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Hoops: WSU’s top priority vs. No. 5 Arizona

IF WASHINGTON STATE is to pull off one of college basketball’s major upsets this season over No. 5 Arizona, there isn’t any great mystery to what needs to occur on the hardcourt Thursday in Beasley (6 pm, FS-1).

The Cougs need to play better defense. Or, just credible defense. 

WSU (11-14, 4-9 Pac-12) owns the conference’s worst field goal percentage defense (50.8) in Pac-12 games.  And it’s not as if Pac-12 teams have been hammering WSU from 3-point range -- far and away that high percentage reflects damage inflicted the old fashioned way, from inside the arc.

Meanwhile, conference-leading Arizona is 23-3/12-1 and ranks in the top three of the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense (41.1 percent), scoring defense (63.5 ppg) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (30.9 percent).

WSU is a 14-point underdog Thursday after being a 22-point underdog at Arizona.  Part of the difference is undoubtedly due to the zone defense.

Zone defenses, as many have noted, aren’t preventing Arizona from winning -- but they have kept Arizona from looking overly impressive.  However, it’s worth noting UA solved WSU’s zone the last time out, shooting a sparkling 57 percent from the field. But you wouldn't know that from this UA coach quote:

“They dominated us in the paint and they killed us in transition. We have to be prepared for their pace. I expect a lot of zone, a matchup zone. I would not be surprised if we see everyone try to zone against us. The next time we might see man (defense) is if we’re fortunate enough to get through the regular season and into the tournament.” — UA assistant coach Book Richardson, who scouted the Cougars, as told to the Arizona Daily Star

True, the Cougs did play better than expected at Arizona in that Jan. 26 meeting. Arizona won 79-62 but the score was tied with under eight minutes to go.  Conor Clifford (pictured above) did some damage in the paint at UA with 19 points. He figures to be a focal point for the Wildcat D – assuming Clifford plays a good amount of minutes. Ernie Kent benched Clifford last time out vs. Colorado after his production had fallen off in previous games.

“The matchup is good because they’re big and he’s big. I think anything I can use from a motivational point to get him back to the floor is (worth trying). If he can’t get fired up for Arizona ...” said Kent this week about Clifford.

On offense, let’s assume WSU will not repeat its 47 percent shooting from 3-point range last time out against Arizona (WSU is averaging just 36.2 percent this season). So how does WSU pick up the scoring slack?  You can start with Josh Hawkinson. Arizona limited the Cougs big to just nine points and five rebounds in the earlier matchup. Hawkinson is averaging 15.7 ppg and 10.1 rpg on the season.

And whether it’s Hawkinson, Clifford or a combination of any and all, WSU fighting for a few more second opportunities vs. Arizona can only help its cause. Washington State is the worst offensive rebounding team in Pac-12 games, averaging just 5.8 boards on the offensive glass.

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • Kenpom.com predicts a 77-64 Arizona victory.
  • Arizona is 62-16 all-time against WSU.  Arizona has won its last 11 games against Washington State by an average margin of victory of 17.1 ppg.
  • Arizona has five players averaging in double figures.  WSU has three: Hawkinson (15.7); Ike Iroegbu (12.2 ppg) and Malachi Flynn (10.8).
  • WSU comes in having lost four straight (UCLA, USC, Utah and Colorado). 
  • WSU hosts ASU on Saturday (2 pm, Pac-12 Network).


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