Arizona is about to round the turn of the Pac-12’s 20-game conference schedule, reaching the midpoint this weekend in the middle of the Washington trip. The sixth-ranked Wildcats (17-3, 6-3 Pac-12) have one more loss than they did at this point a year ago, two more in conference play, and are two games back of UCLA in the standings.
The UA is defending Pac-12 regular-season and conference tournament champions, but discussion of defending those titles has not been part of the in-program messaging.
“I told our guys we still haven’t earned the right to talk about a Pac-12 championship,” coach Tommy Lloyd said after Saturday’s win over then-No. 5 UCLA. “You got to earn that right. And that’s not something you talk about, and I don’t talk about winning regular season championships. You don’t just throw that statement out there. It’s got to really, really, really mean something and you got to really, really give yourself a chance.”
Successful efforts in Pullman and Seattle can go a long way toward staying in the title hunt, but those games won’t be easy. Not since Arizona lost to Washington State (9-12, 4-6) and had to rally to beat Washington (12-9, 4-6) just a few weeks back on its home court.
“It’s no secret that they played better than us down here, so it’s gonna be a real challenge,” Lloyd said.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats face the Cougars and the Huskies on the road:
Revenge tour opening night
When Arizona tips off against WSU on Friel Court it will have been only 19 days since its 74-61 home loss to the Cougars. The recency of that contest is only part of why avenging that result is fresh in every UA player and coach’s mind, and Lloyd isn’t afraid to reference it when talking to the team.
“I’m bringing it up more from a practical standpoint that you get your ass kicked,” he said. “There’s no other way to put it. There’s no reason not to talk about it. If guys need extra motivation for playing a team that kicked their ass, I guess that’s a problem in and of itself.”
The WSU loss, which ended a 28-game home win streak, was arguably the low point for Arizona this season (though losing by 19 at Oregon a week later was part of the valley). But if the admittedly short Lloyd era is any indication, the Wildcats should be in great shape to get their revenge on the Cougars.
Under Lloyd, Arizona has previously had three opportunities to avenge a loss, whether that season or the next, and is 3-0. Last season it beat UCLA by 10 just nine days after a 16-point loss to the Bruins, and got payback for the 16-point loss at Colorado with a win in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, and in December got its revenge on Tennessee from the previous year.
The Wildcats have revenge games on three of the next four Thursdays, including Feb. 2 vs. Oregon and Feb. 16 vs. Utah.
Updated game plans
Because Arizona has seen WSU and Washington so recently, that puts extra weight on scouting film from the previous matchups. Lloyd said it’s unlikely either team has made significant changes to their scheme or personnel since then.
“It’d be interesting to see how many changes both teams have really done; I’m assuming not much,” he said. “This time of year, you’re kind of locked into some of the things you do and kind of your identity as a team, and your opponent is as well. If there’s a couple of adjustments we have to make (during the game) we’ll try to make them, but for the most part, I’m sure most teams will probably play pretty similar.”
That means dealing with a WSU team that takes more than 42 percent of its shots from 3-point range and was 12 of 28 from deep in Tucson, but also has a versatile big man in Mouhamed Gueye who had 24 points and 14 rebounds at McKale Center. As for Washington, it’ll be another dose of the zone defense that held the UA to below 40 percent on 2-point shots while leading by as many as 14 before the Wildcats rallied.
“We’re ready,” Azuolas Tubelis said. Every person on the staff and every player is ready to play. We’re hungry.”
Tall or small?
While Lloyd isn’t expecting this weekend’s opponents to look much different, the foes aren’t as lucky. Against the Los Angeles schools the UA used a new starting five, with Cedric Henderson Jr. replacing Pelle Larsson at the 3, and also went with a smaller lineup on the floor quite often.
Tubelis and Oumar Ballo combined to play 48:41 of a possible 80 minutes together last weekend, while Tubelis was alone at the 5 (with Henderson or Larsson at the 4) for 17:26 and Ballo going as the solo big for another 9:53.
“We’re still going to play our big lineup, I love having two bigs out there,” Lloyd said. “But we’re also going to be mindful of developing that smaller lineup and, making sure that it can function at a high level out there, because I feel really good when it’s out on the floor.”
Arizona only played seven guys against UCLA, the fewest Lloyd has used in his two seasons, while Henri Veesaar and Adama Bal combined for six minutes against USC and Dylan Anderson didn’t see the court after logging time on the Oregon trip the week before. Absent foul trouble or garbage time, that shortened rotation figures to continue until one ore more of those guys warrants more playing time.
“At some point I wish somebody would step up and kind of take that role over, because I do think we need an eighth or ninth guy,” Lloyd said. “It’s not that I’m close-minded to that, but as you get further into these seasons and these games get a little bit tougher, sometimes when a player hasn’t played that much it’s not really fair to throw them into the fire, because there is going to be some struggles. I wish it was a situation where everybody could play more. Unfortunately, it’s just not the reality of our current situation.”
Rebound to win
Arizona was outrebounded by UCLA last time and still won, but that’s not usually a recipe for success. And with more situations where only one big is on the floor, grabbing those misses (regardless of team) is even more important.
Tubelis showed last weekend that he has the knack for boards when he puts his mind to it. He had a career-high 17 against USC and 10 more against UCLA, and in his past six games is averaging 11.2 rebounds along with 19.2 points.
“My coaches are pushing me with the rebounding because I’m capable to get from 10 to 15 rebounds every game,” Tubelis said. “It’s not about the scoring, like I can score six points and I’ll be fine. You can be selfish on rebounding.”
For the season Tubelis is at 19.9 points and 9.5 rebounds, leading the Pac-12 in both categories, which hasn’t been done since Cal’s Leon Powe in 2005-06. It also puts him on the cusp of being only the third Pac-12 player to average 20/10 in the past 30 seasons, joining Powe in 2005-06 and Deandre Ayton in 2017-18.
Tubelis and Ballo (8.9) are 1 and 2 in the Pac-12 in rebounding, while WSU’s Gueye is third at 7.9 and Washington’s Keion Brooks is sixth at 7.2.