For the first time in 11 years, the McKale Center will be home to a conference matchup featuring two top-10 teams when No. 10 Arizona faces No. 8 Utah on Saturday.
The Utes, winners of 12 of their last 13 games, come into Tucson leading the Pac-12 standings with a 4-0 conference record. If they leave the desert with a sweep of the Arizona schools, they would find themselves as the early front-runners to win the regular season title.
Even Sean Miller agrees that it’s a distinct possibility.
“We’re going to have to upset them here in McKale,” Miller said of Utah after the Wildcats’ win over Colorado on Thursday.
Of course, Miller might have been a little hyperbolic. After all, Arizona defends its home court as well as anyone in the country. The Wildcats have won 31 straight games home a streak that ranks second nationally, only behind Gonzaga.
Gonzaga was the last top-10 team to play at McKale and came the closet to breaking the home winning streak – only to be held off in overtime.
Arizona and Utah could be in for a game just as close, as both teams excel on the defensive end. The Wildcats rank eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Utes rank fifth.
In what should be a low-scoring affair, the outcome might very well come down to which team can execute and score on its final possession.
Leading Larry Krystkowiak’s group is senior Delon Wright. The guard is putting up All-America numbers – he averages 15.5 points and 5.7 assists per game – and has a couple big targets to use at his disposal.
Expectedly, Jordan Loveridge has been one of Utah’s most consistent contributors despite battling a knee injury for much of non-conference season. Recently, the 6’6 forward has found his groove, including from outside where he has become the team’s best three point shooter.
More surprising has been the play of freshman center Jakob Poeltl. The 6’10 freshman out of Australia isn’t as active on the offensive side as he was when Loveridge was out, but he should provide a strong matchup against Kaleb Tarczewski.
Tarczewski came out with much more aggressiveness on offense against Colorado after playing going mostly silent versus Oregon State.
However, it’s hard to ignore that he only has two rebounds in his last two outings.
While Arizona dominated the glass against the Buffaloes and is second nationally with a 77.3 defensive rebound percentage, it will need its seven foot center to do a better job on the boards against Utah.
The biggest key, however, will be containing Wright. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Askia Booker went off like he did Thursday night because it emphasized the importance of locking down scorers.
Wright is much more versatile than Booker or really any guard Arizona has faced this season and the task of slowing him down will likely rest on a couple guys’ shoulders.
The Wildcats meanwhile need to be able to hit open shots. Gabe York should be back to the lineup and he along with Elliott Pitts and Parker Jackson-Cartwright must knock down open threes if they get them.
Expect a down-to-the-wire ending. Anything else would be a surprise given the coaching and discipline of these two teams.