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Pac-12 opener vs. No. 4 Arizona Thursday could be a barometer for improved Runnin’ Utes

Coach Craig Smith’s team is healthy, defending well, and has designs on giving the Pac-12 favorites a battle at the Huntsman Center

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Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis, wearing white, dunks over Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster.

Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis dunks over Utah guard Rollie Worster (25) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Tubelis and the Wildcats return to Salt Lake City Thursday, where the two teams will usher in Pac-12 play.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

While the majority of University of Utah sports fans rightfully have their attention focused on Friday’s Pac-12 football championship game in Las Vegas against USC, they shouldn’t overlook another significant event taking place in the Huntsman Center before then.

The Runnin’ Utes, who are off to a solid 5-2 start, play host to No. 4 Arizona (6-0) on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in a Pac-12 men’s basketball opener for both teams. Yes, there really are conference basketball games this week; Utah plays another one Sunday — at Washington State — before returning to its nonconference slate until the end of the month.

“It is a great test. I don’t know if barometer is the word, but we have a lot of work to do. I am excited where we are going. We have clearly gotten better from last year to this year.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

Utah-Arizona obviously isn’t as big or important as Utah-USC at Allegiant Stadium, but it could be huge down the road as the Utes battle for respect and a higher spot in the league standings.

For defending Pac-12 champion Arizona, which is picked to win the league, it might not mean much. The Wildcats haven’t played in more than a week. They won the Maui Classic in Hawaii before Thanksgiving with victories over Cincinnati, No. 17 San Diego State and No. 10 Creighton.

“They are a well-oiled machine,” said Utah coach Craig Smith.

For the Utes, who went 1-1 at the Fort Myers Tip-Off last week in Florida and followed that with a resounding 95-66 win over St. Thomas, it is a measuring stick type of game to see just how far they’ve come in Smith’s second season.

“It is a great test,” Smith said. “I don’t know if barometer is the word, but we have a lot of work to do. I am excited where we are going. We have clearly gotten better from last year to this year.”

Smith said defense and continuity have contributed to Utah’s start, which has included a win over Georgia Tech and losses to Sam Houston and Mississippi State. Utah’s entire roster has been available to Smith the past couple of games, after injuries and illnesses sidelined guys such as veteran Marco Anthony and freshmen Keba Keita and Luka Tarlac the first five games.

“It is the first time we have had continuity since I have been here,” Smith said. “… I mean, knock on wood, we have had everybody at our disposal (in) practice and playing (games) here for a little over a week, 10 days.”

Last year, Utah was off to a 6-0 start before Anthony got hurt and the Utes dropped back-to-back games in late November and early December to No. 18 BYU and No. 20 USC and never really fully recovered.

“Are we where we need to be? No, not by a stretch,” Smith said. “We are a work in progress.”

Arizona, meanwhile, looks like a Final Four contender. Coach Tommy Lloyd’s Wildcats were one of 18 programs in the country still undefeated as of Tuesday, and boast a high-scoring offense led by Pac-12 Player of the Year candidates Azoulas Tubelis, Oumar Ballo and Kerr Kriisa.

Tubelis averages 19.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, while Ballo, a junior, averages 19.0 points and 10.0 rebounds. Point guard Kriisa averages 15.3 points and 7.5 assists.

Former Ute Pelle Larsson chips in 11.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.

“They are physical and rugged and they have the unique combination of being an elite 3-point shooting team, but they just punish you in the paint, too,” Smith said.

Arizona is No. 1 in the country in scoring offense (97.5 points per game), effective field goal percentage (.647) and field goal percentage (.603). 

Utah is No. 2 in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 33.7% shooting from the field.

“We have been guarding well,” Smith said. “… This team has come a long way at that end of the floor. We have made life difficult for our opponents, and we have played some different styles. But (defense) has been the constant for us. For the most part we have really defended at a high level.”

So something has to give.

Arizona pummeled the Utes 82-64 in Tucson last year in their only matchup, as Tubelis went off for 32 points. Utah returns the game at McKale Center on Feb. 16.

Which begs the question: Why do the Utes have to face the league’s best team the first day of December, and the night before their football team plays for a chance to return to the Rose Bowl?

Smith said he wasn’t shocked when the schedule came out because leagues often open with their perceived best teams playing against their perceived weakest teams (Utah is picked to finish 10th).

“We are excited about the opportunity,” he said. “Obviously Arizona is a great team — the defending champs, and they have it all, they have great experience, they have great skill, they have great size and they have elite shooting and are an excellent passing team, and they guard you.”

The coach acknowledged that a lot of Utah fans will be traveling to Las Vegas Thursday, 

“You know what? You gotta play them twice anyway, so let’s do it right out of the cage and let’s get better and see what we can do,” he said.

The Utes haven’t defeated an Associated Press-ranked opponent since a Dec. 18, 2019, win over No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas. Their last home win over an AP Top 25 team was Jan. 12, 2017, over No. 25 USC.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

No. 4 Arizona (0-0, 6-0)

at Utah (0-0, 5-2)

Thursday, 6:30 p.m. MST

Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: KALL 700 AM