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Arizona men’s basketball hits road in search of improved play, ‘separation’ in Pac-12 standings

Wildcats’ last conference road sweep was almost a year ago

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-osu-beavers-oregon-ducks-road-games-pac12-2024-tommy-lloyd-kj-lewis James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Since going to a 12-team conference in 2011-12, Arizona has a 69-45 road record in Pac-12 play, by far the best in the league. The Wildcats have twice one eight conference road games in a season during that span, most recently in 2021-22 when they were 8-2, and have finished with a losing league road mark three times with the last instance coming in 2019-20.

Regardless of the overall Pac-12 road record, though, Arizona has always managed to accomplish something each year: a road sweep. Twenty, to be precise, between 2011-2023. Yet none of those have been on the Oregon Trail, where ninth-ranked Arizona (14-4, 5-2 Pac-12) heads this weekend.

The Wildcats’ last sweep in Oregon came in 2009, the year interim coach Russ Pennell squeaked his team into the NCAA Tournament despite 13 losses and made a surprise run to the Sweet 16.

Since then there’s been at least one loss every year that Arizona has played both Oregon teams on the road, with a 1-8 mark at Oregon compared to an 8-2 record at OSU.

Last year the Wildcats won by 12 at OSU before getting crushed by 19 at Oregon, their largest margin of defeat under Tommy Lloyd.

“We got through the Oregon State game and then we struggled and didn’t play good at Oregon,” Lloyd said Wednesday when asked to recall his last trip to the Beaver State.

The UA is 2-2 in true road games in 2023-24, knocking off then-No. 2 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium the first week of the season and then breezing past Cal to open Pac-12 play on Dec. 29. The last two road games have gone the other way, an 18-point loss at Stanford on New Year’s Eve and then a 73-70 setback Jan. 13 at Washington State that marked the program’s first consecutive road losses in three years.

Lloyd has previously used the “it’s hard to win on the road” mantra that is so prevalent in college basketball, but now he’s past the point of making excuses.

“You can have your little philosophies and theories on what makes it hard, but at the end of the day you got to go out and play,” he said. “Sometimes you think you can have your little thoughts and maybe those turn into small excuses. We just got to go play better on the road. We don’t need to complicate it. We have a formula that’s time-tested and proven to win on the road. We’re a good defensive team, we rebound the ball. We just need to go play well.”

Freshman guard KJ Lewis said he’s noticed a different vibe of sorts within the team depending on the road trip. The one to Duke was highly anticipated before the season—“the preparation, we were all excited, energetic”—but that wasn’t the case going into the Stanford and Washington State games.

“On the road I think the past times we went we’re just not ... I want to say fully bought in, right?,” Lewis said. “And overlooking an opponent. I think this road trip right now, I think we’re all coming in with a killer mindset, a locked in mindset to get the job done and get a road sweep. I think we got to start being like (it was against Duke) every road game and I think the results will be in our favor.”

Oregon (13-5, 5-2) is part of a three-way tie for first place in the Pac-12 with Arizona and ASU (11-7, 5-2), with the Ducks hosting the Sun Devils Thursday ahead of the UA matchup on Saturday. Oregon State (9-9, 1-6) is in last place but is 9-2 at home and beat USC in late December when the Trojans had all their regular players.

Lloyd said this is the time of the season when “separation” can start to happen in the conference standings. Right now it’s a logjam at the top, with the three-way tie for first followed by a trio (Colorado, Stanford and Utah) at 5-3 and Washington State at 4-4.

“A lot of teams are at two losses, three losses, four losses,” he said. “Pretty soon, some teams stay at two or three losses, some teams go to six or seven. This is the time of the year you got to start fighting to make a move, and that’s not always easy to do.”

Knowing that, he hopes his team recognizes that more is at stake the further into a season.

“You get a little deeper the year you understand what you’re playing for,” he said. “We’re back where we want to be, we’re towards the top of the conference, but this is the time of the season in conference where separation starts to happen.”

Arizona’s last conference road sweep came at this time a season ago, going to the Washington schools and winning both. That came right after a home sweep of the Los Angeles schools—sound familiar?—to start a 7-game win streak.