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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball visits Washington State

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-wsu-cougars-preview-defense-turnovers-pac12-pullman-2022 Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats head out for arguably their toughest weekend of Pac-12 play yet when they head to the Pacific Northwest to face the Washington schools, starting with Thursday night’s matchup with the Washington State Cougars in Pullman.

No. 4 Arizona (20-2, 10-1 Pac-12) is coming off a 91-79 win Monday at ASU, a game in which it trailed 14-1 less than four minutes in yet ended up leading by more than 20 in the second half. WSU (14-7, 7-3) is part of the pack of teams chasing the Wildcats for first place in the conference, with the Cougars having won five in a row.

The UA has won four in a row and 17 of 18 over WSU, the only loss coming at home in 2020 during a 7-game skid for the Wildcats. Their last loss in Pullman came in 2010 during Sean Miller’s first season.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona and Wazzu meet up in the Palouse:

Defense wins championships, and probably this game

Arizona has climbed to No. 6 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, but in Pac-12 play it’s Wazzu that’s first overall. The Cougars, who are No. 22 nationally, have a rating of 88.5 in league contests while the Wildcats are second at 91.1.

During its 5-game win streak, WSU’s longest in Pac-12 play since 2006-07, it has held every opponent below a point per possession. It’s actually done that in seven straight games, with the last team to go over that number being Colorado on Jan. 6.

The Cougars are in the top four in the Pac-12 almost every defensive category, leading the way in 3-point field goal defense (26.5 percent) and block percentage (13.0).

It’s worth noting, though, that WSU has only faced two opponents who rank in the top 50 in offensive efficiency, and lost both times, falling to No. 12 South Dakota State and No. 45 USC in December. Arizona is 11th in offensive efficiency.

Care with the ball

Arizona’s 20 turnovers at ASU on Monday resulted in 32 points for the Sun Devils, including 20 in the first half, and that was against a team that doesn’t hang it’s hat on being able to force turnovers. Washington State does, ranking second in the Pac-12 in turnover rate at 22.3 percent.

The Cougars average 6.4 steals per game, while in league action Arizona’s opponents have gotten 7.7 steals per contest. WSU plays at the second-slowest tempo in the conference, and isn’t particularly effective in transition, but when able to run after a steal its effective field goal percentage is 66.7 percent, per Hoop-Math.com.

Arizona is among the best teams in the country in transition defense, ranking 13th in effective field goal defense within 10 seconds of a steal.

More Pelle and Oumar, please

Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo combined for 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting off the bench at ASU, with Larsson hitting three 3-pointers and Ballo recording a double-double with 10 rebounds. Both guys have been on an upward trend of late, turning into the kind of players coach Tommy Lloyd had been hoping for when he plucked each from the NCAA transfer portal over the summer.

Larsson is 9 of 11 in the last three games, raising his shooting percentage to 49.1 percent while he’s the top 3-point shooter on the team at 37 percent. While for most of the season he’d been trying to be more of a facilitator, often resulting in some bad turnovers, of late he’s shown more of a willingness to be a go-to scorer either as a perimeter shooter or someone who can drive to the basket.

“Pelle is coming on,” Lloyd said Monday. “I think his next step is, and he started to take it, is score double figures. And if you fall into a couple of assists, great. But don’t try to get five assists and then only score four points. I want 10, 12, 15 points and then two, three assists.”

Ballo has been on fire for more than two weeks, averaging 12.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks over the last six games despite only playing 22.3 minutes per game.

“Let’s just take a step back and think about his last couple weeks and how special it’s been,” Lloyd said of Ballo. “Now we’re counting on him to do those things. Before we were hoping.”

Larsson and Ballo, as well as guard Justin Kier, have made it so one or more of Arizona’s starters can struggle and there’s no dropoff when they go to the bench.

“It’s a great place to be as a program when you have guys developing from underneath,” Lloyd said. “To me, that’s how you build a sustainable, high-level program.”

NET notoriety

Arizona sits at No. 3 in the NET rankings, one of the top metrics the NCAA selection committee uses to determine tourney participants and seeding. The Wildcats are 5-2 in Quadrant 1 games, and Washington State represents one of the last two opportunities (the other is March 1 at USC) for them to add another Quad 1 win during the regular season.

A win for Wazzu would be even bigger for its NCAA tourney hopes. The Cougars No. 37 in the NET but have three Quad 3 and 4 losses and are 2-4 against Quad 1 and 2 competition.

BracketMatrix.com, which aggregates projected NCAA brackets, has WSU still on the outside of the field as only seven of 120 brackets listed include the Cougars. Beating the UA, which at an average seeding of 1.56 is fifth-best in the database, would massively improve their resume.