The Arizona Wildcats (18-2, 7-0), winners of 12 in a row, are coming off their biggest week of the season.
The LA road trip, considered the toughest in this year’s Pac-12, was no match for the red-hot Wildcats as they downed both foes in impressive fashion.
With this winning streak, the return of Allonzo Trier and the marquee victory over the UCLA Bruins, Arizona finds themselves ranked in the top ten and getting a lot more national attention than they have all season long.
How will this young group respond to the attention and the greater expectations? We may find out a little bit on Thursday night when Arizona squares off with the Washington State Cougars (10-9, 3-4). Here are three things to watch:
Allonzo Trier seemed pretty calm in his season debut this past Saturday. About as calm as you can expect from a kid with NBA aspirations who was forced to sit out the first 19 games of an important Sophomore campaign.
We’ll see if that calmness will carry over to his home debut.
Trier has received an outpouring of support from the Arizona faithful since his ordeal began. While many questioned why he was suspended, Trier still got a lot of love from Tucson.
Thursday night will be Trier’s first game on his home floor in nearly 11 months. And you can be sure that he will be looking to deliver in a big way. He’s facing a defense, for the second straight game, that caters to that.
Washington State ranks 229th in the nation in defensive efficiency so if it’s a big offensive show that Trier is looking for, he just might have it.
PAC-12’S BEST KEPT SECRET
It’s been a rough couple of years for Washington State basketball and senior forward, Josh Hawkinson, has gotten to see plenty of it.
His freshman year was head coach Ken Bone’s final season in Pullman. Then came Ernie Kent and with him, came hope for a basketball program that has seen only three NCAA Tournament appearances in over thirty years.
But in Kent’s first two years, Wazzu combined for a record of 22-40. Through those seasons, however, there’s been a silver lining.
While the wins have still come at a premium, in Josh Hawkinson’s three seasons under Ernie Kent, he has proven to be a fantastic player, double-double machine and the best player since Klay Thompson’s days as a Cougar.
Washington State is 10-9 on the season, meaning they already have one more win than they did all of last season and Hawkinson is a big reason why. For the third straight year, he’s averaging a double-double (currently 15.6 points and 10.3 rebounds) while shooting better than 50% on the year.
Hawkinson faces quite a matchup on Thursday night against Dusan Ristic and Lauri Markkanen. Arizona has been a force in both rebounding and interior defense. But Hawkinson, the Cougars senior leader, will be up for the challenge.
There’s no sense in mincing words. Arizona is expected to throw the Cougars a beatdown on Thursday night. They’re riding the momentum of 12 straight victories and a huge road sweep. Plus they’re coming home at full strength to play a team that recently got pasted by 41 against Utah on their home floor. Arizona is a 23 point favorite on Thursday night and rightfully so.
But these young Wildcats have been, for the most part, ignored this season. Missing as many pieces to the puzzle as they have throughout the year, the Wildcats were discarded as a Pac-12 favorite after losses to Butler and Gonzaga on and shortly after Thanksgiving.
With UCLA on the rise and Oregon back at full strength, Arizona was an afterthought. I believe that played a part in their winning streak.
So what happens when the attention comes back and the disrespect goes away? The Wildcats are impossible to ignore now. Trier is back, Markkanen is projected as a top ten pick in next year’s NBA draft and guys like Kobi Simmons and Kadeem Allen are fresh off a magnificent performance on a national stage.
Wins are wins but when it comes to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, style points do matter. A competitive game against a lesser opponent doesn’t look good.
So what happens next? Do the Wildcats continue their world beating ways? Or does all the national love bring a squad sporting three freshman in the starting lineup back down to Earth?
One thing is certain — all eyes are on the Wildcats now.