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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts Washington schools

Huskies and Cougars coming to McKale this weekend

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-washington-huskies-wsu-cougars-preview-pac12-2023 Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona finished 2022 on the road, knocking off ASU on New Year’s Eve. Now it begins 2023 in the friendly confines of McKale Center, where it has won 27 consecutive games.

The fifth-ranked Wildcats (14-1, 2-1 Pac-12) look to add to that homecourt streak this weekend when they host the Washington Huskies (9-6, 1-3) on Thursday night and then the Washington State Cougars (6-9, 1-3) on Saturday afternoon.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA hosts the Washington schools:

Opponents headed in opposite directions

Washington has dropped three in a row, all at home, losing to Auburn, USC and UCLA by a combined 61 points. The Huskies are 0-2 on the road this season, having dropped six straight road games dating back to last February.

UW’s most productive player is 6-foot-7 senior Keion Brooks, a Kentucky transfer who leads the team in scoring (16.2 points per game) and rebounding (6.7) but on just 40.7 percent shooting. Only two rotation players shoot better than 50 percent and one of those—big man Franck Kepnang—is out for the year with a torn ACL.

UA coach Tommy Lloyd called Brooks, whom Arizona recruited when he was in the NCAA transfer portal, a “highlight waiting to happen” who has scored 20 or more five times including in two Pac-12 games.

Washington is one of the worst shooting teams in the Pac-12 but has the second-best free-throw percentage, and is fairly good at not sending opponents to the line. The Huskies defend the 3-point line well and block a lot of shots but are horrible rebounders, their zone defense not equipped to prevent second chance opportunities.

Washington State comes to the desert having just knocked off USC, only their second win in the previous six games, though it nearly upset No. 10 UCLA last Friday. The Cougars attempt more than 23 3-pointers per game, with four players launching at least four per contest, and they were 14 of 29 from deep against USC.

WSU plays at a very slow pace, particularly on offense, while defensively it allows opponents to get nearly 60 percent of their points on 2-pointers.

Being zoned in

Washington is one of the few teams in Division I that still plays primarily zone on defense, the product of 6th-year coach Mike Hopkins spending 22 seasons as an assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim. It’s similar to how Arizona’s offense shows so many similarities to that of Gonzaga by virtue of Lloyd’s spending 20 seasons coaching under Mark Few.

“They have a commitment to it,” Lloyd said of Washington’s zone. “Coach Hop is one of the few guys that probably really, really knows how to coach it. You see zone a few possessions here and there over the course of the preseason. Those teams probably don’t have the conviction Washington has, where they know how to adjust over the course of the game with what you’re running, and take certain things away, so they do a great job of it. And I’ve always appreciated playing against them, because it really challenges your team and then makes you challenge us to coach.”

Minimizing turnovers will be key for Arizona, which gave it away a season-high 21 times when Washington game to Tucson last January. The Wildcats only turned it over nine times in a 92-68 win in Seattle a month later.

“It comes down to us playing smart, not turning over the ball and making good decisions,” freshman center Henri Veesaar said.

The first of several quick turnarounds

The Pac-12 traditionally has used a Thursday-Saturday format for its conference games, with a handful of Wednesday, Friday and Sunday dates. Arizona is exclusively on the Thursday-Saturday schedule, with both ASU games as standalone Saturday tilts.

That means there’s only one full day between competitions, and barely that for Arizona this weekend and several more throughout the regular season.

Arizona’s game against Washington tips off Thursday at 9 p.m. MT, meaning it will end around 11 p.m. The Washington State game, on Saturday, is scheduled for a 3 p.m. MT tip, giving the Wildcats roughly 40 hours to recover from the first game and prepare for the second.

So be it, Lloyd said.

“We want to beat UW, and if I have to play (starters) 40 minutes to be UW, they’re gonna play 40 minutes, and then we’ll figure out how to play Washington State,” he said. “No looking forward, no thinking if I can rest guys, not rest guys. As it plays out, we’ll make those decisions.”

Those short breaks continue the rest of January, with anywhere from 39 to 41 hours between the end of the Thursday game and the start of the Saturday one. And that “break” includes travel time for road swings.

Sure-handed Henri

While his overall numbers don’t jump off the page, Veesaar’s impact on the floor keeps increasing with each minute he’s logged. That included 15 minutes off the bench in the win over ASU, during which he had four points, three rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

And, for the 10th consecutive game, zero turnovers. This after giving it away eight times in his first four college games.

“So far so good, I don’t want to jinx it,” Veesaar said of his turnoverless streak, which sits at 117 minutes. That’s the longest for any UA player since guard Jemarl Baker Jr. went 151 minutes over parts of eight games in 2020.

Veessaar said the care with the ball, and his play overall, has come with becoming more comfortable playing the American style of basketball. Lloyd said it’s a product of starting to show the potential Arizona’s staff saw when they recruited him.

“Just the general feel of him on the court and his overall effort and just kind of the balance and the force he’s starting to play with is really sticking out to me,” Lloyd said. “I feel good where he’s at, but we need to keep pushing him to get where we need to go.”

Zu’s chart climb

Azuolas Tubelis became the 53rd player in Arizona history to score 1,000 career points last month, and he’s now a basket away from 1,100. The junior is currently tied with AJ Bramlett for 45th place, and next to pass on the career scoring list is Gilbert Arenas (1,105).

As he climbs the scoring chart, Tubelis—who on Wednesday was named to the midseason watch list for the Wooden Award—is also close to shortening an even more exclusive list in UA history. He’s one of 11 UA players with at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 125 assists, and when he gets to 600 boards (70 away) and 150 assists (10 shy) he’ll be one of nine Wildcats with those figures.