On Thursday night, Arizona will begin a long journey through the Pac-12 conference. It is a road that the undefeated Wildcats hope ends in a conference championship and a favorable draw for the NCAA tournament.
Arizona got through the entire non-conference schedule with a spotless record. The 12 consecutive wins included a dramatic come from behind victory over Florida in McKale Center and a hard fought win over San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic.
Up first in conference play is a rematch of the Pac-12 Tournament championship game. The Colorado Buffaloes narrowly edged the Wildcats in Los Angeles by two points to earn the Pac-12’s automatic NCAA tournament bid. Losing that game ended Arizona’s tournament hopes and set up the Wildcats for a first round loss to Bucknell in the NIT.
Tad Boyle, the Buffs’ Head Coach, is in his third season at Colorado, winning 24 games in each of his first two seasons. He led Colorado on an improbable run last March, taking his team to the third round of the NCAA tournament before losing to Baylor. Colorado got revenge on Baylor earlier this season in a 60-58 win and this time it may be Arizona’s chance to get some revenge.
The game could be one that Arizona finds a groove early in. The Wildcats are playing in front of a sold out crowd against a team that is giving up 8.3 three-pointers per game. In addition, Colorado is only 1-2 on the road for the year with those being the only losses of the season. One of those games was a 90-54 blow out loss in Lawrence, Kansas to the Jayhawks.
One of Colorado’s biggest threats in the game will be Andre Roberson. At 6-foot-seven, the junior will likely match up with Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett for the majority of the game. Roberson is averaging a double-double of 12.1 points and rebounds per game. It is possible that he can use his experience to his advantage when playing against the freshmen, which could force Arizona into a smaller lineup.
That could work to Arizona’s advantage as Colorado will use a three-guard lineup featuring Askia Booker, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Sabatino Chen. Booker is the Buffs’ leading scorer with almost 15 a night and also dishes out 2.3 assists a game with a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio. Just a sophomore, he has plenty of talent and can already make a big impact on the game with much more room for improvement.
Another sophomore, Dinwiddie was one of the most hyped players on this year’s Colorado team. He may be one of the best shooters on the team as well, hitting 46-percent of his three-point attempts and scoring 14.4 points a night. He is a player that can disappear at times during the game, but also can get hot in a hurry, making him a viable scoring option if the defense begins losing track of him.
The final guard in the starting lineup is a senior. Chen averaged less than ten minutes a game last season in a reserve role, but has more than doubled that as a starter in all twelve games this year. His numbers may not show it with his four points per game, but the guard is a hustle player with great defensive skills and high energy.
Josh Scott rounds out the starting lineup in the center of the court. The 6-foot-10 freshman has made an impact on Colorado immediately with a high production value. He is second in rebounds on the team with six a game and third in scoring with 13.2 a night.
Another freshman who is making noise for Colorado is Xavier Johnson. The forward is already seeing over eighteen minutes of playing time each contest while scoring 6.3 points and grabbing 3.6 rebounds. Johnson may see more time in the future if he can cut down on his fouls, as he leads the team with 36 in just twelve games.
After that there is a considerable drop off for Colorado. Shane Harris-Tunks is a player that could see time backing up Roberson and Scott, but is not quite as good. He is earning over eight minutes of court time each time out, but is not producing very much with it. It will be interesting to see how well he tries to use his experience to his advantage against a younger Kaleb Tarczewski.
Xavier Talton, Jeremy Adams, and Eli Stalzer are all backup guards that see a considerable amount of playing time each night. However, they combine for just six points and less than two assists each game. In the game against the Wildcats, it is hard to see these three get very many minutes if the Buffaloes need to have their best players on the floor.
Arizona will be opening conference play looking for its thirteenth consecutive win to start the season, something that hasn’t been done in Tucson since Fred Enke led his team to a 16-0 start in 1931-32. The Wildcats are chasing history and looking to avenge last season’s loss. Both teams have a different look than they did a year ago, but Arizona looks to have come back with a more talented team than Colorado, at least on paper.