Arizona can expect battle from improving Colorado

While seventh-ranked Arizona might be tempted to look ahead to bigger matchups in the Pac-12 tournament, Colorado provides an interesting challenge in the quarterfinals.

The Buffaloes have won nine of their past 12 games — including a 73-63 triumph over Washington State in a first-round game Wednesday night in Las Vegas — helping erase the memory of an 0-7 start in league play.

One of those early defeats came against Arizona, which won 82-73 at home on Jan. 7.

The teams will play again Thursday night at 7 p.m. MT at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“We’re a different team. They’re a different team,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “That game seems like it was a lifetime ago. It’s beyond, I think, X’s and O’s now. Our guys know what they need to do to be successful. … Against Arizona, you’d better put 40 minutes together.”

Arizona (27-4) is seeded second in the tournament, potentially headed to games against a pair of teams near the top of the AP poll — No. 3 UCLA in the semifinals and No. 5 Oregon in the title game.

Arizona’s leading scorer — guard Allonzo Trier (16.4 points per game) — didn’t play in the first meeting against Colorado (19-13) because he was still in the midst of a 19-game NCAA suspension for a positive PED test.

He has picked up some of the scoring slack from All-Pac-12 forward Lauri Markkanen, who is averaging 15.2 points but ended the season in a 3-point slump. The 7-foot freshman was hitting better than 50 percent (54 of 107) through 23 games but made 5 of 28 in the final eight games.

“As long as he takes good 3s, he’s going to make them,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

With Pac-12 defenses more in-tune to take away catch-and-shoot opportunities, Markkanen has tried to adjust by taking his game into the paint.

“He is offensive rebounding, posting up, scoring closer to the basket, getting fouled more in the last six weeks than he did earlier in the year,” Miller said. “It’s a blend now of being physical around the basket, and balancing that with taking the open 3-point shot.”

Colorado is led by senior guard Derrick White, who scored 26 against Washington State on Wednesday night. His flurry of scoring early in the second half helped the Buffaloes come all the way back from a 19-point first-half deficit.

“We play a first half like we did tonight, and Arizona, No. 1, is probably not going to let us back in the game and, No. 2, instead of a 14-point game at halftime, it might be a 24-point game at halftime,” Boyle said.

“The one thing we know about Arizona: They’re very efficient. They don’t beat themselves. You have to go beat Arizona, and the way you beat them is to be rock-solid defensively.”

Markkanen scored 22 points in the first meeting, when the Wildcats shot 33 free throws. Colorado attempted just 14. Buffs forward Xavier Johnson scored a game-high 26 points. White, who was second in scoring in Pac-12 games at 18.5 points, managed only seven against the Wildcats in Tucson.