Arizona has been the Pac-12's standard-bearer in recent years, but Utah may be its best team right now.
Winners of five straight, the 22nd-ranked Utes may have their best chance at ending an 18-year series losing streak when the No. 9 Wildcats visit Huntsman Center on Saturday.
After losing three of its first four league games, Utah has won 10 of 12 to get within striking distance of its first Pac-12 title since joining the conference in 2011-12. The surge has moved the Utes (22-7, 11-5) past Arizona (22-6, 10-5) and within a half-game of first-place Oregon with two remaining.
Three of the last four wins have come in convincing fashion, including Thursday's 81-46 trouncing of Arizona State in which the Utes opened on a 30-2 run.
Jakob Poeltl has led Utah's re-emergence by averaging 20.5 points over a 10-game stretch and shooting 73.4 percent in the past six, but the Utes showed they have other options Thursday. With the Sun Devils packing their defense to limit the star center to five field goal attempts, Utah ended one 3-pointer shy of a school record with a 16-of-40 performance.
"We're a great shooting team. They kind of picked their poison,'' said forward Jordan Loveridge, who's shooting 45.2 percent from 3 while averaging 14.8 points during the streak.
The Utes are averaging 82.8 points on 53.2 percent shooting during the run and held their own on the defensive end as well. They limited the Sun Devils to 25.0 percent and scored 25 points off 15 turnovers.
''We really wanted to focus on defense," forward Brekkott Chapman said. "If we want to keep playing as long as we can this season, that has to come first."
While clearly on the rise, the Utes have still yet to prove they can take down two-time defending conference champion Arizona. The Wildcats have won all eight meetings during Utah's Pac-12 tenure and 12 straight in the series. The Utes haven't beaten Arizona since a 76-51 victory in the West Regional final during their 1998 national runner-up season.
The Wildcats remained squarely in the mix for another Pac-12 crown by winning six straight prior to Wednesday's 75-72 loss at Colorado, their 20th consecutive game eclipsing 70 points. They're averaging 84.1 points, shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 41.4 percent on 3-pointers in league play - all conference bests.
Arizona also ranks among the national leaders with a plus-11.0 rebounding margin, and its prowess on the glass was a major factor in last season's two wins over the Utes. The Wildcats outrebounded Utah 84-54 while limiting the Utes to 34.4 percent shooting.
In 7-footers Kaleb Tarczewski and Dusan Ristic, Arizona has the size to conceivably neutralize Poeltl. Tarczewski is averaging 11.0 rebounds over his last six and amassed nine blocks in the past two.
However, the Wildcats had trouble containing Colorado big man Josh Scott, who scored 26 points with nine rebounds.
''Sometimes you have to take your hat off to the opponent and say they were the better team, and they were,'' coach Sean Miller said. ''They were ready to play, they were the harder playing, more physical team."
The Wildcats fell to 4-4 on the road in Pac-12 play, while Utah's only home loss in 15 games came 77-59 to Oregon on Jan. 14.