No. 8 Arizona will have the dual motivation of revenge and redemption when it hosts Utah on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.
The Wildcats (22-4, 11-4 Pac-12) have had to wait a while for a second chance at the Utes (17-9, 10-5), who rode their strong defense to an 81-66 victory over Arizona in the conference opener for both teams on Dec. 1.
“We got punched by a good team playing at home,” said Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd.
Arizona will have to take a punch better than it did that day and play better than it did Saturday night, when it lost 88-79 at Stanford. All-America candidate Azuolas Tubelis managed just four points and no rebounds in 17 foul-plagued minutes, but there was plenty of blame to go around for a team that allowed the Cardinal to shoot 61.1 percent.
“You hope you refocus, tighten things up and get better from it,” Lloyd said. “There’s no guarantee it’s going to happen, but, traditionally, these guys have been able to respond.”
Lloyd is 55-8 in two seasons with Arizona, never losing back-to-back games.
Tubelis still leads the Pac-12 in scoring (20.2 points per game) and rebounding (9.3), but he and the Wildcats will be facing a difficult defensive matchup.
While Arizona leads the league in field-goal percentage (48.8), Utah is first in field-goal percentage defense (38.0).
And while Arizona leads the league in 3-point percentage (36.8), Utah is first in 3-point percentage defense (28.2).
The Utes, who will be playing their fourth game without second-leading scorer Gabe Madsen (high-ankle sprain), have won their past two games. They held Cal to 46 points on Feb. 5 and stifled Colorado in Saturday’s 73-62 victory.
“I wouldn’t say (we’re trying to) reinvent ourselves, but when you lose a guy like Madsen, things change. You become a different team,” said Utah coach Craig Smith. “We worked a lot on specifically some of the things we needed to do offensively, and then just getting back to who we are defensively.”
Lazar Stefanovic has moved into the starting lineup, and freshman Wilguens Exacte Jr. has seen more consistent minutes off the bench. Both provide a boost defensively to help mitigate the loss of Madsen’s 11.7 points per game and 3-point proficiency (56 of 150, 37.3 percent).
Branden Carlson, who scored 22 against Arizona in the first meeting, leads Utah with 16.5 points per game. Carlson is a 7-footer who is a tricky matchup for Arizona’s talented big men — Tublelis and Oumar Ballo (14.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) — because he can step out and shoot the 3.
Carlson was 5 of 9 from behind the arc in the first meeting, although he’s been slumping lately, hitting only 3 of 20 in the past four games.
“He’s experienced; he’s confident; he has a ton of freedom,” Lloyd said of Carlson. “They run things to take advantage of his skill set. Our centers are more on the bigger side. Theirs might be more agile. I’m sure they feel they have an advantage there, and they will try to exploit that advantage.
“We’re going to have to find a way to guard it or live with it.”
–Field Level Media