LAS VEGAS — The fifth-seeded Arizona Wildcats will face the 12th-seeded Washington Huskies on Wednesday to open the Pac-12 Tournament, a rematch of Saturday’s season finale in which the Huskies embarrassed the Wildcats on Senior Day.
Tip-off is set for 2:30 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network. Here are some things to watch for.
Hitting the postseason switch
In order to hit a much-needed second gear in the postseason, Arizona coach Sean Miller says teams have to do two things.
1. Play with desperation in a positive way.
“They don’t make the game bigger than it needs to be made, but they play with tremendous effort,” he said. “Almost as if they can’t comprehend not being able to play the next day. And that comes from within the locker room, that comes from within the players, and in the team, the coaches, but you want to have some kind of that good desperation. You want to have that fight inside of you that you’re willing to do whatever, whatever is necessary for your team to win.”
2. Your best players elevate to a new level.
“They rise to the challenge, they have big nights, you ride the wave of a hot hand, somebody that you know, just cannot miss and plays even better than he has all year long,” he said. “That’s always the storyline in March.”
Zeke Nnaji, who was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on Monday, seems to be ready to do these things.
“I definitely think that our mindset right now is we’re really hungry,” he said. “I mean, we didn’t get the win against Washington and we felt like we played really bad. And right now we’re just trying to bounce back and be the most aggressive team we can. I think that when we have good, strong starts, we just continue to keep that momentum going, keep pushing on defense, keep going in transition, I think that we can be one of the best teams in the country. So think right now our mindset is just as focused as possible and trying to win this tournament.”
Washington freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels are peaking at the right time. Over his last eight games, McDaniels is averaging 15.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3.
He had 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks against Arizona, shooting 7 for 14 from the field and 5 for 9 for 3, looking every bit of the first-round pick he is projected to be.
“McDaniels is a very talented young player, those guys seem to always hit their stride at some point in their freshman year,” Miller said. “Seems like he’s hitting his stride here at the end. But his height, he just has the ability to shoot over the top of people and finish above the rim. And defensively in their zone, he takes up a lot of space. The light bulb can go on for those talented freshmen and young players at different times, and I think he’s playing his best basketball right now down the stretch.”
Over his last nine games, Stewart is averaging 13.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 52 percent from the field, scoring at least 10 points in every game. He had 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting last Saturday, getting the best of Nnaji and Arizona’s frontcourt.
“His motor,” Nnaji said when asked what makes Stewart so hard to defend. “I mean, he just is always working. He’s so strong and so physical that he has a seal like it’s hard to get around him. He can jump really well and he’s a great shot blocker.”
Baker’s bad run
With Max Hazzard presumably out for a third straight game, that leaves Jemarl Baker Jr. as Arizona’s only reserve guard, meaning they not only need him to score but also handle the ball anytime Nico Mannion needs a breather.
Unfortunately, Baker hasn’t done either well lately.
Over his last eight games, the Kentucky transfer is 3 for 21 from 3 and has committed 12 turnovers after only committing 11 in Arizona’s first 24 games.
Arizona actually got a lot of good looks against Washington’s zone but, other than Dylan Smith, had a hard time knocking them down. That wasn’t true the first time these teams played in Seattle when Baker had a season-high 17 points, making some big 3s down the stretch, including the game-winner.
If Arizona gets that Baker, it might just win the whole Pac-12 Tournament.
“Wherever we get our shots from, the ball has to go in,” Miller said. “And I hope that we can shoot the ball better. That’s one thing we have worked a lot on the last couple of days making sure that our guys are shooting the ball and getting a lot of repetitions in before we head out.”
Limiting turnovers is always Miller’s key against Washington and its long, athletic 2-3 zone, and the Wildcats did a terrible job of doing that Saturday, giving the ball away 18 times, many of them leading to easy points the other way.
That is a no-no against a Washington team whose offense ranks a mediocre 111th in the country.
“We were better in the second half than the first half, but I thought we also played with much more urgency in the second half,” Miller said.
The 10th war
Arizona likes to break games down into 10 four-minute segments—”wars” as they call them. The Wildcats have been notoriously bad in the 10th war this season, costing them wins vs. Oregon (twice), Arizona State, and UCLA to name a few.
The Huskies won the 10th war 10-8 in the first matchup, as the Wildcats could not trim a four-point deficit.
This time of year, those late-game struggles not only mean losses but elimination from the postseason as well.
“I think we got a lot of young guys, we just need more experience, but I think that the biggest thing is we just can’t crack under pressure,” Nnaji said. “We just kind of need to stick with what we normally do and we have to be better in the 10th war. I know a lot of the times that last war, that last four-minute period, we’re usually getting out scored.That’s when we had to be our most solid.”
For the Huskies, their season will likely end in Las Vegas unless they improbably win the Pac-12 Tournament.
For Arizona, the Pac-12 Tournament could have major ramifications on its seed in the NCAA Tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently projects the Wildcats as No. 8 seed, the obvious downside of that being that they would have to face a No. 1 in the second round.
If Arizona loses to Washington, it could fall down to the 9-line. If it wins a few games in Vegas, it could move to the 7- or even 6-line.