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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Washington State on Thursday

Photo by Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

Fresh off one of their best performances of the season, the Arizona Wildcats return to McKale Center for their final homestand when they host the Washington State Cougars on Thursday night.

Arizona (15-8, 9-8 Pac-12) is riding high after winning 81-72 at Pac-12 leader USC, a game that brought Sean Miller his 300th win with the program. WSU (14-10, 7-10) swept the Bay Area schools at home last weekend, beating Stanford in overtime on Saturday.

The Wildcats beat the Cougars 86-82 in overtime in Pullman on Jan. 2.

Here’s what to watch for in Thursday’s matchup, which tips at 9 p.m. MST and will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1:

Defending the home court

Arizona is 10-4 at McKale this season, and even with a weekend sweep of the Washington schools the 12 home wins would be tied with the 2018-19 team for the fewest since Miller’s first squad was 11-5 in 2009-10.

The home cooking has been particularly lacking of late, with Arizona losing four of the last seven there. It has yet to pull off a weekend sweep at home, which last happened in 1982-83 when the Wildcats were 3-11 at McKale en route to a 4-24 campaign the year before Lute Olson arrived.

“I think it’s a great challenge for our team, and really our coaching staff, to have a chance to really finish our regular season off here in McKale and see if we can do something that we haven’t been able to do this year,” Miller said. “We’ve not played well in back-to-back games, especially when it comes to just winning the games, in a long time at home. We know that. We’ve been close, but we’ve not been able to do that.”

WSU is 3-5 away from home this season, winning at Oregon in early February. Arizona has won seven of the last eight meetings in McKale, the loss coming in 2019 during a 7-game skid.

Saving some for Saturday and Monday

Arizona found out late Monday afternoon it was going to be making up its postponed trip to Oregon on the following Monday, meaning it has three games over a five-day span to end the season. And the first two in that stretch tip only 39 hours apart, with Saturday’s tilt with Washington happening at noon local time.

Playing games in bunches has become the norm in this COVID-impacted season, with Arizona twice playing three Pac-12 contests in a week this season (one of which was four in eight days). And while the Wildcats went 3-0 in the first instance, beating Colorado at home and then sweeping the Washington schools on the road, they followed that up by getting swept at home by USC and UCLA.

The 4-game stretch had a lingering effect for several weeks, dropping four of five after that including a 15-point loss at Utah and a 14-point setback at UCLA. The Utah and UCLA games have been cited by Miller as two of Arizona’s worst performances this season.

There are no more games scheduled after the Monday trip to Oregon, though Miller said Arizona is still trying to see if it can add one more nonconference matchup to get to the 27-game maximum for this season. Playing three in five days could impact being able to schedule such a contest since Miller would want his team to get some rest before one last go-around, and that could limit which teams are available.

Regardless of that, look for Miller to sub more frequently early on against WSU in order to keep his players fresh for the Saturday noon tip. That could mean seeing Tibet Gorener and even Tautvilas Tubelis get some minutes.

Another hot hand to cool off

Eleven Pac-12 players have logged a 20-point game against Arizona this season, including last weekend when USC’s Evan Mobley had 23 two days after UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. poured in 25. Jaquez’s outburst came while the Wildcats were overly focused on shutting down Johnny Juzang, who had 32 in the previous game.

Among those who have had 20-plus against Arizona is WSU’s Isaac Bonton, who is third in the league in scoring at 18.4 points per game and has taken more shots (304) than anyone else in the Pac-12. But Bonton has missed the last three games with an ankle injury and his status for Thursday’s game is uncertain.

In his absence, sophomore guard Noah Williams has become Bonton 2.0 in terms of both scoring and volume shooting. The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week averaged 28 points in three games last week, including 40 in the triple-OT win over Stanford.

Williams’ line against the Cardinal was something to behold: In 54 minutes he took 35 shots, making 8 of 18 3-pointers while only 4 of 17 2s (as well as 8 of 10 free throws). He added five rebounds, two assists and three steals. Oh, and also nine turnovers.

He is only the 14th player since 2010 to attempt 35 shots in a game, the first from a power conference school since Trae Young was 14 of 39 against Oklahoma State in 2018.

A sneaky good defense

Overshadowed by the volume offense of guys like Bonton and Williams is a Washington State defense that has quietly become one of the best in the Pac-12, as well as the country.

The Cougars are allowing 70.9 points per game in conference play, which ranks eighth, but in terms of defensive efficiency they are 37th in the country at 94.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Second-year coach Kyle Smith has overhauled that side of the ball for Wazzu, which was 83rd nationally a year ago but never ranked better than 188th in Ernie Kent’s five seasons in charge. Kent’s final season, 2018-19, saw the Cougs rank 284th.

WSU forces quick, bad shots, allowing only 49.2 percent accuracy on 2-pointers in league play and 34.4 percent on 3s.

Arizona, which is 10th in Pac-12 play in 2-point shooting but first from the perimeter, had its worst offensive rating of any conference game it won when it came out ahead in OT in Pullman in January. Since then the numbers have been better, save for a few games, which Miller really didn’t expect.

“I’m surprised by a lot of the things that we’ve been able to do to this point on offense,” he said. “My hope is that we have another good week offense. That’s the biggest surprise of all of the expectations of this year’s team, when you have that many new players and moving parts, it’s difficult to have that cohesiveness, that execution on offense, and we’ve really found our way.”

More Jordan Brown, please

Prior to the season, Miller said he expected Brown to be a double-digit scorer for Arizona. He’s technically doing that, as his scoring average is 10.0 (though he’s actually a point shy, with 229 in 23 games played).

Yet the redshirt sophomore has been far from consistent in that production, scoring in single digits on 15 occasions and having as many instances with five or fewer points (four) as more than 15.

One of those big ones was Saturday at USC, when he had 19 points and 13 rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench. If he can get into double figures against WSU it will mark the first time he’s done that in consecutive games since a 3-game stretch Dec. 22-30.

“Jordan has established himself as our team’s best low-post scorer, best inside offensive player,” Miller. “What we’ve been on him to continue to improve on his rebounding being more consistent, especially on the defensive end. Being able to block out sometimes and then go get the ball. And then defensively, just being overall more clever, smarter, being in the right position more often. Not fouling as much. I think if you look at his fouling, that’s really decreased as the season’s gone on, which is a tribute to Jordan learning the game. He could really impact our team by being an improved defensive player.”