While its offense sputtered in its last game, Arizona’s defensive effort has coach Sean Miller thinking big lately.
That could spell trouble for a Washington State team that has struggled to score.
The eighth-ranked Wildcats will try for their first four-game road winning streak in two seasons on Saturday night when they visit the slumping Cougars.
After giving up a season-high 84 points in a loss to UCLA, Arizona (18-2, 6-2 Pac-12) bounced back with impressive performances on the defensive end in its last two wins.
The Wildcats followed a 74-50 victory over USC last Saturday with a 57-53 win at Washington on Thursday to close to within one game of the conference lead following Oregon’s loss at Stanford on Wednesday.
Although they finished with season lows in points, field-goal percentage (35.1) and 3-point percentage (16.7), the Wildcats held the Huskies to 36.8 percent shooting - including 3 for 18 from beyond the arc.
“To win on the road when you don’t play offense well or have a half like we did, I think is a telling sign that hopefully our future is filled with some good moments,” Miller said.
The Wildcats rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in opponents’ 3-point percentage (35.0), but have tightened up their perimeter defense recently. They’ve limited opponents to 6 of 32 (18.8 percent) from beyond the arc and a 32.2 field-goal percentage overall in their last two games.
Arizona has also held opponents to 53.5 points in its last two on the road.
“Sometimes on the road when you can find a way and play great defense and learn, it means the world,” Miller said. “Because you are not going to be perfect, especially in conference play.”
Miller’s team will try to continue its defensive prowess against the Cougars, who rank last in the Pac-12 with 63.4 points per game and second-to-last in field-goal percentage at 42.4.
Washington State (11-10, 2-6) hasn’t reached those averages while dropping its last two home games, including a 63-59 loss to Arizona State on Thursday.
After winning seven of eight heading into 2013, the Cougars went 2-6 in January.
Senior Brock Motum leads Washington State and is third in the conference at 18.5 points per game, but looks to rebound after finishing with a season-low 11 on 3-of-13 shooting against the Sun Devils.
Motum had a game-high 28 points in a 76-72 loss to Arizona in the prior meeting in Pullman last February.
Senior Mike Ladd, the only other Cougar averaging in double figures (11.9), has scored 18.2 per game while shooting 58.6 percent from the floor in his last five.
Washington State, which is shooting 39.3 percent in Pac-12 play, will likely have to be more efficient if it hopes to keep pace with an Arizona team that still ranks near the top of the conference in scoring (74.6).
Mark Lyons leads the team in scoring (14.7 ppg) despite totaling only 19 on 8-of-22 shooting in his last two. The senior guard averaged 18.8 points in his first six conference games.
Sophomore Nick Johnson has averaged 17.8 points in his last four games, while senior Solomon Hill has scored 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting in his last two against the Cougars.
The Wildcats look for their first road sweep of the Washington schools since the 2005-06 season. They’ve won four straight in this series.