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Fan’s perspective: Observations from Arizona’s win over Washington

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Washington v Arizona Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

(Editor’s note: Reader/commenter Cats ‘n’ Dawgs chimes in with his thoughts on Arizona’s 77-70 win over Washington.)

Well, that was certainly different. The Arizona Wildcats momentarily righted their listing ship against the same opponent that embarrassed them on their home court (on senior day, no less) just five days earlier.

There are caveats aplenty here, as obviously a team with high expectations shouldn’t be playing in a conference tournament opening round in the first place, nor should they be celebrating a win over the last place team in the conference. However, as many have noted, with two lottery picks in their lineup and a recent late season rejuvenation, these Huskies weren’t your typical last-place team. And, let’s face it, the Cats and their fanbase can use any excuse possible for celebrating these days.

Despite the caveats to this win, there were still a lot of good takeaways from this game. For starters, this game felt like an actual team effort. To wit, every player that played more than five minutes recorded at least five points, a rebound, and an assist, aside from Christian Koloko (who had six points and two rebounds, but no assists).

That might not seem like much, but it does mean that mostly everyone was contributing, which likely made a huge difference in a game against a nearly unstoppable one-man team for the Huskies. Also, excepting for some bad turnovers on semi-breaks and puzzling high-post passes, the Cats mostly did well attacking the UW zone. And, finally, aside from a rampaging Isaiah Stewart, the Cats largely neutralized the Huskies offense.

No star shined brighter in this game than Josh Green, and it was great to see. Obviously he scored well, but he also routinely made good decisions in the offense, helped Nico Mannion control the ball against the press down the stretch, and played with his typical great effort on both ends of the court. He did slightly mar one of the potential storylines about also providing clutch basketball when he missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 as UW was rallying and only down 6 with 1:12 to play, but I believe he gets something of a pass here since he also had previously calmly sunk all four free throws in 1-and-1 situations at 4:58 and 4:13.

Those were also really important free throws to stem the tide of UW’s comeback attempts and also provided a jolt of confidence to a team that has seen misses in those situations too many times. If only he could have made the last one(s) as well.

Finally, this team needed this win for many reasons. They needed to wash away their previous performance. They needed to get offensive contributions from more than just 1-2 players in a game. They needed to have an important game start to get uncomfortable, but not result in a collapse. And, not for nothing, a lot of them just needed to see the ball go through the hoop.

Other thoughts

Was it a “Dylan Smith game”?

This has been one of the keys to every Arizona game for the last two seasons, so we might as well keep track of it. I admit that I was pretty shocked to see the box score to find how low a percentage Dylan shot the ball: 3 for 13, including 2 for 8 on 3s. I say that I was shocked to see this because I thought that overall Dylan played well on both ends of the court, and I do give him tons of respect for his toughness in playing through a broken nose and seemingly not missing a beat. Also, a career-high six assists and 6 for 6 from the free throw line speak to his solid performance.

Isaiah Stewart vs. Zeke Nnaji

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Stewart took the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year result personally. He came out with a vengeance and played like an absolute efficient beast (29 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 12 rebounds, two blocks), and also seemed to really relish taking it to Zeke in the post. The last two games against Stewart and the UW zone have not been good ones for Zeke. He alternated between playing timid or too sped up in the high post, and he was responsible for lots of the high-post turnovers on attempted passes into the back of the zone. Some of that is on the coaching and gameplanning, which obviously stressed attacking the zone in that spot, but Zeke also needed better decision-making and ability to see when those passes clearly weren’t there.

I absolutely love Zeke and believe he has hands down been the MVP for the Cats this season, but these last two games perhaps show why he is predicted to go lower in the draft than his fellow teammates. Zeke seemed more timid than usual going up against Stewart, and in the man’s game of the NBA, Zeke will be matched up every night against players of similar size, skill, and toughness as Stewart. It will be fascinating to watch all five of the projected first-round picks from today’s game in the NBA next year.

“Can Sean Miller coach?”

We’ll keep rolling with this bullet point too, since it is a topic that is always up for debate following games. This was a really interesting approach for the Cats. In the first meeting in Seattle, the Cats attacked the UW zone with a pretty standard zone offense approach of utilizing a high-post big (either Zeke or Stone Gettings) to either attack, distribute, or make a free throw line jumper against the zone.

That approach worked well in Seattle, particularly because Zeke and Stone both made some nice midrange shots, and the Cats shot the ball well overall. In the second matchup in Tucson, this same approach failed miserably, as the Cats did just about everything wrong, including being careless with their passing, failing to make midrange shots, and just shooting terrible in general.

A lot of Arizona’s early turnovers in this game resulted from botched high-post entries (which UW was overplaying), as well as attempted high-post passes to cutters along the baseline. As Don MacLean noted, the Cats changed up their attack as the game wore on and really started using diagonal passes across the zone to the corners. It worked well, but mostly because Green stepped up and shot the ball well.

At the end of the day, sometimes it just comes down to the ability to hit open looks. Fortunately, the Cats were up to that task today.

“Can Sean Miller coach?” Part 2

It was also interesting to hear the sideline report coming out of the late timeout saying that Miller was imploring his players to keep attacking and to go out and win the game. In multiple late possessions both early in the shot clock or coming off offensive rebounds, the Cats took early looks instead of sitting on the ball to run clock.

This has been a hot topic amongst the commentariat here in light of the numerous late game collapses. Running clock and trying to get a good look is a pretty standard approach for most teams, and MacLean again noted that he was surprised with the Cats’ early shot selection a few times down the stretch.

Overall, it seemed to be a mixed bag. Dylan Smith and Jemarl Baker Jr. both took seemingly aggressive (and ultimately ill-advised) early shots that led to bad possessions, whereas Koloko grabbed an offensive board and went right back up with it for a critical bucket instead of throwing it back out to reset. Interestingly, the one time that Arizona did run clock, Baker ended up making a great step-in to the top of the key and knocked down a clutch late shot-clock jumper.

I don’t know what to make of the approach overall, but, right or wrong, it showed a willingness by Miller to change his desired approach and let the players try to win it by staying loose and playing their typical offense instead of sitting on the ball. This will be interesting to monitor in the next close game the Cats find themselves in.