Arizona gets back after it tonight in Pullman when the Wildcats face the Washington State Cougars. Arizona beat up WSU in the first meeting this season, 85-61, in Tucson. The trip to the Pacific Northwest marks the final two-game road swing of the season for Arizona as the Wildcats look to improve upon its 4-2 road record in league play.
Freshman guard Nick Johnson's play has improved of late. Can the frosh keep it up down the stretch as the Wildcats seek a second straight regular season conference crown?
Date: Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
Time: 7:00 p.m. MST
Location: Friel Court (11,671) Pullman, Wash.
Radio: IMG College/Wildcat Radio Network (Brian Jeffries/Matt Muehlebach)
TV: FSN (Kevin Calabro/Ernie Kent)
Arizona has been getting it done on the road of late. The Wildcats have been victorious in four of their last five conference road games, enjoying halftime leads in all five games. Its lone loss during the run came at Colorado in a game the Wildcats fell to the Buffaloes by a single point, 64-63. Arizona holds an impressive 7.6 scoring advantage in conference road games this season.
WSU (13-12, 5-8 Pac-12) boast home wins over California and Stanford this season while amassing a 10-2 overall record at Friel Court. Travel to Pullman is always a concern for any Pac-12 team and it’ll be no different for the Wildcats. Arizona must remain focused through the air flights and bus trips in and out of the region while also trying to keep the significance of each game on this road trip in perspective. The Wildcats, who are currently sitting squarely on the cut line for the NCAA Tournament, cannot afford to drop Thursday’s game to Wazzou. In fact, Arizona can hardly afford a single loss at this point with an RPI hovering around 68 and a strength of schedule at 92. Still, Arizona can’t worry about resume builders or destroyers right now. Instead, they need to focus on the task at hand, which is beating the Cougars in a hostile environment.
WSU is shooting 47.1% from the floor this season, which ranks third-best in the conference. Arizona will try and counter WSU’s efficient shooting with a defense that ranks second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense (40%). Arizona did just that in its 24-point win over Wazzou on Jan. 26. In fact, the Wildcats got the better of the Cougars on both ends of the floor as Arizona shot over 50% from the floor for the first time this year in conference play while holding the Cougars beneath their season shooting average. Arizona also outrebounded the Cougars while committing only nine turnovers.
Arizona (18-8, 9-4 Pac-12) has won four straight league games to vault up the conference standings. The Wildcats are currently in a log jam for second place with Oregon and Colorado, a full game behind both California and Washington. A win tonight will keep Arizona on pace to contend for the regular season crown, and will set up an opportunity to catch Washington in the standings on Saturday when they travel to Seattle to face the Huskies.
Despite struggling to beat Utah last weekend, Arizona did accomplish some nice things. Notably, the Wildcats tallied 18 assists on 21 field goals to produce its best assist percentage of the season (85.7%). The effort was led by Josiah Turner’s season-high seven assists, as well as a career-best five assists from senior forward Jesse Perry. Playing on the road, nothing trumps a home court defense better than teammates setting up teammates for scores. Arizona will look for a similar effort tonight and will need Turner to again lead the way from the point guard position.
No team is hotter than Arizona in the Pac-12 right now. The Wildcats own the longest current active streak among league teams and have tied California, Oregon and Washington as the only schools to have won four-straight conference games this season. In order to maintain its winning streak, Arizona will need to stop WSU’s Brock Motum, who has been on a tear since teammate Faisal Aden was lost for the season (foot injury) during the 85-61 loss to Arizona. Motum is averaging 25 points in his last five games, and will pose a threat to Arizona’s thin front line. The Wildcats may rotate several defenders on Motum, but mainly stopping the WSU forward will be the responsibility of Angelo Chol and Perry. Chol picked up three fouls in the first-half of Arizona’s win over Utah last Saturday and played only nine minutes as a result. The game stunted a nice streak of solid performances by Arizona’s true freshman, who turned into a shot-blocking machine during U of A’s three previous victories. A solid effort by Chol tonight could be the difference between an easy road victory and a gut-busting thriller that goes down to the wire.
Another Wildcat role player who will need to step up is Brendon Lavender. In the first meeting of the season between these schools, Kyle Fogg scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half to spark a game breaking 22-9 scoring run over the final 8:28 before halftime. Expect WSU to pay extra attention to Fogg tonight, opening the opportunity for Lavender to step up and stretch the defense with his league-leading 51% three-point shooting efficiency. Even one make from deep will force the Cougars to honor Lavender’s shot, which should help to open the middle of the floor for Solomon Hill and Perry to operate.
A final key will be foul shooting. Arizona has been excellent in getting to the foul line during the second half of conference play. In Arizona’s last five games, the Wildcats have attempted 140 free throws while their opponents have taken only 65 foul shots. In a nine-point victory over Utah in Tucson, Arizona bested the Utes from the foul line 17-6 in made free throws. Those 11 points proved to be more than the difference in the game’s outcome. While Arizona has seemed to shake off a mid-season slump from the foul line by upping its season free throw shooting average to 72% as a team, misses remain a concern because despite knocking down over 70% of their foul shots this season, the Wildcats remain a paltry 66.9% from the line in 13 conference games. During Arizona’s run of winning eight games in their last 11 tries, the three losses came by a combined scoring margin of just five points. Although Arizona actually outshot its opponents (Oregon, Colorado and Washington) from the foul line in these three losses, the Wildcats did combine to miss 24 total free throws.
For a team like Arizona which is not exactly shooting lights out from the floor this year, every point counts and if the Cats are to continue their winning ways it’ll be the little things that help them accomplish their goals.
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