Year last season.