It’s a great opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country. We’re all excited. We have to be physical with them and get back on transition. We have to just play hard and compete. —Utah guard Brandon Taylor
TUCSON, Ariz. — In losing to Arizona State by four points Thursday night, Utah’s road record in Pac-12 play over the past three years fell to 1-21.
So who do the Utes get next in their effort to improve their dismal road record? Just Arizona, the No. 1-ranked team in the country — one of three unbeaten teams left — at one of the toughest arenas in college basketball to pull off a road victory.
The Utes and Wildcats meet Sunday at 6 p.m. (Fox Sports 1) in front of what is expected to be a sellout crowd at the 14,545-seat McKale Center. The Utes come into the game 3-4 in Pac-12 play and 14-5 overall, with their five losses coming by a total of 13 points. Arizona is 19-0 and 6-0 in the Pac-12 following a 69-57 victory over Colorado Thursday night.
Although winning seems like a nearly impossible task considering their sorry Pac-12 road mark and such a formidable opponent, the Utes should get some comfort from the past two years when they came in as even bigger underdogs and nearly came away with upset victories.
In 2012, a 5-19 Utah team visited Tucson and nearly knocked off the Wildcats. The Utes led throughout much of the game and held a 61-58 advantage with five minutes left before allowing the Wildcats to score the final 12 points of the game in a 70-61 loss.
Then last year, the Utes came back from an early 10-point deficit against the unbeaten and No. 3-ranked Wildcats. Trailing 58-57, the Utes had a chance to go ahead, but Jarred DuBois’ 3-point attempt bounced off the rim with 11 seconds left and then he missed a 3 at the buzzer that could have forced overtime.
This is a brand-new year, as coach Larry Krystkowiak likes to point out, and he knows why Arizona is No. 1 with the likes of junior guard Nick Johnson (16.4 ppg), 6-foot-8 sophomore Brandon Ashley (12.2 ppg) and 6-9 freshman Aaron Gordon (12.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg). Gordon is likely to be a top-10 or even top-five NBA draft pick this year.
Other top Wildcats players include 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski (9.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), junior point guard T.J. McConnell (7.1 ppg, 6.0 apg) and reserves Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (7.7 ppg) and Gabe York (41.9 percent from 3-point range).
Utah’s players are excited for the chance to attempt to knock off the No.1-ranked team in college basketball.
“It’s a great opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country. We’re all excited,’’ said Utah guard Brandon Taylor. “We have to be physical with them and get back on transition. We have to just play hard and compete.’’
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance and we’ll be ready to play,’’ said Ute guard Delon Wright. “They’re the best rebounding team, so we need to get rebounds. We also need to play better defense.’’
Krystkowiak has been harping on his team’s poor rebounding lately as the Utes have only outrebounded one opponent in Pac-12 play. Meanwhile, the Wildcats come in as the No. 5 team in the country in rebounding margin at 10.1 per game.
For his part, Arizona coach Sean Miller certainly isn’t looking past Utah after the last two years when the Utes took the Wildcats right to the wire.
“The four times that we played Utah, each of the four games have been very hard-fought. I fully expect Sunday to be the same," Miller told the Arizona Daily Star. “I can’t think of a coach and a program who’s improved more than Utah has over the last two seasons. That right there should say a lot about the respect that we have for them.’’
GAME NOTES: Ute senior big man Renan Lenz, who missed the past three games with a sprained ankle, is expected to play Sunday. ... With Lenz available, Krystkowiak said the Utes may play him alongside Dallin Bachynski or Jeremy Olsen in the middle against the Wildcats’ big frontline. ... Utah’s last win at the McKale Center came in 1986 when Arizonans Mitch Smith and Jimmy Madison led the Utes to a 68-67 upset victory. ... After Sunday's game, the Utes will return home and prepare for another road game Saturday at Colorado. Their next home game will be Feb. 6 against Washington.