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Arizona ready for Washington’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense

The first-place Huskies are easily the best defensive team in the Pac-12

arizona-wildcats-washington-huskies-zone-defense-mike-hopkins-college-basketball Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

There are no secrets when it comes to Washington Huskies basketball. They are going to play zone defense, and they are going to do it for 40 minutes.

“They’re the ultimate Do What We Do team,” said Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller, whose team hosts UW on Thursday.

Predictable? Yes. Solvable? Not yet.

The first-place Huskies (18-4, 9-0) hold a comfortable three-game lead atop the Pac-12 standings and their success stems from their swarming defense, which ranks 15th in the country, according to KenPom.

It’s only getting better, too.

Since the start of league play, UW is allowing just 90.6 points per 100 possessions, easily the best mark in the conference. UCLA is second at, wait for it, 98.9.

“They are not going to show a whole lot of man-to-man. They’re gonna play zone, that’s what they believe in and they’re really good at it,” Miller said.

Washington coach Mike Hopkins was hired away from Syracuse in 2017 after spending 21 seasons there as an assistant coach under Jim Boeheim. Boeheim’s Orange are known for their vaunted 2-3 zone and Hopkins has implemented it beautifully in Seattle.

Of course, it helps that he inherited a roster with reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Matisse Thybulle, a 6-foot-5 senior whose arms seem to stretch for miles.

Thybulle leads the nation in steal percentage, swiping over three per game. That number actually seems low when you consider he has racked up five or more steals in each of the past three games.

“He’s got incredible anticipation, athleticism and feel,” Hopkins said (via the AP). “When anybody is incredible at that part of their craft, whether it’s playing the guitar or it might be playing the drums, it’s kind of inbred in them.”

“I can’t imagine a better guard playing that zone than Thybulle,” Miller added. “He’s so active, has such long arms.”

Thybulle is one of several Huskies who use their length to smother opposing offenses. Washington is fourth in the country in block and steal percentage. Even crazier for a zone-only team is that opponents are only shooting 32 percent from 3 against UW.

“Very seldom does a 2-3 zone create turnovers, create steal opportunities, create shot blocks,” Miller said. “When you think about zone, you usually think about a lot of 3-point shots going up. Their zone can actually take the 3-point shot away.”

That is because the Huskies’ length and athleticism gives them an unparalleled ability to extend their defense, and they can afford to be aggressive because they have several shot-blockers waiting to deter drivers at the rim.

Hameir Wright is averaging 1.4 blocks in just 17.3 minutes, while Sam Timmins is averaging 1.0 in just 11.4 minutes. Then there is Thybulle, who, despite being a wing, is swatting more than two shots per game.

“He’s all over the place when it comes to getting steals, blocking shots from behind,” UW forward Noah Dickerson said (via the AP). “He’s a pest.”

Arizona gets the unenviable task of deciphering Washington’s zone on Thursday. The key, Miller said, will be getting the ball into the middle of the defense via pass or dribble-drive, though mostly the latter given Arizona’s guard-heavy personnel.

“And then once it’s in the middle,” Miller said, “you’ve got to score.”

The Wildcats struggled to do that last season, despite having ultimate zone-busters like Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier. The Huskies stunned the then-ninth-ranked Wildcats in Seattle, one of only four conference losses Arizona suffered all season.

The Wildcats (14-8, 5-4) already have as many conference losses this season, and there are still nine games to play.

“Watching us a year ago, the first 20 minutes we got the ball in there some, maybe not as much as we would have liked,” Miller said. “But when we got it in the middle, we didn’t deliver. It was a different feeling. Once we settled in in the second half, our offense was good enough to win that game.

“But in terms of personnel, it’s really hard to judge that game because our personnel is so much different this year versus last year. ... So how we do this year remains to be seen because we have a completely different group.”

There aren’t many reasons to be optimistic. Arizona’s offense ranked 15th in the country last year, but it is 110th this year, an all-time low under Miller. Not to mention the Wildcats, losers of three straight, will be without their best slasher in Brandon Williams, who is out indefinitely with a sore knee.

For the first time in six years, the Wildcats are not favored on their home court.

“Against a team like Washington, you’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders because they’re not going to just give you multiple good opportunities,” Miller said. “When you get those opportunities on offense, you have to be able to strike.”