Recess is over.
The Arizona Wildcats, who have not played since Dec. 22, return to action on Monday when they host the Washington Huskies at McKale Center.
This is the third date for this game, which was originally set to be played Dec. 2 in Tucson before Washington went on a COVID pause. The matchup was rescheduled to Jan. 25 but then moved up three-plus weeks after Arizona had its New Year’s weekend games at UCLA and USC postponed due to those teams’ COVID problems.
The UA returned from a holiday break on Dec. 26 and have practiced all but one day since, taking advantage of the extra time on the court to prepare for the stretch run.
“From what I’ve been observing the practices, our guys are champing at the bit to get out there again, against somebody else,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said.
Lloyd said his team is intact from a COVID standpoint—“everybody’s healthy that has been available, and we’re exactly at the same group we had before Christmas,” he said—with the only player that won’t be available Monday being junior forward Kim Aiken Jr., who remains out due to personal reasons.
Here’s what to watch for when Arizona (11-1, 1-0 Pac-12) and Washington (5-5, 0-0) match up at McKale:
Back to basics
When last we saw Arizona, it was losing for the first time this season. The 77-73 setback at Tennessee exposed some things about the Wildcats, while also driving home the importance of taking care of the ball (17 turnovers) and rebounding (outrebounded for the first time).
“We didn’t play great, we got back in the game but it wasn’t quite enough,” Lloyd said. “We definitely talked about the game numerous times. We broke it down on film, we met with guys individually and we’re going to do our best job we can use it as a learning tool.”
Lloyd said Arizona went through conditioning and shooting when it returned on the 26th, went hard in practice the next two days, took one off, and then spent the remaining workouts focusing on Washington.
“I just told our guys our job is to be excited to play, continue to practice well and get better,” Lloyd said. “So we kind of went back to the basics and really dug into kind of just the fundamentals and then kind of the next layer of details and, trying to get this team ready for a tough Pac-12 schedule.”
Dalen Terry, who had 9 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists at Tennessee, said the Wildcats can only learn from that last performance.
“Yes, we lost the game, but we are looking at it on the positive way,” Terry said. “There’s obviously things that we need to get better at. And since the game we’ve been working on things that we need to get better at so we can just take on our next opponent.”
Speaking of Washington
The Huskies have been off one day longer than Arizona, last playing Dec. 21 when it lost at home to Utah Valley. Washington has only played twice since Nov. 27, missing out on several games when it was the first Pac-12 team to go on a COVID pause in early December.
Could that mean the Huskies will be a completely different team than the one Arizona was prepping for a month ago before the original game was called off? Not likely, Lloyd said.
“Hey, if a team wants to put in a whole new offense or a whole new defense over the break, well, we’re gonna learn about at the same time you do and then we’re just gonna have to figure it out when we get out there,” he said. “We’ll take a holistic approach, but usually you’re going to focus on the last couple of games they played. So, for the most part, what they’ve done is probably what they’re going to continue to do with some slight adjustments.”
Washington is a zone-heavy team that likes to press, but it also played fairly fast on offense. That side of the ball is led by former Arizona guard Terrell Brown Jr., who spent the 2020-21 season with the Wildcats. He’s averaging 21.4 points per game, tops in the Pac-12.
“I’m really happy for him,” Terry said of Brown, who was his roommate last season. “I watch their games all the time. I’ve seen his big games, I’ve seen his bad games.”
Terry said that, while he and many of his Wildcat teammates are still friends with Brown, that won’t matter during the game.
“We’re going to give him his respect,” he said. “He played here. It takes a lot to be Arizona Wildcat. He’s now at Washington and we’re going to look at him like how we look at anybody else. We’re going to guard him like anybody else. We’re hunting him, we’re hunting his team, and he just happened to be one of (our) players.”
Less bitching, more adapting
It’s fair to say the officiating in Arizona’s last game was not ideal, and some of the calls made no doubt had an impact on the result. But using that as an excuse isn’t something Lloyd plans to do, nor does he want his players leaning on that crutch as the season goes on.
“Of course there’s questionable calls, there’s questionable calls in every high-level game,” he said. “But I mean, as a coach, I can go back and watch that film and I guarantee I can find twice as many questionable decisions that we made as coaches or players that had more of an impact on that game than officiating. You got to take officiating out of the equation, you got to evaluate the things you can control.”
Arizona was called for 28 fouls in Knoxville, most in a regulation game since November 2011. Three Wildcats fouled out including Kerr Kriisa, who was hit with a technical late in the second half in what was a 1-point game at the time.
“I haven’t even thought about (the officiating) at all since that game’s been over,” Lloyd said. “I haven’t called the conference office, I haven’t done anything. It’s an Arizona basketball issue, not an officiating issue. So that’s how I’ve approached it and that’s how our team’s been approaching it.”
Remembering the goals
KenPom.com gives Arizona a 96 percent chance of beating Washington, which is predicted to finish in a tie for last place in the Pac-12. The Wildcats’ other conference game, last month at Oregon State, was against the other team KenPom has tied for the bottom of the league.
The Wildcats were supposed to be in the middle of a weekend trip to Los Angeles to face a pair of Top 10 teams, but instead they don’t know when they’ll be facing the conference’s toughest foes.
Opponent quality shouldn’t matter, though, Lloyd said.
“The message doesn’t change,” he said. “We’re still trying to build and establish our culture on a daily basis. And I just want to make sure our guys keep that chip on their shoulder. When we started this journey a couple months ago, we were unranked and kind of came out of nowhere, and now we’re ranked, and I don’t want our guys to be comfortable with that. I want our guys to be hungry.
“I know it’s weird to say we’re starting out 1-0 because we played one conference game earlier, but there’s a lot of games to be played and we just got to take them one by one. In a conference season, if you want to compete for a conference championship, game 3 is as important as game 18. And so we want to do the best job we can during these early games, re-establishing ourselves. We’re not going to change our approach or anything on how we’ve been doing things. I mean, I think we’re still a young program, kind of in its infancy stages. So I think we’re still really trying to develop the culture and the habits on a daily basis. And that’s going to be my focus.”