Arizona will play its 28th game of the 2022-23 season on Saturday night, the 17th in Pac-12 play. Yet when the Wildcats line up against Colorado at McKale Center it will serve as their first matchup of the season, a freak product of the conference’s unbalanced 20-game schedule.
“It’s the NCAA Tournament, you play one day, then have a quick turnaround against someone you’ve never played,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said after Thursday’s win over Utah. “You better lock in and figure it out.”
Lloyd’s comparison to the Thursday/Saturday (or Friday/Sunday) format of the NCAA tourney is a good one, but the matchup with the Buffaloes could also continue a potentially unsettling trend for the Wildcats this season if it doesn’t go well.
Despite a 24-4 overall record, a 12-4 mark in the conference to sit in second place, a No. 8 AP ranking and a high projected NCAA seed, Arizona has developed one potentially disastrous habit when looking ahead to March Madness: a Saturday slump.
Since getting into the meat of Pac-12 play after Christmas, all three of the UA’s losses have come on the tail end of a conference weekend. And each of those setbacks, at home to Washington State on Jan. 7 as well as at Oregon (Jan. 14) and Stanford (Feb. 12), came in the first meeting with those teams.
The UA has avenged the WSU and Oregon defeats, much like it did on Thursday night in blowing out a Utah team that beat it by 15 (in their first matchup). But when the postseason comes around, there’s no opportunity for a rematch if the first one goes poorly.
This isn’t to say the Wildcats have always struggled in the second game of a Pac-12 weekend, and when it’s a first-time opponent. Their best conference win of the season came on a Saturday when they outmuscled UCLA 58-52 on Jan. 21.
And in December they had back-to-back signature Saturday wins, beating Indiana in Las Vegas and Tennessee at McKale Center. All three of those squads are currently in the Top 15 of the AP poll.
Colorado (15-12, 7-9) is having a very uneven season, but comes to Tucson having won three of four and pulling off a road win over ASU on Thursday night. Earlier this season the Buffaloes beat Tennessee in Nashville and Texas A&M—which is second in the SEC—by 28 in a tournament in South Carolina.
“When they’ve been right and they’ve been able to play they can almost beat anybody,” Lloyd said of Colorado. “Maybe they haven’t consistently been at that level, but I know that level is attainable for them. So they have our full attention.”
The Buffs have never won at McKale, the closest they came being in 2013 when Sabbatino Chen was sadly a few milliseconds too late on a game-winning shot in regulation.