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What to watch for when Arizona visits Washington on New Year’s Eve

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Arizona v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats begin their first Pac-12 road trip of the season on Thursday when they visit the Washington Huskies in Seattle.

Arizona (7-1, 1-1 Pac-12) is coming off an 88-74 home win over Colorado on Monday, but that result was quickly forgotten when the school announced Tuesday it was self-imposing a postseason ban for 2020-21. The Wildcats will not play in either the Pac-12 or NCAA tournaments.

Thursday’s game against the Huskies (1-6, 0-2) will tip off at 6 p.m. MST and will be shown on the Pac-12 Network. Here are some things to be watching for from Alaska Airlines Arena.

Where do we go from here?

Tuesday’s shocking announcement that Arizona was keeping itself out of the postseason, which it called “a proactive measure in its ongoing NCAA enforcement process,” means there’s a known end point to the 2020-21 campaign. That would be the March 6 home finale against ASU.

There are 18 games left on Arizona’s schedule, all in the Pac-12, so a conference regular season title can still be achieved. Is that enough motivation?

A good indication of how the Wildcats plan to operate the rest of the way could be seen as soon as this first game. Will it be busy as usual when it comes to the player rotation, or will barely used freshmen Tibet Gorener and Tautvilas Tubelis get into the mix? That pair have logged a combined 13 minutes in four total appearances.

The dreaded zone

The zone has been Arizona coach Sean Miller’s kryptonite, and no one else uses that defense more than Washington.

Since Mike Hopkins succeeded Lorenzo Romar before the 2017-18 season, Arizona is 2-3 against the Huskies while shooting only 40.4 percent from the field. Last year the UA shot only 37.9 percent in three games against UW, including at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, though it did make 38 percent of its 3-pointers.

This year’s Washington team has struggled mightily, particularly on offense, averaging 61 points per game on 39.8 percent shooting. The Huskies are making only 25.4 percent of their 3s, going 4 of 18 from outside in their last game against Colorado on Dec. 20 in Vegas in a nonconference matchup.

Washington only has one player averaging double figures in redshirt junior guard Quade Green. The Kentucky transfer was academically ineligible for the final 17 games of last season, including all three games against Arizona.

“We’re going to have to be ready for Washington,” Miller said after Monday’s game. “I know they’ve had some time off, their zone is very unique, and we have to be ready to play a great game in Seattle.”

Short turnaround

In a season full of uncertainty, there’s something comforting about the consistency of the Pac-12 schedule. For the next 10 weeks Arizona will play either one or two games between Thursday and Saturday, trading off between home and road weekend.

Miller has avoided sprinkling other games into the conference slate during his tenure, a departure from Lute Olson’s penchant for doing so during the ASU weeks. But it wasn’t Miller’s call that Arizona had to play on Monday, as the Colorado game was rescheduled from its original Dec. 2 date due to the Buffaloes having COVID-19 issues.

Combine that with the postseason ban news, and Arizona is in a potentially vulnerable state.

“We just have to be careful,” Miller said Monday. “Our guys don’t have school right now, but we have to be careful just in how long we’re going, how hard we go. There’s different ways to prepare for games in the next two days. We have to be careful physically with our team and be smart as a staff, be smart as a team and be the most ready we can be on Thursday.

“This year, I don’t mind playing the game that we just played in a Pac-12 road trip week. Sometimes you’re like the third game is too much, but because we’ve only been able to play seven, I think playing games is helpful. We’ve had enough practices. We’re at about 50 practices. Part of what’s going to develop our team is games. I think playing tonight’s game, it helps our confidence, and in some ways maybe prepares us better for the upcoming trip.”

A pair of homecomings

Seattle has been an important place for Arizona’s program over the years, and it’s returned to the forefront this season thanks to the presence of assistant coach Jason Terry and senior guard Terrell Brown Jr., both natives of the Emerald City.

Terry, in his first season on the UA staff, was one of many key players the Wildcats plucked out of Seattle during the Olson era, while Brown is a graduate transfer who played high school and junior college ball there before a two-season stint at Seattle U.

And Arizona’s highest-rated 2021 signee, 4-star shooting guard Shane Nowell, is a Seattle prep star and younger brother of former Washington standout Jaylen Nowell.

Unfortunately, the return home for Terry and Brown won’t include any re-connecting with friends and family. COVID protocols mean there won’t be fans at the game, nor are players and coaches able to meet with anyone at the team hotel.

“It’s hard on Terrell, it’s hard on all of us,” Miller said. “We’re going up there to stick together as a group, prepare for a game, and just try to enjoy the holidays as best we can.”

Turnover streak watch

Speaking of Terrell Brown, his transformation from a high-volume scorer at Seattle to a key role player at Arizona has been special to watch. Nowhere more so than in his handling of the ball.

Brown has committed just three turnovers in 171 minutes this season, while dishing out 30 assists. He had 12 points, seven assists and no giveaways against Colorado, upping his turnover-less streak to 124 minutes dating back to the 2:17 mark of the second half against Eastern Washington on Dec. 5.

If he keeps it up through the weekend, Brown figures to surpass the 151-minute mistake-free run Jemarl Baker Jr. had last season over eight games.