First-place Arizona (19-4, 9-1 Pac-12) enters on a seven-game winning streak, while third-place Washington (16-6, 6-3) is coming off a win vs. No. 25 ASU.
It is a big game to be sure, and here are some of the major storylines.
Long story short, Arizona assistant coach Lorenzo Romar is making his return to Hec Edmundson Pavilion for the first time since being fired as Washington’s head coach last spring.
He was UW’s head coach for 15 seasons and played there for two, so his homecoming is a big deal.
Not to mention that several current Washington players were recruited and/or coached by Romar including the team’s stellar trio of juniors — David Crisp, Noah Dickerson, and Matisse Thybulle — plus wing Jaylen Nowell, who is Washington’s leading scorer and arguably the second-best freshman in the conference.
Our colleagues at UW Dawg Pound, the Washington SB Nation site, said they would be shocked if there’s anything but a positive reception for Romar.
But how will Romar feel about returning? Well, he sat down for a Q&A with a few newspapers, and here’s what he had to say:
He said this via the Seattle Times: “Well, here’s what I know. I know in the past how the Dawg Pack has been to the opposition. So I know it could possibly be something that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know that the Dawg Pack hasn’t been too kind to the opposition before. When I was at Washington, it was pretty fun. But I don’t know what it’s going to be like on the other side.”
And he said this via the Arizona Daily Star: “It’s not awkward but it will be a different situation and I don’t know how I’m going to respond. I just know were fighting for the league championship right now and that’s where our focus is going to be on.”
Hired to replace Romar was Mike Hopkins, the protégé of longtime Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim.
Like Boeheim, the fiery 47-year-old Hopkins utilizes an opportunistic 2-3 zone. And Washington, a team always known for its length and athleticism, is thriving in the new system.
UW only won nine games last year and was projected to finish 10th in the Pac-12, but has won 16 games already and sits in third place in the conference.
Since Pac-12 play started, the Huskies are holding teams to 96.9 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. That is the best mark in the conference.
Plus, Pac-12 foes are only shooting 27 percent from 3 against UW, which is easily the lowest in the league.
Not only that, but Washington is No. 2 in both block and turnover percentage.
UW’s best player is Matisse Thybulle, a long, 6-foot-5 wing who is the second-best player in the entire country at creating steals. Not just because of his physical tools, but also because UW’s zone gives players like him more freedom to disrupt passing lanes.
The junior has 10 steals the last two games, including six in the win vs. ASU on Thursday. Hopkins called Thybulle ‘Spiderman’ afterwards.
Arizona is notorious for its struggles against zone defense, and UW’s propensity for creating takeaways could prove extremely problematic. What Washington does lack is size, so the key for the Wildcats will be finding ways to get Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton the ball in favorable spots.
Rawle Alkins will likely start vs. Washington, so the question is now, how many minutes will he play?
The sophomore, who was dealing with soreness in his previously-injured right foot, only played 16 minutes Wednesday at Washington after a two-game hiatus, but that was also a 28-point win, so he didn’t need to play a ton.
The last time Arizona had an important game — two Saturdays ago at Stanford — Alkins played 34 minutes. But he also experienced soreness afterward which forced him to miss the next two games, so maybe Miller will be more conservative with Alkins this time around.
Romar isn’t the only one making a homecoming Saturday. Seattle native Allonzo Trier will be returning to his hometown — and he’s excited.
“It’s great being able to go back and play basically where basketball started for me,” Trier said Monday. “And a lot of friends and people will be there to see me that I don’t get to see very often.”
Maybe that fueled Trier last year when he made four 3s and finished with 21 points on 10 shots as the Wildcats beat the Huskies 76-68 in Seattle.
That type of shooting will be difficult to replicate against UW’s stingy zone this time, though.
NCAA Tournament implications
This is probably the second-toughest game remaining on Arizona’s regular season schedule, so a victory could go a long way toward securing another Pac-12 title and/or a better seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That first part is especially true if USC loses to UCLA on Saturday. The Wildcats currently hold a one-game lead over the Trojans.
Meanwhile, Washington is on the NCAA Tournament bubble, so a win over a top-10 Arizona team would be paramount for its résumé.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi listed the Huskies as one of the first four teams out in his most recent bracketology.
So don’t think Husky fans, who are having a “blackout,” don’t realize the significance of Saturday’s game.
The Hec will be rocking.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire