A month ago, Utah was hanging tough with Arizona at McKale Center in Tucson.
Arizona star Caleb Love had been held to just eight points on 3 of 7 shooting, including 0 for 3 from 3-point range, and Utah had forced 10 Wildcat turnovers, leading to nine points.
The Utes trailed by only three points after 20 minutes of play in the desert, looking to knock off Arizona in Tucson for the first time ever since the Utes joined the Pac-12 Conference in 2011.
The upset dream came unraveled in a disastrous second half for the Utes, with Arizona outscoring Utah 50-34 en route to a 92-73 blowout.
Love scored 15 of his 23 total points in the second half and Keshad Johnson added 20, while former Ute Pelle Larsson scored 13 points against his old team.
The Wildcats outscored the Utes in the paint 50-26 and shot a blistering 60% from the field and 56% from beyond the 3-point line.
Ahead of Thursday’s matchup against No. 8 Arizona at the Huntsman Center (6 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network), Utah coach Craig Smith admitted that the circles under his eyes were a little darker this week as he tries to find a way to slow down Love and the Wildcats.
“He is a dynamic player,” Smith said of Love. “Boy, he’s really, really good on the offensive end.
“He can do so many different things and he’s so talented. Unlimited range. I mean, that guy can shoot a 26-footer just effortlessly and it’s just so easy for him. He plays the game at his own pace. As the NBA guys would say, he’s a three-level scorer.”
To slow down a prolific scorer like Love, Smith says, you have to mix up your coverages, throw different looks at him and guard him with different players.
Of course, the risk with focusing too much attention on Love is that it could open things up for other players, and Arizona has plenty of talent in its starting lineup with Oumar Ballo, Kylan Boswell, Johnson and Larsson.
“There’s not a guy on the floor that can’t score the ball or make plays for others, so it really puts you in a pinch and you got to really kind of pick your poison, so to speak, as the old coaching cliche goes,” Smith said.
Hurting the Utes in the paint last game was the absence of Keba Keita, who left the game with an injury six minutes into the contest.
His defensive presence should help against Wildcats big men Ballo and Johnson, along with Lawson Lovering, who returned from injury and made a big impact on the defensive end last game against his old team, Colorado.
“To be able to have both these guys back and hopefully for the whole game, that really helps because the physicality that Keba brings to the table and that Lawson brings to the table, you got to have against a team like this because they’re just so physical and rugged in the paint and Ballo just clears you out,” Smith said.
What lessons did Smith take away from the last meeting between the two schools? The need for better transition defense and fewer turnovers.
“Last time down there, we did not do a great job in transition defense,” Smith said. “It starts there. I mean, they have some greyhounds now.
“They can get out and they can go and attack you in a lot of different ways, and then the second thing, we did not take care of the ball the way we needed to.”
The Hunstman Center has been home sweet home for the Utes, who are 13-0 at their home arena with victories over BYU and Oregon.
The Utes look like a completely different team within the comfortable confines of the Huntsman Center than away from it, where they have a 4-7 road record.
It’s been a similar story for the Wildcats, who are 12-0 at the McKale Center but 3-3 on the road, including close losses to Washington State and Oregon State in January.
“Typically the top 10 wins on the road at above 70% and this year it’s slightly, it’s like 37%, so the worst ever I think was around 64 or 65%, so it’s almost cut in half this year compared to any other year,” Smith said.
Last season, Utah beat then-No. 4 Arizona 81-66 at the Huntsman Center, and the Utes are hoping for a similar result on Thursday night.
“When you’re at home, you’re used to environment, you have the home crowd, you have your normal kind of routine,” Smith said.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, but at the same time, we just do what we do. We prepare for our opponents. I think we’ve had a lot more fans consistently show up to our games this year as compared to the last two years, and I think that really impacts winning.”