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What to watch for when Arizona plays in Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-pac12-tournament-preview-las-vegas-utah-stanford-ucla-2023 Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS—Arizona came into the 2022-23 campaign with two titles to defend. It’s handed over the regular season crown to UCLA after finishing four games behind the Bruins, but there’s still one more trophy to uphold.

The second-seeded Wildcats (25-6) open defense of their Pac-12 Tournament title in the quarterfinals on Thursday when they face No. 10 Stanford, which beat No. 7 Utah 73-62 in the first round. Tip is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT at T-Mobile Arena and will be shown on the Pac-12 Network.

While Arizona’s first opponent was undetermined going into the week, its mindset wasn’t dependent on who it faces. Nor is coach Tommy Lloyd worrying about the Wildcats’ potential seed or first-round destination in the NCAA Tournament.

“Listen, if you’re worried about that stuff after 31-game regular season, I think you’re focused on the wrong things,” Lloyd said Tuesday. “I think it’s about getting your team to be cohesive, to show their trust in each other, show their trust in the system, and you go out and then you get in these tournaments and you let it rip. And that’s going to be our mindset.”

Here’s what to watch for when the UA hits the court often referred to as McKale North:

An opponent with bragging rights

Whether it was Stanford or Utah, Arizona will be favored to win even though it was a combined 1-2 against those teams. The UA split two with the Utes, losing by 15 in Salt Lake City in December before avenging that loss with a 26-point home victory on Feb. 16, and it fell 88-79 at Stanford in their lone matchup on Feb. 11.

Forward Azuolas Tubelis said Arizona spent a good amount of its last practice at McKale Center working on things those teams did well in their matchups, which could give it an edge because it knows where it needed to get better.

Lloyd sees it the other way.

“I don’t know if there’s an advantage for us, maybe an advantage for them,” he said. “They have confidence they can beat us. We’ve had more than just two teams that, in this conference, have beaten us this year. It’s just a sign that there’s other good teams in the conference. We’re ready for all comers.”

Utah (17-14) lost its last five entering the Pac-12 tourney but is back to full strength with guards Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster returning for the regular-season finale at Colorado. Stanford (13-18) lost four of six after beating Arizona and has its most losses since 2009-10.

Revenge tour?

When Arizona beat Utah last month it improved to 6-0 in revenge games under Lloyd, and there’s a path for the Wildcats to get three more vengeance opportunities in Vegas. Stanford would be the first, followed by a potential semifinal battle with ASU if the sixth-seeded Sun Devils—who open Wednesday night vs. No. 11 Oregon State—can upset No. 3 USC in the quarterfinals.

Then, if the seeds play out as expected at the top, the UA could face top-seeded UCLA in a rubber match a week after losing to the Bruins in Los Angeles.

Arizona also has yet to lose back-to-back games in the Lloyd era, and some of its best performances have come immediately after a setback.

“We’ve always responded after our losses,” Tubelis said.

This year, Arizona has won by an average of 13.8 points after a loss and 15.3 in rematches with a team it lost to.

Defense wins championships

Arizona’s 82-73 loss at UCLA last Saturday snapped a streak of nine straight games with an adjusted offensive efficiency of 100 or better. If not for 17 turnovers, the Wildcats’ OE would have been much better since their 47.4 percent shooting rate was sixth-best against UCLA this season.

The UA defense, on the other hand, had another rough outing. It gave up 80-plus for a third straight game and fourth time in the last six, three of those resulting in losses.

The Wildcats ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency, but when that side of the ball has struggled it’s been very noticeable. They are 5-6 when allowing more than 1.05 points per possession, 20-0 when below that threshold.

“I think our defense is pretty good but we need to finish,” Tubelis said. “We’re giving up a lot of threes late in the shot clock. So we need to just stay focused.”

Bench extension?

Arizona has stuck with its 7-man rotation for almost two months now, with the occasional appearance from Adama Bal, Henri Veesaar and even Filip Borovicanin, but rarely in meaningful minutes. Could that change with the prospect of three games in three days on the horizon and the desire to keep the best players fresh?

“We’re gonna go game to game,” Lloys said. “I’ve had days where I’m heading into games and I’ve really wanted to extend the bench a little bit, but the game hasn’t dictated it. The games are the games, when you play out you make decisions accordingly in the games. So we’ll continue to do that, but I think we have some guys that are ready to help if needed.”

Six Wildcats have averaged between 26 and 32 minutes over the last 14 games, with Kylan Boswell at 19 per game, but Boswell is coming off a combined 47 minutes on the Los Angeles trip when he averaged 14 points, shot 75 percent (67 percent from 3) and was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week.

Returning to (individual) form

Tubelis looks back to his old self after going for 25 at USC and 24 at UCLA, while Kerr Kriisa has made 14 of 26 3s over the last five games and has a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio in that stretch. But three other Wildcats that are key to the team’s success had rough outings on the final weekend.

Courtney Ramey followed up a 16-point performance at USC with arguably his worst one in a UA uniform, going 2 for 11 from the field (and failing to make a 3 for only the second time this season) and a career-high six turnovers. He looked visibly upset at times, both on the court and going to the bench.

“Obviously, Courtney didn’t play a good game, but he’s played so well this season, especially the last half of conference I think he was really, really good,” Lloyd said. “He just had a bad night. He’s got to bounce back and he’s a high character guy and I know he will.”

Pelle Larsson fouled out of both games, his four points at USC ending a streak of six in a row in double figures, and Oumar Ballo has gone three straight games without and offensive rebound yet still finished fifth in the conference and won Pac-12 Most Improved Player.