Washington St.-Arizona Preview

TOM CASTRO (STATS Senior Editor)
The Associated PressJanuary 1, 2014

Despite some close calls during non-conference play, top-ranked Arizona heads into its Pac-12 schedule unbeaten and feeling pretty good after back-to-back blowouts.

The Wildcats will look to keep rolling when they go for a seventh straight victory over Washington State on Thursday night at home.

Five of Arizona's wins have come by single digits, but the Wildcats (13-0) have cruised to comfortable victories in two straight and three of their last four games. They pounded Northern Arizona 77-44 on Dec. 23, the third time in those four contests they held an opponent to fewer than 50 points.

''We're good, but we can get a lot better,'' said guard Nick Johnson, who scored 20 points. ''Hey, 13-0, we'll take that. Now we've just got to get ready for conference.''

The Wildcats' defense appears to be more than ready. Arizona is limiting opponents to 37.2 percent shooting, among the best marks in the nation.

''Best defensive team I've seen in a long time,'' NAU coach Jack Murphy said, a former manager under Lute Olson at Arizona. ''Defensively, they're better than any team when I was here. Their length, they guard pick and rolls, motion and they limit you to one shot. They defend.''

The Wildcats also rebound, averaging 12.5 more per game than their opponents, also one of the nation's best marks.

Starting center Kaleb Tarczewski is third on the team in rebounding at 6.7 per game, and he's expected to return after missing the last two contests with a right ankle sprain.

Arizona was selected as the runaway favorite to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll, and coach Sean Miller's squad is aware that it goes into every contest with a target on its back.

''Being the No. 1 team in the country, you can carry it as a burden and take all of the negative connotations that you want,'' Miller said. ''On the flip side, we've really embraced the fact that we're the No. 1 team in the country. You can't take it from us. We earned it.''

Washington State (7-5) will try to knock the Wildcats from that spot, though it's lost by an average of 15.5 points in the past two meetings. The most recent came Feb. 23 at Tucson, 73-56 to give Arizona 57 wins in 73 all-time meetings.

The Cougars, picked to finish last in the conference, have been better since a rough start, winning four of five. They routed Mississippi Valley State 85-48 on Saturday, getting 19 points from Que Johnson and 16 from Royce Woolridge.

Despite the lopsided victory, Johnson is eager to begin conference play. Averaging 8.8 points, he's scored 40 in the past two games.

"Definitely excited," he said. "This is what I signed up for a couple years ago, so I'm really excited."

Washington State, though, was without leading scorer DaVonte Lacy on Saturday due to an appendix attack he suffered early that morning, and he'll miss this game as well. The guard is averaging 18.9 points and 4.7 rebounds.

"We missed his presence and his emotional leadership, he's one of the more vocal guys and we just knew more people had to step up and fill in the role," said forward D.J. Shelton, who scored a season-high 14 points with 13 rebounds and has reached double figures in boards in four of the last five games.

Johnson, Arizona's leading scorer at 16.0 points, has struggled against the Cougars, averaging 5.8 points and 29.2 percent shooting in four career games.