It’s the first time the Wildcats have faced the Cougars under first-year coach Kyle Smith, who was hired away from the University of San Francisco. WSU is no longer the pushover it was under Ernie Kent, currently ranking as the No. 126 team in the country per KenPom, its highest mark since 2012-13.
Still, KenPom only gives the Cougars a 20 percent chance of knocking off the Wildcats. Here are some things to watch for.
Winning in Pullman will be difficult
Arizona (finally) picked up its first road win Thursday at Washington in what was considered the tougher game of this road trip, but Washington State is no slouch at home.
The Cougars are 11-2 at Beasley Coliseum this year compared to 2-7 in other venues. WSU is 4-1 at home in conference play, with wins over Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, and Arizona State. Its lone loss came against USC.
WSU’s home success can’t necessarily be attributed to a raucous crowd, though. The Cougars average 2,957 fans, easily the lowest in the Pac-12.
And they are still one of the worst teams in the conference for a reason, so the Wildcats need to take care of business or else their win Thursday will lose its luster.
Should the Wildcats lose to WSU, it would drop their record to 2-3 in Quadrant 2 games.
The Cougars love to fire away from deep, entering Saturday No. 1 in the Pac-12 in 3-point attempts per game (24.3). And while they rank 10th in conversion rate, they are actually the third-best 3-point shooting team in the Pac-12 since the start of conference play, sinking roughly 37 percent of their treys.
The two guys to watch are CJ Elleby and Isaac Bonton, who are both shooting over 40 percent from 3 in conference play despite hoisting more than five per game.
Arizona surrendered 14 3-pointers to Washington on Thursday and still won anyway, but that is not exactly a recipe for success.
Sticking with Elleby, he is one of the most dynamic wings in the conference, averaging 18.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
His shooting line—.419/.338/.789—isn’t that impressive and he is capable of having some extremely inefficient games, like when he went 3 for 22 in the loss to USC. But the Cougars ride with him for better or worse, giving him over 15 shot attempts per game.
The sophomore had a big night in Wednesday’s win vs. ASU, logging 27 points, 12 rebounds and three assists on 19 shots.
You know where else Elleby has a lot of volume? His head:
As with any road game, taking care of the ball will be important
WSU’s other strength on offense is taking care of the ball. The Cougars average just 11.7 turnovers per game, the second-fewest in the conference.
And while WSU’s offense only ranks 184th in the country, it can be a lethal combination when the Cougars are careful with the rock and drilling their 3s.
Arizona, which averages the third-fewest turnovers in the Pac-12 at 11.9, had a weird night against Washington, committing seven turnovers in the first 10 minutes, then committing only three the rest of the night.
The Cougars have the 96th-best defense in the country so the Wildcats shouldn’t have a ton of problems offensively if they are valuing their possessions.
Green finding his groove
Arizona really needs Josh Green to get back on track. The freshman has missed 13 of his last 15 shots, his confidence clearing wavering on that end of the court. He has hesitated to take open 3s and looks tentative attacking the rim, particularly in the halfcourt.
The rest of Arizona’s wings—Max Hazzard, Jemarl Baker Jr. and Dylan Smith—are volatile enough as it is, so Green needs to return to being a more consistent contributor.
Is Jeter glued to the bench?
Chase Jeter made his first appearance Thursday since his back injury, but it came in emergency duty. The redshirt senior played two minutes at the end of the first half to spare Arizona’s other bigs from getting into further foul trouble.
Stone Gettings and Ira Lee have been playing well enough in his stead that it’s possible Jeter will be in a very limited role the rest of the season.
Arizona’s rebounding has been pretty solid since he got injured, averaging a +7 margin over the last four games.