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6 keys to victory for Arizona vs. Houston in Sweet Sixteen

Mar 23, 2022
Photo via Arizona Athletics

After routing Wright State and edging TCU in an overtime thriller, No. 1-seeded Arizona is heading to San Antonio to take on No. 5-seeded Houston in the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday, March 24 at 6:55 p.m. PT on TBS.

The Wildcats are trying to clinch their first Elite Eight berth since 2015 and move one step closer to punching their ticket to their first Final Four since 2001. 

Here are six keys to a win and keeping that dream alive.

1. Prevent second shots: TCU grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against Arizona in the Round of 32, turning them into 19 second-chance points. It explains how the Horned Frogs were able to force overtime against Arizona even though they only shot 38 percent in regulation. Houston is almost as formidable on the glass, ranking third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, two spots below top-ranked TCU. The Cougars corralled 15 offensive rebounds against Illinois in the Round of 32 and 10 against UAB in the first round. Can Arizona match Houston's trademark toughness? "They're going to get some offensive rebounds. It's just what they do, and it's just how the game goes," said UA head coach Tommy Lloyd. "We just got to do a great job battling and hopefully limit that number."

2. Limit turnovers: As dynamic as Arizona is offensively, it occasionally struggles to take care of the ball. The 'Cats turned it over 16 times against TCU, leading to 12 points the other way. Thanks to its length, athleticism and switching tendencies, Houston is adept at creating takeaways, ranking 29th in the country in opponent turnover percentage. If Arizona gives Houston extra possessions with offensive rebounds AND turnovers, it could be a short stay in Texas. "Defensively, the effort and energy they play with and attention to detail, it's almost unmatched," Lloyd said.

3. Control the pace: Another reason it's critical for Arizona to control the glass is so that it can push the ball in transition after misses. Because if Houston has its way, it's going to slow the game down and force the Wildcats to execute their sets. The Cougars play at the 334th-fastest pace in the country, the polar opposite of Arizona, which plays at the fifth-fastest pace. And if the game indeed does come down to halfcourt execution, the Cougars may have the upper hand. "I'm so impressed just with how players do what they're told to do, just the effort they play with," Lloyd said. "They max out every effort area. They're well drilled on offense. They know the shots they want to take. They know who's taking them, where they're coming from, and they obviously do an amazing job offensive rebounding."

4. Get Kerr Kriisa going: The Wildcats need Kriisa, their floor general, to be sharper than he was against TCU when he shot 1 for 10 from 3 and only had one assist to two turnovers. Of course, Kriisa had a valid reason for struggling. That was his first game back since spraining his ankle in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals the week before. Several days have passed since the TCU game and Kriisa said Wednesday that his ankle is "doing better." Lloyd said Kriisa practiced in limited fashion, but wouldn't reveal if he will return to the starting lineup. "I'll talk to the staff about it and talk to the team, and we'll make a decision," he said. "But I wouldn't read too much into it one way or another."

5. Win the battle in the paint: Both teams have a top-10 offense in terms of efficiency and shoot around 35 percent from 3-point range. However, neither team is overly reliant on the deep ball, so this game may boil down to who can create — and convert — the most opportunities at the rim. Both defenses are tremendous at protecting the paint, with Arizona ranking second in the country in opponent 2-point percentage (41.7%) and Houston ranking ninth. Arizona's Christian Koloko, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, is one of the top shot-blockers in the country and his backup Oumar Ballo has four blocks in two NCAA Tournament games. Also keep an eye on fellow post Azuolas Tubelis, who is looking to bounce back after being held to five points by TCU. "I'm expecting him to play great," Lloyd said.

6. Arizona fans, bring the energy: One might think the Cougars will have the homecourt advantage given that their campus is a three-hour drive from San Antonio. But never, ever discount Arizona fans. They travel well and have a reputation for flooding arenas across the country with their boisterous "U of A" chants. Star guard Bennedict Mathurin, whose highlight plays often get the crowd going, said Wildcat Nation was a factor in Arizona finding a second gear to squeak past TCU in San Diego. Lloyd is expecting UA fans to bring even more fervor to Texas.  "I think our fan base is excited," he said. "They love being in this situation."