The Arizona Wildcats (18-4, 8-1 Pac-12) have won 15 of their last 16 and appear to be tightening their grip for the top spot in the conference.
Their margin for error is slim though as they only have a half-game lead on the USC Trojans so even the slightest slip-up could lead the Wildcats falling to second.
Arizona is arguably playing the best possible opponent to avoid a slip-up Wednesday night when they travel to Pullman, Wash. to face the Washington State Cougars (9-11, 1-7).
The Cougs have to be overjoyed to be back on their home floor after a three-game road trip that saw them go 0-3 and lose by a combined 40 points.
Being at home hasn’t given Washington State much of an advantage with just a 6-4 record in Pullman, but that is where they captured their lone Pac-12 win, a 25-point thrashing of Cal a little more than two weeks ago.
The Wildcats are the heavy favorite in this one and rightfully so. Not only are they playing much better basketball than Wazzu, Arizona’s last loss to Washington State came back in 2010. Since then, they’ve rarely even played close games. The Wildcats’ last single-digit win over the Cougars came way back in February of 2012.
But the last time Arizona got this comfortable, they walked into Boulder red-hot and walked out losers.
So what does Arizona need to do on Wednesday night to keep an upset from happening? Let’s take a look at three keys to a Wildcat win:
Defend the 3
Washington State takes and makes more 3-pointers than just about anyone in the nation. Their 11.6 makes per game rank second in the country and 30.1 attempts rank fifth.
Luckily the Wildcats will have 3-point defense freshly on their memory after defeating the Utah Utes in a game that got far too close for comfort.
Utah entered the game having shot 30 3-pointers per game over their previous three game, making more than 11 — very similar to Wazzu’s numbers for the season. Arizona held Utah to 7-of-19 from beyond the arc on Saturday with some nice closeouts and good perimeter rotations.
Unfortunately, a central reason of Utah taking less shots from deep was the fact that they were getting plenty of nice looks inside but I digress. With the Cougars’ main hope being getting hot from deep and stunning Arizona, the Wildcats will simply need to scare Washington State’s shooters off the line, mainly their two big scorers, Malachi Flynn and Robert Franks, who combine for more than 13 3-point attempts per game.
If there were any team that Arizona faces in Pac-12 play that they absolutely need to attack the rim against, it’s Washington State.
The Cougars have allowed an ugly 57 percent on 2-pointers in their eight Pac-12 games. They don’t foul teams and their opponents rarely take free throws. That’s simply because their opponents are getting free looks at the rim all day.
Arizona is fresh off a 10-for-16 performance from 3-point land so their confidence is likely at an all-time high from deep.
While it’s always nice to have confident shooters, Arizona truly doesn’t need to rely on that on Wednesday night. The focus needs to be getting easy buckets and settling for nothing. Washington State has been horrendous at stopping teams inside all year long.
While Dusan Ristic hitting three triples last time out was impressive and Deandre Ayton has a nice mid-range game, the bigs need to focus on getting to the rim against the Cougars. If Arizona does that, this one shouldn’t be close.
Strong 40 minutes
Arizona has had bad stretches in nearly every game played this season and Wednesday night should be an opportunity to cure that.
We’ve seen Arizona grab big leads early and then lose them in quick fashion. We’ve seen them get stomped early on and have to climb out of a hole. We’ve seen double-digit leads vanish into thin air in second halves, inconsistent defensive efforts, and an offense that looks like a well-oiled machine suddenly look like it has a dead battery. People that have watched every game of this Wildcats team have seen it all.
The only way the Cougars stay close or stun Arizona in Pullman is if the Wildcats play sloppy, inconsistent basketball. Washington State is struggling to stay afloat in nearly every Pac-12 contest, with just one win and only two of their seven losses coming by single-digits.
But even with the Cougs struggling, Arizona needs to display a killer instinct. Or Wildcat fans will likely spend two hours sweating out another close one.