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Road trip to Rockies pits Arizona men’s basketball against tough opponents and conditions

Utah and Colorado are both unbeaten at home

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-utah-utes-colorado-rockies-road-trip-tommy-lloyd-2024-pac12 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are three teams in the Pac-12 that have yet to lose a home game this season. Arizona is one of them, having won its 12th in a row at McKale Center on Sunday.

The others are the Wildcats’ next two opponents, both part of the pack of schools chasing them for the conference lead.

When 8th-ranked Arizona (17-5, 8-3 Pac-12) visits Utah on Thursday night and Colorado on Saturday it will be facing opponents who are a combined 24-0 at home in 2023-24, each including 11-0 in league play. That’s a daunting duo for a UA team that has been iffy on the road, dropping three in a row before handing Oregon its first and only home loss on Jan. 27.

That was the start of Arizona’s current 3-game win streak, its longest since beginning the season 8-0. The latest was the 82-71 victory over Stanford, a game that saw the Wildcats rally from down 11 at halftime, the second sizable comeback they’ve made in the past five games.

But those were at McKale. Falling behind big on the road is a different story, and one that would be even harder to overcome in the elevation of Salt Lake City (4,327 feet) or Boulder (5,430).

Arizona is 8-11 at the mountain schools since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12, managing a sweep just twice (the Elite Eight teams in 2013-14 and 2014-15) while getting swept twice. The Wildcats are 1-2 up there under Lloyd, both blowout losses, but Lloyd isn’t attributing those results to the altitude.

“I’m not a doctor, I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so I have no idea,” Lloyd said when asked about the effects of elevation. “I’ve played there a bunch of times over the years. Guys will tell you they get winded but usually they battle back. I just haven’t taken the time to research that because it’s outside of my mental capabilities. I’m sure there’s lots of theories on it, I don’t know. We’re gonna go there and give it a rip.”

Arizona will be heading into the mountains at full strength, something most teams in the Pac-12 haven’t been able to say throughout the season. The Wildcats have yet to have any rotation players miss time due to injury, while Colorado was without two starters when they lost 97-50 in Tucson last month and Utah has been without guard Rollie Worster for six games and he’s not expected to be available against Arizona.

“The first thing is you have to credit your training staff and your strength coach,” Lloyd said. “They’ve been around for a long time and just the medical setup overall is really good in Arizona. That’s number one. And number two is probably you’ve just been a little bit lucky. There’s, there’s lots of bodies. There’s lots of feet on the ground. There’s lots of guys in the air. So sometimes you just have to come out on the lucky side of some of those types of things.”

Senior forward Keshad Johnson appeared to injure his right arm or shoulder early against Stanford but continued to play, and Lloyd said he doesn’t expect any lingering effects from that. And senior wing Pelle Larsson suffered another round of body and face blows in that game, with Lloyd said he was “beat to a pulp” afterward but that’s something that could be said after every game.

Utah (15-7, 6-5) is a 36.8 percent shooting team from 3-point range, which ranks top 50 in the country, and it features multiple big men who can do damage from deep Branden Carlson (34.4 percent) and Ben Carlson (37.9 percent). That’s been a big Achilles heel for Arizona, with Stanford’s 7-1 Maxime Raynaud draining 5 of 6 from outside on Sunday.

Yet when the UA beat the Utes 92-73 in Tucson on Jan. 6 the Carlsons were 3 of 15 from 3, with 7-footer Branden only making 1 of 6.

“He’s obviously a great 3-point shooter, he’s capable of making some 3s,” Lloyd said of Branden Carlson, who made five against Arizona in the 2022 loss in Salt Lake City. “They put him in tough-to-guard situations. You got to have a plan, and one of the plans is you have to be great with your big recovering on that in those types of scenarios, which they don’t get a ton of experience doing. The other plan is you got to be willing to switch things here and there.”

Arizona beat these teams by a combined 64 points a month ago, and Lloyd is well aware that each will be looking for payback.

“I’m sure they didn’t feel too good about how the games were here, and they they probably want a little bit of a revenge factor,” he said. “And that’s normal. That’s human nature. And we’re aware of that and. It’s gonna be big games for both teams, and so hopefully our guys come out and understand how this game could impact our season and we come out and play well.”