Arizona needs special effort in Pac-12 showdown vs. Utah
TUCSON, Ariz. — It could have been coach-speak or used to get his players’ attention, but when Arizona coach Sean Miller said he felt No. 8 Utah would be the favorite in Saturday’s game (5 p.m. MT) with his No. 10 Wildcats, it clearly raised eyebrows.
But will it raise the energy level and needed effort Miller is looking for in a game that will determine the front-runner in the Pac-12 Conference?
"I’m not playing games when I say it," Miller said Friday afternoon before his team was set to practice for what should be the biggest game of the season in McKale Center. (Despite Miller’s opinion, Las Vegas has Arizona as a four-point favorite.) "I watch Utah with great admiration."
Miller’s admiration is rooted in part because of its two driving forces: 7-footer Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. The former was the captain of the U-18 Australian National Team and the latter is a 6-5 guard who is on the Wooden Award top 25 list.
"They impact the game on both ends," Miller said. "They are two dynamic players."
He added Poeltl has a presence on defense and is beyond his years in basketball IQ. Wright, he said, is a "guy who does it all."
In Arizona’s favor, the Wildcats have won 31 consecutive games in McKale Center, and they haven’t lost to Utah since that humbling day back in 1998 when the top-seeded defending national champions were humbled by Rick Majerus’ Utes in an Elite Eight game in Anaheim, Calif. Arizona has reeled off 10 consecutive wins, including last year’s 71-39 win in the Pac-12 Tournament.
"We haven’t had a lot of success (in Tucson) in terms of wins," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune. "The stage is going to be set, and it’s going to be a heck of a college environment. We’re going to have to be really good going in there."
It’s the first Pac-12 matchup between two top 10 teams in McKale since 2004 and the first in the Pac-12 since March 2008. Utah (14-2, 4-0) sits atop the Pac-12, while Arizona (15-2, 3-1) is one game back.
This is Utah’s best team since 1998. Consider it leads the conference in scoring margin (24.5), field goal percentage (49.5), 3-point percentage (45.0) and defense (36.6).
"They seem to be a very together team, especially right now," Miller said. "When you play a team like that, you know you have to be at your best."
Defense has been Arizona’s calling card under Miller, but Utah seems to do it just as well or maybe a bit better, using a man-to-man after mixing defenses in Krystkowiak’s early years running the program.
"They are very good on defense; extremely impressive," Miller said.
Arizona was less than impressive on both ends of the court in its two losses (UNLV and Oregon State). But this is no ordinary game, and Arizona has long had a reputation of getting up for big games.
"I hope so," Miller said. "But, we want our guys to be the same every game. That’s when you have a special team. Regardless of the circumstances in an early non-conference game on the road or late in the year in a big game, you want to be the same. You want effort and togetherness. Sometimes we play some better than others, but it should never be effort driven."
Arizona showed signs of that in Thursday night’s victory over Colorado after showing little in the loss to Oregon State on Sunday. Miller would like a repeat performance.
"These are the types of games that make playing college basketball here at Arizona special," Miller said.
The status of Arizona junior guard Gabe York is still undetermined. He did not play on Thursday. He was scheduled to practice Friday afternoon to see how he can move on his ankle sprain. Miller did, however, say York is "making a lot of progress."