The Arizona Wildcats (13-6, 3-3 Pac-12) continue their season-long three-game road trip when they face the Washington Huskies (12-9, 2-6) on Thursday night at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle.
Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. MT and the game will be shown on ESPN2. Here are some things to watch for:
The road left undefeated
Saturday’s collapse at ASU, in which Arizona blew a 22-point lead—tied for the second-largest comeback in Division I this season and tied for the largest in Pac-10/12 history—dropped it to 0-4 this season in true road games. The Wildcats have lost five straight on the road, dating back to March, and have lost 12 of their last 16 games away from McKale Center.
A loss on Thursday would tie for the longest road skid for the UA since 2009-10, when it loss the last three road games under interim coach Russ Pennell and the first three of the Sean Miller era.
Asked why there’s been such a difference in performance depending on the locale, Miller took it upon himself to take the blame.
“I think it’s coaching,” he said. “I’ve got to do a better job of putting our players in position to be successful.
Arizona has the the 11th-best offensive efficiency in the country, per KenPom.com, yet in its road games that’s been far from the case. Five of the Wildcats’ seven worst offensive efficiencies this season have occurred in the four road games and the neutral-site loss to St. John’s in San Francisco, and they’re shooting 38.6 percent overall and 28.0 percent from 3-point range compared to 49.8 and 38.9 percent at McKale.
“I think our offense is really executing and we’re playing with tremendous confidence at home,” Miller said. “When we enter that away gym, I think I’ve got to do a better job of making sure our guys are prepared. We’re going to keep working hard at it and make sure we can be the best we can be, regardless of where the game is played.”
A vulnerable opponent
The Washington team Arizona is facing on Thursday is not the one that ran away with the Pac-12 title last season, starting 10-0 in league play and finishing three games better than the field. In fact, it’s already doubled last year’s conference loss total (three).
This wasn’t expected even with massive turnover—the Huskies are the 13th least-experienced team in Division I—because of the arrival of a stellar freshman class led by big men Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart and Kentucky transfer point guard Quade Green. UW was picked to finish third this year, just ahead of Arizona, and looked solid during a 10-3 nonconference performance that included a win over No. 1 Baylor and a narrow loss to No. 2 Gonzaga.
Then came Pac-12 play, and it’s been nearly all downhill. Even more so since Green was declared academically ineligible in early January, though Washington had already lost at home to a rebuilding UCLA team before his departure.
Green was averaging 11.6 points and 5.3 assists and was shooting 44.7 percent from 3, and in his absence the offense has become incredibly stagnant. The Huskies are last in the Pac-12 in turnover percentage in league games, giving it away 14.7 times per game over their last six contests, and despite having the conference’s highest 3-point attempt rate they are shooting only 31.6 percent from deep.
Zeke Nnaji vs. Isaiah Stewart
It’s going to be hard for Pac-12 voters to decide who ends up winning the league’s Freshman of the Year award since there are so many great options this season. One way to help determine the winner may come in head-to-head matchups, particularly between similar players.
That will happen in the paint Thursday night when Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji faces Washington super frosh Isaiah Stewart. They rank second and third, respectively, in CBS Sports’ latest freshman rankings.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Stewart is sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring (18.2 points per game), fourth in rebounding (8.9) and field goal percentage (59.2) and third in blocks (2.1) while Nnaji is ninth in scoring (16.9), fifth in rebounding (8.7) and first in shooting (65.3).
“Those two guys are two of the best freshmen in the country,” Miller said. “They’re both inside players, forwards, they both have bright futures. Two terrific players that are having great freshman years. I think when you talk about all-conference I think they’re both up there.”
Will Arizona be at full strength?
Chase Jeter has missed the last three games after suffering back spasms two weeks ago. He warmed up prior to Saturday’s game at ASU but Miller said afterward he was still “learning how to practice” again after missing time to heal up.
As of Tuesday, it didn’t sound like Jeter was that much closer to playing.
“We’re kind of monitoring him every day,” Miller said. “We’re hoping that he can get back to healthy. I think that’s the stage we’re at that right now. We’ll see if we’re able to use him this week.”
Stone Gettings is expected to make his fourth consecutive start in Jeter’s absence, while Ira Lee should continue to see an uptick in his minutes. Gettings has averaged 5.7 points and 3.0 rebounds in 22.7 minutes in his three starts, while Lee has averaged 4.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 19.3 minutes off the bench, with his 6-point, 7-rebound, 26-minute effort against Colorado on Jan. 18 resulting in the McKale crowd chanting his name.
“Stone’s playing with great effort; I put him and Ira both in the same category,” Miller said. “Those guys aren’t perfect, they make mistakes. I think their intent is pure, they’re playing hard. Effort is not a problem for either one of them. I think we like both of them in the current role that we have. I think that’s our best bet to win and we’re going to keep developing that.”
If it’s close at the end …
KenPom.com projects a 70-68 game on Thursday night, in favor of Arizona. If that’s the case then this one could come down to the final play, and we all know how well that has gone for the Wildcats this season (and throughout the Miller era, for that matter).
But considering Washington is equally as unsuccessful in close games, this may be what the last minute of regulation could look like:
Arizona is 1-5 in 2019-20 in games decided by six or fewer points, with those five losses by a combined 14 points. Washington is 1-6 in similar games, with all of those losses coming in Pac-12 play, resulting in a plus-11 scoring differential in league games despite a 2-6 record.