Only five games remain on the Arizona Wildcats’ regular season schedule, and up next is a pair of road games against the Washington schools, starting with a battle against the Washington State Cougars on Thursday night in Pullman.
The Cougars (11-14, 4-9 Pac-12) are one of the weaker teams in the Pac-12, but they put up a fight against the Wildcats when the two teams squared off in Tucson just three weeks ago.
No. 5 Arizona (23-3, 12-1 Pac-12) won 79-62, but WSU had the game within single digits with under seven minutes to play.
“Washington State scored against us. They were efficient against us,” UA head coach Sean Miller said. “They scored in transition. They got the ball to [Conor] Clifford too close to the basket. He hurt us.”
Clifford — averaging 9.4 points per game — poured in 19 points against the Wildcats that night, as the 7-footer proved to be a problematic cover for Arizona’s frontcourt.
“Clifford is one of the most improved players in our conference,” Miller said.
As a team, WSU shot 47 percent from 3 — a high percentage against Arizona considering the Cougars’ offense is in the bottom half in efficiency in the conference.
“I thought the pace of play caught us off guard,” Miller said. “They had a number of quick baskets that we have to take away but that’s their style.”
The Cougars also deployed what is the Wildcats’ Achilles heel — a zone defense. However, Arizona handled it well, shooting 57 percent from the field and 9-for-20 from 3 against the Cougars.
“And although I thought we scored against their matchup zone, I think there’s some things now that we can do better, maybe put our team in a better position to be more comfortable against it and it’s up to us to be ready for that on Thursday,” Miller said.
Improving their zone offense is — and has been — a focus for the Wildcats, and Miller is encouraged how his team attacked the zones of Stanford and Cal last week.
“I think we’re really on the upswing to being more comfortable as a team and that’s our responsibility as a coaching staff,” he said.
Arizona is also honing in on becoming a dominant rebounding team. The Wildcats allowed 17 second-chance points to Stanford last Wednesday, which UA big man Chance Comanche said woke Arizona up.
They responded by holding a usually-dangerous Cal team to just four second-chance points on Saturday.
Comanche says Arizona is bigger and stronger than the teams it plays, but sometimes the effort isn’t always there, leading to lapses on glass.
“I just see sometimes we take plays off, including me,” Comanche said. “Because if we wanted to, we could get all the rebounds.”
WSU has one of the best rebounders in the conference in Josh Hawkinson. The senior is averaging a double-double this season at 15.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
However, Arizona did limit him to just nine points and five rebounds in its first game against WSU.
The Wildcats did not have the same type of success defending WSU’s backcourt, though. Senior shooting guard Ike Iroegbu and freshman point guard Malachi Flynn combined for 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting.
Miller called Flynn one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen. Flynn is averaging 10.8 points and 2.8 assists while shooting 42 percent from 3 in his first season.
“I really think he’s a good player,” Miller said. “He’s poised and as a point guard, when you can shoot the 3-point shot like him, he adds even more value.
“He’s a big piece to the team this year and we’re going to be a lot better prepared having faced him, seeing that the type of player that he is. And hopefully we can do a better job defending him and being more aware of him this time around.”
Arizona is 62-16 all-time against WSU, and has won the last 11 matchups against the Cougars.
The Wildcats’ trek to Pullman is not your ordinary road trip. For one, UA does not even stay there.
Arizona will spend the night in Spokane on Wednesday, then hold morning shootaround at Gonzaga on Thursday before taking the 75-mile drive to Pullman.
“That’s just how we’ve chosen to do it,” said Miller, whose teams are 6-0 when staying in Spokane. “There’s nothing magical, just that our teams have really been focused on this trip, and I hope the same holds true this year.”
Miller says Arizona will get to Pullman 30 to 40 minutes earlier than it would normally arrive at an arena to give its players time to have another shootaround.
But the tenuous travel does not end there.
After playing WSU, the Wildcats will drive an hour to Lewiston, Idaho, where they will get on a flight to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies on Saturday.
“It’s a hard trip no matter how you look at it,” Miller said. “That’s why winning the games on that trip are particularly hard, especially leaving Arizona. Somebody told me that it’s the furthest distance of a conference opponent in the country. Think about that.
“Every conference has those hard travel points. ... You’re really relying on your team to be focused and that’s what this week is about. We have to be very focused, we have to play well, and we have to prepare well before we leave.”
How to watch Thursday’s game
Time: 7 p.m. MST
TV: FOX Sports 1
Live stream: FOX Sports GO
Announcers: Aaron Goldsmith & Steve Lavin
How they match up
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