No. 4 Arizona has soared from its preseason No. 17 ranking with the highest-scoring offense in the country and now floats into Pac-12 play Thursday night against Utah at Salt Lake City.
The Wildcats (6-0) are coming off the championship of the Maui Invitational in which they beat Cincinnati, then-No. 17 San Diego State and then-No. 10 Creighton on the way to the title.
“Early success can be fleeting,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We really haven’t done anything yet.”
What the Wildcats have done is average 97.5 points per game and shoot a national-best 60.3 percent from the field heading into the game against Utah (5-2), which has a victory against Georgia Tech, with recent neutral-court losses to Sam Houston and Mississippi State. The Utes beat St. Thomas 95-66 on Saturday as a tune-up for Arizona.
“I’m not sure how I feel about playing league games in December. Not much I can do about it,” Utah coach Craig Smith said. “But we’ll learn a lot about ourselves really fast.”
The Utes might learn plenty about their post defense against Arizona, which features big men Azuolas Tubelis (19.3 points per game, 8.0 rebounds) and Oumar Ballo (19.0, 10.0). With power and skill inside, as well as the ability to run the court and get easy baskets in the fast-paced attack, the Wildcats’ duo has combined to make 92 of 124 shots (74.2 percent).
Ballo, who began his career as a redshirt at Gonzaga before following Lloyd to Arizona for the 2021-22 season, is blossoming as a fourth-year player and first-year starter. He was the MVP of the Maui Invitational, finishing with 30 points on 14-of-17 shooting in the 81-79 title-game victory over Creighton.
“Just because it doesn’t happen early, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen late,” Lloyd said of the 7-footer’s career arc. “I’m not surprised at all with the impact he’s having, and hopefully he’ll settle in and make this the norm.”
Utah has a 7-foot center, too, and Branden Carlson is leading the Utes in scoring (13.1) and rebounding (7.7). Gabe Madsen is close behind in scoring, averaging 13.0 points and shooting 38.3 percent (18 of 47) from 3-point range.
It will be a contrast of styles, with up-tempo Arizona having the second-shortest possession length in the country (15.2 seconds), according to KenPom.com. Utah prefers patience, ranking second-to-last nationally (362nd) in time per possession (19.5 seconds).
“To me, it looks like they are off to a pretty good start,” Lloyd said of Utah. “They have my full attention. We understand it’s a road game in a tough place to play. I don’t think we’re going to waltz in believing it’s going to be an easy game. We understand it will be a possession-by-possession game.”
Arizona got a lift in Maui from the debut of fifth-year Texas transfer Courtney Ramey, who was ineligible for the first three games. Ramey averaged 16.0 points and made 10 of 16 3-pointers (62.5 percent) in Maui. Kerr Kriisa is averaging 15.3 points and is providing a big threat from outside, hitting 18 of 35 (51.4 percent) from behind the arc.
Arizona swept both meetings with Utah last season when both coaches were in their first year at their program. The son of former Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, Luc Krystkowiak, is a walk-on guard for the Wildcats.