A pair of Pac-12 teams desperate to get it going late in the year will meet Thursday night when the Utah Utes host the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats beat Utah 84-81 in overtime, but Utah is favored by 3.5 points in Thursday’s rematch.
The Utes find themselves in a three-way tie for second place in the rather mediocre Pac-12. Utah is 7-4 in conference play, but they’ve won two in a row and six of their last eight games. However, the Utes lack resume-building wins, and so their best hope to reach the NCAA Tournament may be to earn a high seed in the Pac-12 Tournament in hopes of getting an automatic bid.
Arizona is in a similar position, although they have far bigger problems at the moment. The Wildcats have lost five in a row and six of their last seven games, dropping them to 5-6 in conference play and 14-10 overall. Head coach Sean Miller also figures to be on the hot seat, especially with assistant Mark Phelps likely to be fired because of an alleged NCAA rules violation.
Part of the reason for Arizona’s extended losing streak is the absence of Brandon Williams. The freshman guard has missed three straight games due to a knee injury and won’t be playing on Thursday either. Williams is Arizona’s second-leading scorer at 12 points per game and always leads the team in assists. On top of that, Miller recently revealed that senior forward Ryan Luther has spent most of the season with a broken finger, which may be keeping him from making the kind of impact the Wildcats were hoping he could make.
Needless to say, the Wildcats haven’t adjusted to playing without Williams. Brandon Randolph, who leads the team with 14 points per game, is getting suffocated by opposing defenses. He has scored just eight points in his last two games. Center Chase Jeter is one player who needs to step up and take some of the heat off Randolph. However, he was held scoreless last time out against Washington State. Grad transfer Justin Coleman has stepped up with Williams out, but Arizona needs a lot more from Randolph and Jeter.
The Perils of Youth
One of Utah’s biggest problems this season has been their youth. Outside of senior point guard Sedrick Barefield, most of Utah’s top players are freshmen or sophomores. The result of that has been inconsistent scoring contributions from everyone aside from Barefield, who averages 16 points per game and has scored boule figures in all but four games. The Utes have also been a little turnover-prone, which has hurt them in some games.
It’s also worth noting that the Utes are not a guard-oriented team. After losing Vante Hendrix early in the season, Utah has little backcourt depth. It’s an unconventional setup, although the silver lining is that Utah is a strong rebounding team. That’s one area where the Utes will have to get the better of Jeter and the Wildcats if they hope to win.
No Sign of Hope
During their recent five-game losing streak, Arizona is losing by an average of 14 points. Going on the road against a Utah team that has some upside isn’t a formula for changing that. Bet on Utah winning and covering the 3.5-point spread.