Ask Will Conroy for his favorite memory of playing basketball against the University of Arizona, and it’s hard for him to pick one. He has a few.
His Washington Huskies career coincided with the rise of the UW program and the renaissance they enjoyed early in the tenure of coach Lorenzo Romar. Beating Arizona, Conroy said, was a big part of that. And the Huskies did it three times during his junior season in 2003-04, which culminated with the first of three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
The first win came at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, highlighted by Nate Robinson’s alley-oop dunk. The second came at McKale Center, the first for the Huskies in that building since 1996. Then UW beat Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament semifinals.
“That gave our guys a lot of confidence,” Romar recalled this week, “because of the respect that our guys had for Arizona’s program.”
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Washington (11-4, 3-0 Pac-12) at Arizona (12-3, 1-2), 6 p.m., Thursday, FS1, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM
Each win, Conroy said, enhanced the Huskies’ relevance as a threat in the conference.
So Thursday’s 6 p.m. game against the 18th-ranked Wildcats at McKale Center might feel like a similar opportunity, with the Huskies (11-4, 3-0 in Pac-12) riding a three-game winning streak to begin Pac-12 play.
They’ve won some games, sure. But if they could beat Arizona, at Arizona …
“It’s very similar to what we are now,” said Conroy, now in his first season as a UW assistant coach. “Everybody, they look at us right now, and they see our three wins, and they’re saying, ‘yeah, well, we don’t know. We still don’t know.’ And that’s how it was before we played them (in 2004). … And then we beat Arizona here (in Seattle), so it kind of woke everybody up, like, we might be for real.”
The intensity between the schools has faded in recent years, because Arizona hasfielded better teams. The Huskies haven’t beaten the Wildcats since sweeping both meetings in 2012, before any player on this UW roster ever appeared in a college game, and so the rivalry that Conroy came to enjoy really isn’t much of one anymore.
“The last few years,” Romar said, “we’ve just been outclassed.”
Washington’s aim, then, is to revive memories of those early Romar teams, the ones that produced instant classics against Arizona with regularity. Conroy, the school’s all-time assists leader, says he sees some resemblance between UW’s young team this season and the teams for which he played.
With some notable exceptions.
“Physically, they’re taller. They’re more athletic than we were. To a man, they’re better,” Conroy said of this year’s outfit. “They’re all like top-100 kids. But their mentalities — they have an underdog mentality. All these guys are like, ‘I was slept on,’ or ‘I should have been ranked higher,’ or ‘I should have had more accolades, and you guys don’t respect UW, and you guys don’t respect Seattle.’ ”
They’ll need some kind of edge to pull off an upset on Thursday. Arizona’s profile has diminished a bit after road losses to UCLA and USC last week, and the Wildcats will play without leading scorer Allonzo Trier, out with a hand injury.
But they are still buoyed by a massive frontcourt anchored by 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-foot-9 Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson. That size makes them one of the best rebounding teams in the country.
This will also be the first time UW’s seven freshmen will play before a crowd of more than 14,000, almost all of whom will be rooting against them.
“It’s tough to play in that place,” said UW guard Dejounte Murray, who leads Pac-12 freshmen in scoring with 15.2 points per game, “and they’ve always got a good team.”
The Huskies want to prove that this year, they do, too. And beating Arizona (13-3, 1-2) seemed to prove plenty in the past.
“That experience for Washington to go beat Arizona at Arizona,” Conroy said, “is something that will always stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Washington (11-4, 3-0 Pac-12) at No. 18 Arizona (12-3, 1-2)
6 p.m., McKale Center, Tucson, Arizona
TV: Fox Sports 1. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: Arizona leads, 48-28.
Statistics for 2015-16:
1 Gabe York, G (6-3, jr.): 13.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg
5 Kadeem Allen, G (6-3, jr.): 8.4 ppg, 3.9 apg
23 Mark Tollefson, F (6-9, sr.): 8.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg
12 Ryan Anderson, F (6-9, sr.): 14.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg
35 Kaleb Tarczewski, C (7-0, sr.): 9.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg
12 Andrew Andrews, G (6-2, sr.): 21.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.3 apg
5 Dejounte Murray, G (6-4.5, fr.): 15.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.6 apg
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, fr.): 5.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, fr.): 7.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg
0 Marquese Chriss, F (6-9, fr.): 11.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg
Scouting report: Arizona must play without its leading scorer, freshman guard Allonzo Trier, who broke his hand during last week’s quadtruple-overtime loss at USC. He’ll miss four to six weeks. Without Trier, the Wildcats will likely rely more on San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefson and freshman Justin Simon, who has played sparingly. Arizona has seven available players who average 18 minutes per game or more. … Arizona is, statistically, the best defensive rebounding team in the country, per KenPom.com. The Wildcats allow opponents to claim only 21.2 percent of all available offensive rebounds, which is one of UW’s strengths, so that will certainly be an area to monitor. … The Huskies will have to keep an eye on Gabe York, who makes 44.3 percent of his 3-point attempts. Otherwise, most of UA’s offense is likely to come from its post players. … UW hasn’t beaten Arizona since sweeping the Wildcats during the 2011-12 season, and the Huskies are 13-14 overall against Arizona under coach Lorenzo Romar. … The Wildcats rank eighth in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense at 41.7, third in offensive field-goal percentage at 48.3, seventh in 3-point shooting (34.8 percent) and third in free-throw shooting (71.7 percent).