Even as the Washington Huskies continue to rank among the Pac-12’s worst defensive teams, their foremost challenge on Sunday afternoon, coach Lorenzo Romar says, will come on the other end of the court.
That isn’t a good thing.
The Huskies (9-11, 2-6 Pac-12) haven’t guarded well for much of their conference slate. Such deficiency remains atop this team’s checklist for why it doesn’t win very often. But UW also hasn’t scored the way it would like, shooting only 42.0 percent through its first eight Pac-12 games, a mark that ranks 10th in the league despite that area being one of the Huskies’ purported strengths.
Arizona (19-2, 8-0), ranked seventh in this week’s The Associated Press Top 25 poll, ranks 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Even without considering what the Wildcats’ duo of 7-footers and cache of scoring guards might do to Washington’s defense, this could be a long afternoon for the Huskies.
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“We haven’t scored the ball well since conference has started,” Romar said Saturday afternoon in the lobby of UW’s team hotel in Tucson, shortly before the team departed for its practice at McKale Center. “So in the midst of that, you have, in my opinion, the best defensive team in our league in Arizona. We’re going to have to find a way to score points.”
Arizona is one of two Pac-12 teams unbeaten in league play — the other is Oregon, which beat UW by 22 points in Seattle on Jan. 4 — and there is little to suggest the Huskies are capable of slowing its roll. The Wildcats have won 13 consecutive games and recently regained sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, who was suspended for the first 19 games of the season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
They’re big, they’re talented, they guard, and they shoot 43.6 percent from 3-point range, good for second in the Pac-12. The Huskies, meanwhile, have just two Pac-12 victories, over Colorado and Oregon State — those teams have one league victory between them — and have failed to even be competitive against the few top-tier teams they’ve faced so far.
At Gonzaga, a 27-point loss. Against Oregon, a blowout loss at home. Against Utah, a 22-point loss at home.
The last time the Huskies played at McKale Center, they trailed only 44-41 at halftime before losing 99-67, falling apart in the second half as the din of 14,790 screaming fans overwhelmed them.
Romar recalls his young team becoming distracted by the atmosphere. Well, this year’s team is only moderately older, and none of the players have ever won a game in an arena as intimidating as McKale. This season, they haven’t even come close. And Arizona is better than a year ago.
“Last year, I thought we played them really good for a half,” Romar said. “In the second half, they hit a few buckets, and you could see the crowd wanting the gladiator effect to just happen to us, and I thought we got rattled a little bit in the second half, and they just distanced themselves like that. We can’t let that happen.”
Compounding the challenge is the return of Trier, who surprised many by choosing to return for his sophomore season rather than declare for the NBA draft. His suspension was shrouded in mystery until recently, as the school announced three days before its Jan. 21 game against then-No. 3 UCLA that Trier had tested positive for PEDs and would return once the drugs had left his system.
The 6-foot-5 guard who grew up in Federal Way was cleared in time to help Arizona beat the Bruins, scoring 12 points in a 96-85 victory in Los Angeles. He scored 17 in a 79-62 victory over Washington State on Thursday.
“I know he’s been like a caged animal in there, waiting to get out and devour some people and some teams,” Romar said. “I know how hard ’Zo works on his game. … He gets a few game reps in, there’s no doubt, I see him being better than he was.”
Arizona should be, too.
“As good as they’ve been,” Romar said, “they’re about to get better.”
And not just because they’re playing the Huskies.
WASHINGTON (9-11, 2-6 PAC-12) AT ARIZONA (19-2, 8-0)
12:30 p.m., McKale Center, Tucson, Arizona
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: Arizona leads, 50-28.
Statistics for 2016-17:
5 Kadeem Allen, G (6-3, sr.): 9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg.
2 Kobi Simmons, G (6-5, fr.): 11.8 ppg, 2.5 apg.
1 Rawle Alkins, G (6-5, fr.): 11.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg.
10 Lauri Markkanen, F (7-0, fr.): 17.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg.
14 Dusan Ristic, C (7-0, jr.): 11.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg.
20 Markelle Fultz, G (6-4, fr.): 23.7 ppg, 6.2 apg, 6.0 rpg.
1 David Crisp, G (6-0, so.): 13.8 ppg, 2.9 apg.
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, so.): 9.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg.
41 Matthew Atewe, F (6-9, jr.): 2.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg.
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, so.): 10.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg.
Scouting report: With sophomore guard Allonzo Trier back from suspension, Arizona looks like the class of the Pac-12. The Wildcats, ranked No. 7 in the latest AP poll, have won 13 consecutive games and are tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 standings at 8-0. Arizona has not lost at home this season. Its two losses came against No. 11 Butler in Las Vegas and against No. 3 Gonzaga in Los Angeles. … The Wildcats were tested somewhat on Thursday by Washington State, as the Cougars trailed by only three points with 8:43 to play before losing 79-62. … Arizona has two 7-footers in its starting lineup: leading scorer Lauri Markkanen, a freshman, and junior Dusan Ristic. Markkanen is shooting 61.0 percent (25 for 41) from 3-point range in Pac-12 play, averaging 18.5 points in those games. … Arizona ranks second in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense in league games, limiting opponents to 41.8 percent shooting. Conference opponents only shoot 28.4 percent from 3-point range against the Wildcats. Arizona also leads the league in rebounding margin (plus-7.1) in Pac-12 games. … At 43.6 percent Arizona is one of three Pac-12 teams shooting better than 40.0 percent from 3-point range in league games. Arizona is also the best free-throw shooting team in the conference, at 79.5 percent in league games. … Trier, who grew up in Federal Way, has come off the bench in his two games since returning from suspension but is averaging 26.0 minutes. … The Huskies have lost six consecutive games to Arizona and haven’t won in Tucson since Jan. 28, 2012.
Christian Caple: email@example.com