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What to watch for when Arizona visits unbeaten Washington State

arizona-wildcats-washington-huskies-preview-seniors-kriisa-fleming-mccray-ring-honor-pac12-miller Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats hope to open 2021 the way they ended 2020 when they take on the Washington State Cougars on Saturday night in Pullman.

Arizona (8-1, 2-1 Pac-12) is coming off an easy 80-53 win at Washington on New Year’s Eve, its second-largest margin of victory over the Huskies in Seattle. WSU (8-0, 1-0) last played on Dec. 23, as its scheduled game Thursday against ASU was postponed due to COVID-19 issues with the Sun Devils.

The game is set to tip at 8:30 p.m. MST and will be shown on the Pac-12 Network.

Staying focused

Thursday’s 27-point win wasn’t surprising because of the quality of opponent—Washington is really bad—but instead due to how motivated Arizona looked. Considering it was the Wildcats’ first game since self-imposing a postseason ban, the total lack of any disinterest was very promising.

“We still got a chip on our shoulder, and we’re still competing every day,” forward Jordan Brown said afterward. “If anything it gives us even more of a job to play hard. We got a lot of hungry guys and we look forward to competing, just to show them what type of team we have and what kind of guys we got.”

UA coach Sean Miller said he knew in the first practice after notifying his team that things would be fine.

“I think if there’s ever a test of a young person’s character, it’s when they get hit with some tough news and now they have a choice of how they respond,” he said. “I think you saw by today’s performance.”

Now Arizona can go for a road sweep, a relative rarity in the Pac-12. The Wildcats swept the Washington and Bay Area trips last season but lost their other five conference road games in 2019-20.

The UA has won eight straight in Pullman by an average of 15.8 points, with the last six wins by an average margin of 20.

Spreading the wealth

If the season ended today, Arizona would not have a player average more than 15 points for the fourth time in Miller’s 12 seasons. Two of those previous UA squads were offensively challenged, and the third was so insanely good on defense it didn’t matter who scored.

This year’s team is averaging 78.6 points per game, though, which would be the most since the Deandre Ayton/Allonzo Trier squad in 2017-18 that averaged 80.5.

Jemarl Baker Jr. is Arizona’s leading scorer, at 14.6 per game, but he’s only been the game leader twice by virtue of his career-high 33 against NAU and 29 at Stanford. James Akinjo has been the leading scorer five times, while Jordan Brown, Terrell Brown Jr. and Ben Mathurin have done it once each.

Mathurin’s team-best output came at Washington, when the freshman had 13 points in 24 minutes off the bench. That entire game was a case study in balanced scoring, with all nine rotation players contributing at least four points.

Getting to the line

Arizona was 16 of 26 from the free throw line at Washington, a 61.5 percent make rate that actually is only the fifth-worst of the season. Missing foul shots are a concern in their own right, but not as much when you’re getting to the line far more than the opponent.

The Wildcats are averaging 18 made free throws per game while their foes are only attempting 17.7 per game. The UA’s free throw rate—the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt—is 45.4, best in the Pac-12 and 13th in the country, a sign the Wildcats are being aggressive and not letting opposing defenses dictate what they do on offense.

Washington State is one of the best teams in Division I at keeping teams from getting to the line, with a defensive FT rate of 23.0. Only Utah, at 21.1, is better in the conference, with the Cougars only yielding more than 18 free throw attempts.

Arizona’s season low: 18, against Eastern Washington on Dec. 5.

Regarding the Cougs

We’re in a new year now, but it’s still so 2020 that Washington State is the only unbeaten team left in the Pac-12. The Cougars, off to their best start since 2007-08, are one of six teams in the country with at least eight wins and no losses.

But that’s where the similarities between them and the likes of Arkansas, Baylor, Gonzaga and Michigan end.

WSU is 132nd in the KenPom ratings, just ahead of Cal and Oregon State, who are a combined 9-8 overall and 0-4 in the Pac-12. The Cougs’ “best” wins are a 71-68 home win over Eastern Washington and a 59-55 victory over OSU, also at home; the other six are against teams ranked 221st or lower.

Defense has been Wazzu’s best attribute so far, allowing 57.6 points per game and holding foes to 33.7 percent shooting, second-best in the country. It’s offensive output? Well …

Senior guard Isaac Bonton is averaging 16 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists, but he takes 16 shots a game and makes only 29.5 percent of them. The last Division I player to average 16-plus while shooting below 30 percent was Texas Southern’s Chris Miller back in 2001.

Sophomore guard Noah Williams averages 13 per game and makes 50 percent of his 3-pointers but takes less than three per game, while sophomore center Efe Abogidi has averaged 16.7 points and 13.7 rebounds in the last three contests.