A pair of teams struggling to find their way in the Pac-12 will meet up in a critical game Thursday night when the Arizona Wildcats host the Utah Utes. At home, the Wildcats are favored by 12.5 points with an over/under of 144 points.
Utah’s upset win over Kentucky before Christmas has now become a distant memory. The Utes have since lost three of their last four games, including two of their first three Pac-12 games.
To be fair, all three losses came against ranked teams, including No. 8 Oregon and a still-unbeaten San Diego State team. However, a 91-52 loss to Colorado over the weekend was disconcerting for Utah.
Arizona has endured similar troubles over the last few weeks. The Wildcats have lost five of their last seven games after starting the season 9-0. To their credit, non-conference losses to Gonzaga and Baylor aren’t a huge concern, as both were competitive games.
The same is true for an overtime loss to Oregon. But the Wildcats might have reason to panic after losing 82-65 to Oregon State in their last game.
The Fab Three
The Wildcats have been led this season by the terrific freshman trio of Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion, and Josh Green. Those three are combining for nearly 44 points per game, accounting for more than half of Arizona’s scoring.
However, the youngsters have been prone to some inconsistency during the team’s recent slump. Nnaji had trouble finding his shot in the loss to Oregon. Meanwhile, both Mannion and Green were held in check during the loss to Oregon State.
When the three freshmen don’t carry Arizona, the Wildcats aren’t getting enough from their supporting cast. Senior center Chase Jeter had a total of eight points and two rebounds in the losses to Oregon and Oregon State.
The Wildcats have also endured some off nights from Dylan Smith and Jemari Baker, two of their best outside shooters. When Arizona’s complementary players play well, the Wildcats are as good as any team in the Pac-12, but consistency has been hard to find lately.
Up to the Kid
One trend to emerge during Utah’s season is that freshman point guard Rylan Jones has become a barometer for the team’s success. The Utes are just 2-5 when he fails to score at least 10 points in a game. However, Utah has just one loss when he reaches double figures.
Jones was huge in wins against Kentucky and Oregon State, only to struggle with turnovers, foul trouble, and inconsistent shooting in the team’s recent losses.
The silver lining is that Jones is only Utah’s third-leading scorer. Timmy Allen and Both Gach are averaging close to 33 points per game between them and have been consistent scorers all season.
However, Jones is Utah’s best outside shooter, and with five assists per game, he’s the catalyst for the offense when Allen and Gach can’t create their own shots. When he’s having a bad game, the Utes need to win with defense and rebounding, two areas where Utah is average at best.
The line is a little big, but Utah has suffered some lopsided losses this season. The size of Arizona’s backcourt could be a problem for Jones and an issue for the Utes, who won’t have the firepower to keep up with the Wildcats if Jones struggles. Bet on Arizona to cover the 12.5-point spread.