No. 6 Arizona heads to No. 19 Tennessee for Top 25 showdown

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Arizona guard Justin Kier (5) reacts after scoring against California Baptist during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Sixth-ranked Arizona has surpassed just about everyone’s expectations besides those in Tucson this season, winning its first 11 games under new coach Tommy Lloyd and even wrestling a No. 1 vote away from defending national champion Baylor.

Beginning this week, the Wildcats have an opportunity to prove just how good they are.

One of the toughest two-week runs in college basketball this season begins Wednesday night, when the Wildcats head to Knoxville to face No. 19 Tennessee in one of this week’s marquee nonconference matchups. They follow with back-to-back road games against fifth-ranked UCLA and No. 8 Southern California just three days apart.

“Game to game, regardless of what’s going to happen, our mindset has to be we’ll be better for it,” Lloyd said. “We’re not trying to go undefeated. We want to win every game, but we know that’s not realistic. It hasn’t been done since 1976. We have to stay locked in. We have to get better.”

Indeed, the Wildcats are among just six remaining unbeatens in Division I men’s basketball after surprising San Francisco was edged by Grand Canyon last week. That’s pretty heady stuff for a team picked fourth in the Pac-12 this season.

It’s not as if Arizona hasn’t already passed plenty of tests, though. It won a tough game against Wichita State, blew out then-No. 4 Michigan and edged Illinois in a brutally tough road environment in Champaign.

“We have an awesome opportunity,” Lloyd said. “We’ve had a really strong start. I played at Tennessee and it’s a monster, and it’s a great opportunity for us to go in there and test ourselves.”

You can bet the Volunteers (8-2) are happy for the test, too. They were supposed to have one against Memphis last week, but that game was called off with fans already inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville because of COVID-19 issues within the Tigers’ program; Vols coach Rick Barnes decided to hold an impromptu team scrimmage for those fans instead.

“It was frustrating for everyone, for us and also the people in the building,” Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi said, “but that’s the world we’re living in today. It is what it is and we’re focused on the next game.”

SPEAKING OF COVID

Tennessee was hardly the only school to deal with fallout from the spreading omicron coronavirus variant last week, and plenty of teams in the Top 25 already are scrambling to reschedule their last couple of games heading into conference play.

The most unusual case might be No. 15 Seton Hall. It had to forfeit its game against St. John’s on Monday night, only to pick up a forfeiture win over DePaul when the Blue Demons were forced to call off their Thursday night game due to an outbreak.

Big East policy states that “if a conference game cannot be played on its originally scheduled date due to an insufficient number of available players (including as a result of COVID), that team shall be deemed to have forfeited with a loss assigned to that team. A win will be assigned to its opponent. The win and loss will be applied to the league standings.”

Yet with more and more games in jeopardy, the Big East is under pressure to revise its policy, perhaps including a provision that the Pac-12 has allowing schools to reschedule games if they are willing and able to do so.

DePaul also had its game against Northwestern last Saturday called off and forfeited Monday night’s conference opener against Creighton. The Blue Demons have not played since beating Illinois-Chicago on Dec. 14.

SPEAKING OF COVID, PART II

Other games canceled because of COVID-19 this week include USC’s trip to Oklahoma State on Tuesday night; UCLA’s tuneup against Cal Poly on Wednesday night; and No. 24 Wisconsin’s game against Morgan State on Thursday night.

SO WHAT’S LEFT

There are still plenty of intriguing games to keep basketball fans entertained during the holiday week, including seventh-ranked Kansas heading to Colorado on Tuesday night for a renewal of their old Big 12 rivalry.

Also Tuesday night, No. 23 Villanova tries to rebound from back-to-back 20-point losses when it faces No. 18 Xavier in a crucial early season Big East test. The following night, second-ranked Duke begins ACC play against Virginia Tech and No. 12 Auburn gets a visit from Murray State, whose 10-1 start includes a victory over Memphis.

The Diamond Head Classic also begins Wednesday night in Hawaii, though without a whole lot of star power. BYU is the headliner in a tournament that includes Liberty, Hawaii, Northern Iowa, South Florida, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Wyoming.

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