McKale Center warmup

Photo by Wildcat Universe

“They’re not that good.”

“It will be a 20-point blowout when they come to Boulder.”

“I don’t like Arizona and they don’t like me.”

These were the statements made by Colorado’s Xavier Johnson after the Wildcats 69-57 win over the Buffaloes on Jan. 23rd in Tucson. Clearly, Johnson will be the first to tell you that there is a building rivalry between the Arizona Wildcats and Colorado Buffaloes.

The Buffs joined the Pac-12 conference in 2011. Both teams have improved since then. Arizona head coach Sean Miller has brought in top tier recruiting classes yearly now, and Colorado head coach Tad Boyle has brought in great young talent such as sophomores Johnson and Josh Scott, and freshman Jaron Hopkins. Arizona holds a slight 4-3 edge in that time, but each team has experienced a heartbreaking loss that has enhanced the bitterness of this rivalry.

The Wildcats crushing loss took place in the 2012 Pac-12 Tournament Championship. Arizona was not only short (their tallest starter was 6’8” Jesse Perry), but they also played shorthanded missing starting point guard in Josiah Turner . The Wildcats fought until the final minutes, but Buffaloes senior guard Carlon Brown and Co. finished off their fourth win in four days and earned themselves an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats went to the NIT and fell to Bucknell in the first round.

The next time they faced each other, Colorado guard Sabatino Chen and friends arrived in Tucson in hopes of ending the third-ranked Wildcats perfect season. Chen almost did. It initially looked as if the senior beat the buzzer on a game winning three-pointer at the end of regulation, but the referres controversially concurred that agreed the shot was not off in time. The game was sent into overtime where the Wildcats eventually won 92-83.

This year, both teams have lost a key player to a season ending injury. The Buffaloes lost their best player in junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie to an ACL tear in only their fourth conference game on Jan. 12th. Three weeks later, the Wildcats lost Brandon Ashley to a broken foot.

The Wildcats defeated the Dinwiddie-less Buffs earlier this year. Now, the Ashley-less ‘Cats go to Boulder for the rematch.

Xavier Johnson may be accurate after all.

Both teams are coming off a good win. Colorado leapfrogged Arizona State in the Pac-12 standings by defeating them 61-52 Wednesday night. Arizona needed overtime to squeak past Utah the same night by a count of 67-63. Although that was a good résumé-building win for the Buffs, a win against Arizona would basically lock them in the NCAA Tournament.

Colorado has had this game circled on the calendar since the schedule came out. Arizona has been the team to beat in the Pac-12, even without Brandon Ashley. Throw in the mutual hatred, sold out and wild Coors Event Center, and ESPN’s national College Gameday coverage, and there is a lot on the line.

Most eyes are going to be on Colorado’s Xavier Johnson. He is a versatile 6’7” wingman averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds per game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon should be doing the majority of defending Johnson. Another key player for the Buffs is their big man Josh Scott, one of the most improved players in the Pac-12. He is averaging 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on the year. Kaleb Tarczewski is going to need to stay out of foul trouble as he has done all season and defend Scott.

I expect this to be a low scoring game. Both teams are strong defensively, and the crowd and Colorado altitude will be put into effect as well. Don’t forget, each team is missing one of its top scorers as well. Arizona needs sophomore guard Gabe York to play as well as he did on Wednesday against Utah (15 points on 6-10 shooting, 3-6 from behind the arc). The Wildcats are not a great shooting team, and this is a type of game where shooting is going to be key.

The Wildcats are still trying to find their mojo and rhythm without Brandon Ashley. Besides a comfortable win against an average Oregon State team, Arizona has not won a game by more than four points. The CardiacCats have been in full force, sending the team to three overtime periods in two straight games. History will repeat itself tonight, as there will be another close game tonight in Boulder.

In the end, I believe the Buffaloes end up making more shots. In front of their wild, sold out home crowd, I see the ‘Cats being court-rushed for the third (fifth?) time this season. Xavier Johnson may be deemed Mayor of Boulder after the game.

Prediction: Colorado 62, Arizona 60.

– – – – –