Preview: No. 8 Utah, No. 10 Arizona square off in critical Pac-12 men's basketball showdown
It's been nearly seven years since a pair of top-10 Pac-12 men's hoops teams squared off in a conference matchup. But on Saturday, Pac-12 Networks will broadcast the 4 p.m. PT/5 p.m. MT showdown between No. 8 Utah and 10th-ranked Arizona in Tucson. Considering legendary color commentator Bill Walton will be on the call with Ted Robinson, it should be quite the spectacle.
The Zona Zoo and the McKale Center figure to be rocking for the Wildcats, who look to push their home record to a perfect 11-0. It will surely be a tough task for the Runnin' Utes, who have gone 2-2 in their four games away from Salt Lake City this season.
Let's take a look at the top storylines and players to watch heading into Satruday's marquee game.
Outlook: Defense, depth and down low
Utah (14-2, 4-0 Pac-12) is riding a seven-game winning streak, while the Wildcats (15-2, 3-1) responded from last week's upset at Oregon State by handling Colorado at home on Thursday. Both teams feature deep rotations and defensive mindsets, which make this an intriguing contest that will likely play a big role in crowning the regular-season conference champion.
Coach Larry Krystkowiak's Utah team has really bought into his system, which gives legit minutes to 10 different players regularly. The Runnin' Utes rank first in the league's scoring defense (55.3 points allowed per game), while ranking second in scoring offense (75.8).
Arizona coach Sean Miller's squad ranks among the league's best on both sides of the floor as well, with the Pac-12's third-best scoring offense (74.6 ppg) and third-best scoring defense (59.2). But in a show of respect to the job Utah has done this year, even Miller has pointed to the Runnin' Utes as the team to beat in the conference. Not that Krystowiak is polishing his Pac-12 crown yet.
"I'm sure Sean is taking full advantage of it to play the underdog role," Krystkowiak told The Salt Lake Tribune. "But don't believe a word he says."
Krystkowiak has a point. Looking at pure talent and athleticism, the Wildcats stack up right there with some of the best in the nation. Arizona has a well-rounded offense and a variety of scorers who are capable of putting up 20 points on any given night.
While both teams feature playmakers on the perimeter, frontcourt play could determine the outcome of this matchup. Quality seven-footers are hard to find in college basketball, but the Runnin' Utes have a couple of them in true freshman Jakob Poeltl and backup Dallin Bachnynski. Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski also checks in at 7-feet, but it's Wildcats power forward Brandon Ashley (6-foot-9, 230 pounds) who is the most explosive man down low between these two teams.
UTAH PLAYERS TO WATCH
G Delon Wright (15.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 55.5 FG pct.)
Wright has established himself as arguably the Pac-12's best all-around player this year, and he'll need to play at an elite level if Utah wants to win. Aside from his ability to drive to the lane and create opportunities for himself, Wright has also been the main facilitator of the Runnin' Utes' offense this season. Do-it-all Delon will have his hands full on the defensive end against Arizona's top wing players like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
F Jakob Poeltl (9.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 66.3 FG pct.)
The 7-foot freshman from Vienna, Austria, has become a Bill Walton favorite with his skills as a big man and a renaissance man (he's also a musician and a skiier). Even Krystkowiak said he's been surprised by Poeltl's instant impact on the team, as he's shown a lot of athleticism for a man of his size. Poeltl hasn't scored double-digit points in nine straight games, but his presence at the rim and as a shot-blocker against Arizona's frontcourt will be vital.
G Jordan Loveridge (11.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 44.1 FG pct.)
After sitting out a few weeks in November and December due to a knee injury, Loveridge looks like he's finding a rhythm again for the Runnin' Utes. The junior isn't grabbing seven rebounds per game like he did the previous two seasons, but has become a much more deadly shooter from behind the arc. Loveridge is shooting 48.7 percent from three-point land this year, averaging more than two made three-pointers every game.
ARIZONA PLAYERS TO WATCH
G Stanley Johnson (14.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 spg, 48.1 FG pct.)
He might be a true freshman, but Johnson sure doesn't play like one. The Fullerton, California, native leads the Wildcats in scoring, and has shown no hesitation on the offensive end. Johnson already has an NBA body at 6-foot-7, 245 pounds and can be tough to stop once he gets momentum going to the rim. After being held to a career-low seven points in the upset loss to OSU, Johnson set a new career high with 22 points on Thursday against Colorado.
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (11.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 52.3 FG pct.)
RHJ is one of the conference's most exciting players to watch (his dunks are often worth the price of admission), but he's also prone to disappear from Arizona's offense. In 30 minutes of action on Thursday, Hollis-Jefferson recorded just two points on a pair of free throws. But he's a tenacious defender who will likely be tasked with trying to slow down Wright, a major responsibility for anyone.
G T.J. McConnell (8.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 2.2 spg, 44.4 FG pct.)
The senior point guard is the man who gets the Arizona offense going. McConnell plays at a fast pace, and though he's also capable of scoring points in a hurry, is usually content with being the distributor to his teammates. McConnell is also great at taking care of the ball, as he owns a 3.13 assist-to-turnover ratio and is yet to turn the ball over more than three times in any contest.
See the Utes take on the Wildcats Saturday on Pac-12 Networks beginning with a live Basketball Pregame Show starting at 3:30 p.m. PT/4:30 p.m. MT.
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