5:30 PM EST, Pac-12 Network – Line: Arizona -5, Over/Under: 139
Championship Week reaches the Pac-12 as it’s denizens look to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, with the Washington Huskies and Arizona Wildcats facing off in the First Round of the Pac-12 Tournament from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Finishing the Regular Season a game below .500, the only way that Washington (15-16, 5-13 in Pac-12) will be dancing next week will be if they manage to run the table in their Conference Tourney, which given their poor record in league play (5-13) appears to be a bit of a stretch. While winning four games in as many nights certainly seems like an arduous task, the Pac-12 has been far from the most perilous of conferences, with only one team occupying a place in the AP Poll, and in all probability four (eh, maybe five) of their number representing the league in the NCAA Tournament. After winning the league in just his second year with the program, Mike Hopkins has spent the majority of this campaign mired in rebuilding, which included a very difficult stretch where his charges endured a miserable nine-game losing streak, essentially sinking any chance they had of playing meaningful postseason basketball. However, that was really never the point for the Huskies, who are clearly building to the future with one of the most promising young corps in the country; Hopkins made waves in the Offseason in signing a pair of Top-10 Freshmen Forwards, Isaiah Stewart (16.6 PTS, 56.1% FG, 21.1% 3FG, 8.7 REB, 2.1 BLK, 26.3 PER) and Jaden McDaniels (13.1 PTS, 40.7% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.4 BLK, 14.7 PER), who figure to mature into very prominent figures within the Pac-12 next season (provided they return to school of course). After all, both players have been projected by multiple scouting services as First Round Picks in the 2020 NBA Draft should they choose to declare, and an impressive showing this week could hasten their exit. Stewart in particular has really raised his profile of late, averaging 13.8 Points on an efficient 57.6% shooting, 8.5 Rebounds, 1.3 Assists, 1.0 Steals, and 1.5 Blocks over the last four games, which included his twelfth and thirteenth Double-Double of the term. Fortunately for the faithful in Seattle, they’ve managed to finish the Regular Season in strong fashion, winning three of their final four outings, in which their Defense has been outstanding, relegating the opposition to a scant 37.8% shooting from the field, and forcing more Turnovers (15.5) than Assists permitted (12.3). This was the case in their Season Finale in which they pulled off the Season Sweep of Arizona, escaping Tucson with a 69-63 victory, their first on the road in league play this year. Again, it was the Defense that set the tone, with the visitors allowing the Wildcats to shoot just 35.1% from the floor, including a dreadful 12-of-36 from within the arc (33.3%), and harassing them into Seventeen Turnovers, eleven of which were Steals. Hopkins, a longtime Assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, has imported that vaunted Two/Three Zone to sound effect, with his troops sealing off the Paint and forcing opponents into attempts from the midrange and beyond. How good was their defending on Saturday, you ask? At one point late in the Second Half, Washington went just over EIGHT MINUTES without a single Field Goal, instead maintaining their advantage from the Charity Stripe where they knocked down 9-of-9 during that stretch. Then came back-to-back Three-Pointers from Sophomore Guard, Jamal Bey (5.8 PTS, 37.6% FG, 25.7% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 11.0 PER), and the aforementioned McDaniels to extend the lead to Ten Points with 2:45 left to play. Stewart finished the night with Sixteen Points, Seven Rebounds, and Two Steals and Blocks apiece (a major bump from the previous meeting with Wildcats in which he managed just Nine Points on 3-of-13 shooting), while McDaniels dropped a game-high Twenty Points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), Six Rebounds, and Three Blocks, with Bey adding another Twelve Points with all but five of that figure coming from the Free-Throw Line (7-of-7).
Meanwhile, Arizona (20-11, 10-8 in Pac-12) may not necessarily need to win the Pac-12 Tournament in order to get into the NCAA Tournament Field, but they could surely benefit from a prolonged run. Simply put, this is not a team that has been playing it’s basketball of late, losing four of their final five contests, with only one of those defeats coming against a ranked opponent. After finishing 17-15 and missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Sean Miller since 2012, the Wildcats entered the campaign as Preseason No. 21 in the AP Poll, and spent the months of November and December occupying a place in the Rankings, but 2020 has been nothing short of perilous for a team that has gone just 10-8 in the new year. Defensively, they’ve been solid during this recent malaise, allowing 38.7% shooting from the field, including 31.4% from beyond the arc, while outrebounding the opposition (Plus-3.6), and forcing 12.2 Turnovers in comparison to permitting just 9.4 Assists. However, the problems have risen on the offensive end of the floor, where they simply haven’t been an efficient group, settling for low-percentage shots and failing to take care of the basketball. In this quintet of games, Miller’s charges have shot 40.1% from the field, including just 33.0% from downtown, 66.7% from the Free-Throw Line, and committing as many Turnovers as Assists (14.0). They’ve also shown a troubling pattern of bailing out the other team with fouls, which could be a sign of tired legs at this stage of season. Arizona has committed an average of 19.2 Personal Fouls during this sample size, with their opponents attempting 22.0 Free-Throws per Game, leading to a Minus-4.6 differential in Attempts and a Minus-6 differential in Makes. This definitely runs counter to one of their greatest strengths, for the Wildcats have LIVED at the Charity Stripe this season, ranking First in the Pac-12 in Free-Throws Attempted (20.2) and Second in Makes (14.5), which has helped make up for the fact that they’re far from an efficient unit shooting the basketball, ranking Tenth in the league in Field Goal Percentage (41.6%) and Two-Point Percentage (46.0%), along with Seventh in Three-Point Percentage (33.5%). This inconsistency probably comes from their relative lack of experience, for Miller has relied a lot on his own high-profile Freshman Class, consisting of Forward, Zeke Nnaji (16.3 PTS, 57.3% FG, 29.4% 3FG, 8.6 REB, 26.3 PER), and Guards, Nico Mannion (14.0 PTS, 39.0% FG, 32.5% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.2 PER) and Josh Green (11.7 PTS, 42.1% FG, 34.2% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 17.6 PER). At 6-11, Nnaji has exhibited the length and athleticism that tells us that he probably won’t be in Tucson much longer, while Mannion has apparently already informed Miller that he will be declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft. With that said, that’s not to say that there isn’t a veteran shoulder to lean on, with Senior Guard, Dylan Smith (8.5 PTS, 37.1% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 10.8 PER), providing the requisite leadership to allow his younger teammates to grow. Smith kept Arizona in last weekend’s affair with Washington, leading the way with Nineteen Points and a career-high 6-of-10 from beyond the arc (60.0%), despite heading to the locker-room midway through the First Half thanks to a broken nose courtesy of the aforementioned Stewart. After passing Concussion Protocol, he returned to the fray to help the hosts close the deficit in the latter stages. In the end, Nnaji totaled Twelve Points on 4-of-10 shooting (40.0%) alongside Eleven Rebounds, with Mannion chipping in with Eleven Points and Five Assists, though really struggled from the field, mustering a meager 3-of-9 shooting (33.3%), including 1-of-5 from downtown (20.0%), while committing Five Turnovers.