Washington trip continues for UA basketball with Cougars around the corner
Arizona’s high rankings in the polls have put a target on its back all season, but another number has the bull’s-eye painted bright red: its No. 4 overall RPI.
After besting Washington in Seattle, Arizona’s resume remains one of the top in the nation. It’ll be put on the line Saturday in Pullman, Wash., with Washington State desperate for a win.
The Cougars (11-9, 2-5 Pac-12) have yet to record a win against a top-50 RPI team. In fact, they haven’t beaten a top-100 or even a top-150 RPI team this season. With a chance to finally get that gold star on their profile, Arizona (18-2, 6-2) has to be ready for an all-out effort in Wallis Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum.
“We’re getting a lot of team’s best shots,” head coach Sean Miller said during Tuesday’s press conference.
“If you have a chance to beat the No. 4 RPI team, think about what that does for your season.”
A win for Washington State still wouldn’t put it close to the bubble picture in terms of the NCAA tournament, but a loss for Arizona would be a huge black mark on the Wildcats’ otherwise sterling resume. The Cougars’ No. 158 RPI is the second-weakest in the conference, ahead of Utah, and a loss Saturday could end up costing the Wildcats when the tournament seedings come out in March.
But as easy as the matchup looks on paper, having to travel to Pullman makes the cellar-dwelling Cougars a much tougher test.
“Playing on the road is difficult, so we know that we have to be at our best,” Miller said.
The results haven’t exactly backed that up, though, and Miller feels Arizona has done well handling adversaries out of town. The Wildcats are 5-1 on the road this season and senior Mark Lyons is averaging 4.1 points per game more on the road than at home, even after putting up a road-low of 10 against Washington.
Sophomore Nick Johnson has also scored better in enemy territory, but the difference isn’t as extreme for him as it is for as Lyons. Johnson is averaging around 2.5 more points per game and shoots 2.5 percent better from the floor on the road.
Miller said experience is key in remaining consistent both at home and in hostile environments, but against the Cougars, it’ll be the freshman big men who have the most important job: covering senior Brock Motum.
Motum is the top-scoring front court player in the Pac-12, with 18.9 points per game, and he has proven to be one of the few threats on the somewhat lacking Cougar offense. The versatile forward leads his team in total points, blocks, rebounds and 3-pointers.
Freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski proved he could handle a talented center on the road after going toe-to-toe with Washington’s Aziz N’Diaye. Tarczewski had 10 points and eight rebounds but missed two dunks during the game that could have pushed his performance to the next level.
Motum’s versatility means the two freshman forwards, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett, will most likely be assigned to shut down the Cougars’ main threat. If they manage that, then the Wildcats should continue clawing their way back into the Pac-12 title race.
But Arizona isn’t looking to just win the conference. A loss to Washington State would take a major bite out of the Wildcats’ credibility, whether fair or not.
“Expectations are high. We set the bar high because we won 14 [games] in a row; we’re ranked high nationally,” Miller said. “When we lose it’s, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I understand that.”
After winning in Seattle, though, the Wildcats are a victory in Pullman away from their first road Washington sweep since December 2005. Not a bad way of putting those questions to rest.