What to look for when the Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball host No. 6 Tennessee

What to look for when the Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball host No. 6 Tennessee

Arizona faced two ranked opponents en route to winning the Maui Invitational last month, and last weekend handled No. 14 Indiana in Las Vegas despite a partisan crowd not in the Wildcats’ favor.

Now comes the biggest matchup so far this season, a visit from No. 6 Tennessee to the McKale Center for a nationally televised clash. The Volunteers (9-1) handed the Wildcats (9-1) their first loss last season, 77-73 in Knoxville on the Wednesday before Christmas.

UA is 1-4 all-time against Tennessee, the lone win coming in the 1998-99 opener in Albuquerque, but has won 24 in a row at McKale.

Here’s what to watch when the Wildcats and Vols meet late Saturday:

Start strong, finish stronger

When Arizona entered Thompson Boling Arena last December, it had a perfect record. It went with its first loss under Tommy Lloydand he knows exactly why.

“Sixteen to two,” Lloyd said Tuesday, after the win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, of what he remembers most from that game. “16-2. That is my memory.”

Arizona fell behind 16-2 just over five minutes into the game, prompting Lloyd to call an early timeout, which he do not like to do. The Wildcats trailed by 13 at the half, but got within four at the first media break of the second half and tied the score with 5:08 left, but never took the lead.

Forward Azuolas Tubeliswho played just 13 minutes in Knoxville because of foul trouble, admitted he was lost, “I didn’t know what I was doing on the field.”

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Arizona ended up getting off to another slow start in the final game that season, the Sweet 16 loss to Houston, and the year’s lone setback at Utah saw the Wildcats stumble out of the gate and never recover.

Kerr’s condition

Tuesday’s game then Kerr Crisis starts as usual, but only plays until the first timeout, after which he went to the locker room and did not return. The school released a statement shortly after halftime that Kriisa was dealing with a “non-COVID illness,” and afterward Lloyd confirmed that Kriisa had not been feeling well recently.

Will that illness affect his status for Saturday night?

“Not in my opinion,” Lloyd said.

Kriisa didn’t look his best in the limited action, missing his only shot and turning it over three times. His absence wasn’t felt in that game, as Arizona won by 38 and had eight different players hit a 3-pointer, but not having him available (or less than 100 percent) for Tennessee would have been a different story.

Dealing with the “fist fight”

That’s what Lloyd said the game with Tennessee would look like, and he wasn’t exaggerating. The Vols come to town with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, according to KenPom.com, allowing 51.4 points per game and 32.7 percent shooting.

Only three teams have scored more than 50 points against the Vols, ironically both Pac-12 schools, with Colorado and USC the only teams to make more than 33 percent of their field goals.

Tennessee doesn’t do this by playing at a snail’s pace like some other defensive-minded teams do either. The adjusted pace and average defensive possession length are both in the middle of the pack, due in large part to the third-best turnover rate (27.4 percent of possessions) more than 11 steals per game.

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Arizona gives it away 14.6 times per game, or 19 percent of its possessions, with opponents averaging 17.3 points from those takeaways.

The common line could be where this match is decided. Both teams are in the top 30 nationally in free throw attempt rate, but the Vols are more prone to putting opponents on the line than Arizona. Tennessee may choose to hack Oumar Ballo instead of giving him a clean look at the basket, and his foul shot accuracy has dropped to 52 percent with just 20 teams in his last 49 attempts.

Inside or outside?

Ballo and Tubelis are arguably the best 1-2 tandem in the country, averaging 38.3 points on 66.4 percent shooting. They’re the main reason Arizona leads the nation in 2-point shooting (63 percent) and has KenPom’s No. 1 adjusted offensive efficiency.

But Tennessee is allowing just 41.4 percent shooting on 2s, ninth best in the nation, and figures to overload the paint with defenders to deny Arizona’s big balls and force the Wildcats to start from the outside.

Arizona just hit a season-best 15 3s against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and despite a 3-game hiatus from the perimeter (which included the loss at Utah) is shooting 39.3 percent from deep. It will be hard pressed to do well from 3 against Tennessee, which leads the nation in 3-point defense (20.1 percent) with USC’s 33.3 percent and Colorado’s eight triples (on 26 attempts) the best anyone has made out there against Vols.

Per KenPomthis will be the eighth time the No. 1 offensive team has faced the No. 1 defensive squad. The defensive squad has won four of seven games, although most of the games have been pretty high.

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