Arizona faces Washington and its zone defense in Seattle on Thursday
Arizona will get its fifth chance to earn its first true road victory of the season when the Wildcats visit Washington in Seattle on Thursday. The Huskies (12-9, 2-6 Pac-12) have lost three games in a row and have only won two of their first eight league games, but will still pose a significant challenge for Arizona. Washington is led by Isaiah Stewart. The 6-foot-9, 250 pound freshman forward is a versatile scorer and difficult matchup on the low block. Stewart is averaging 19.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. He’s surrounded by a host of lengthy guards and forwards that combine to form a pesky zone defense that thrives on steals and long defensive rebounds.
Arizona (13-6, 3-3 Pac-12), despite its struggles away from home, remains the conference’s best scoring team at 80.7 points per game, which also ranks the Wildcats offense No. 16 in the country. However, as evidenced by Arizona’s 66-65 loss to rival Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona’s scoring efficiency dips significantly on the road.
Against Washington, Arizona’s defense must travel. It generally has. However, what really needs to travel is the team’s offense. Indeed, Washington has had a hard go of things in conference play, but that doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of their zone defense.
In Seattle, the Huskies held USC to a season-low 40 points in a devastatingly vicious 72-40 romp over the Trojans. Washington also held Oregon to just 64 points in a three-point, overtime loss to the Ducks. Similarly, they held UCLA to 66 points despite losing by two, while limiting Oregon State to just 56 points to win by eight.
It remains to be seen if the Wildcats will carry any sort of hangover into Thursday’s tip following last Saturday’s loss to the Sun Devils. Arizona blew a 22-point lead against ASU, which left Coach Sean Miller telling the press the team lacked confidence and he needed to do a better job as a coach. Miller was also left defending his decision to bench graduate transfer guard Max Hazzard for the second half of the game.
In short, last weekend was a mess and the jury is out whether or not things have been or even can be fixed in Tucson.
At times like these, Arizona’s legendary football coach Dick Tomey would say that being on the road is often the best medicine for a team in turmoil. Limit the distractions from home, focus solely on the task at hand and those you’re going into battle with, and get the job done.
It’s good advice, and perhaps that’s what the Wildcats are doing during this trip to the Pacific Northwest.
They sort of need to because this promising season can go south, quickly.
For the record, put me in the column of those who still believe this is a very good Arizona team with tremendous potential. As Bill Walton recently said while serving as color analyst for a Wildcats game in Tucson two weeks ago, “Arizona is the best team I’ve seen all season”, adding the caveat, “when they’re ‘on’.”
In a college season where few teams not named Baylor and Gonzaga truly stand out, we could be poised for one of the wildest, most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments since the field expanded to its current format. Add in the fact that Arizona lost to Baylor by only five points on the road (and had a chance to tie the game near the end of regulation) and dropped an 84-80 thriller to the Zags in Tucson, it’s pretty safe to say that the Wildcats can play with anyone in the country.
The problem, of course, is ‘playing’ with elite teams is not good enough. At some point, a team actually has to win those games.
While Washington is far from elite, they do feature elite talent, hold a two-game winning streak against Arizona, and are formidable at home. In short, the Wildcats need to come to play on Thursday. They can’t afford to continue to make the same mental mistakes they’ve made in true road games this season. They can’t afford to waste an abundance of offensive possessions. They can’t afford to get beat on the offensive and defensive glass. They can’t afford long stretches of cold shooting from the floor. If they do any of the above, they will lose.
On Wednesday, Washington State defeated Arizona State in Pullman 67-65. The result improved the combined home record of all Pac-12 schools against league opponents to 32-11 this season.
The Wildcats, somehow, need to figure out a way to buck the odds and earn the victory because a fourth road loss in conference will probably be enough to eliminate them from regular season conference contention. I say this because even though the Pac-12 is currently listed as the third toughest conference in the country in terms of earning road victories, at some point, the elite teams start to figure out ways to overcome the obvious challenges playing away from home presents.
Arizona appeared to have solved the riddle against Arizona State until the Sun Devils shell shocked the Wildcats. That type of loss stings, and how Arizona reacts will tell its fans everything they need to know as we near the midpoint of conference play.
Facing the Huskies on the road will only make such a positive reaction more difficult to achieve.
Historically, Arizona has struggled against effective zone defenses under Miller. The Wildcats will undoubtedly need to make a fair share of perimeter jumpers, while Zeke Nnaji and the other Arizona big men will serve the team well if they are able to get the over-aggressive Husky big men into foul trouble.
Generally, against a zone defense, it’s advantageous for the offense to run its sets from the inside out. However, against Washington’s length, it’ll be more important for the Wildcat guards to penetrate the zone with the dribble and look to assist or score from inside the teeth of the zone. The Washington zone defense will defend high in the half court and the guards at the top do have a tendency to get a little too extended when denying passing lanes and gambling for steals. If Arizona is crisp with its passing, uses the dribble to penetrate gaps, and get the Huskies to chase instead of defend, the Wildcats will get plenty of open looks at the basket.
Defensively, Arizona must figure out a way to defend Stewart without getting Nnaji or Gettings in significant foul trouble. Expect Washington to try and run and score in transition, which could boomerang and actually end of favoring the Wildcats. The last thing Arizona wants in this type of setting is a methodical game played in the halfcourt. Instead, Arizona also wants to run, try and score on the fast break, and if not, run its secondary break sets to get open shots early in the shot clock. If the Wildcats are hitting, they’ll have a chance to win. If they’re not, expect another close loss. Either way, it should be a close game where something like free throw attempts and makes could be the difference between victory and defeat.