Arizona Wildcats (13-6) at Washington Huskies (12-9)

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Both the Huskies and the Wildcats were near the top of my projections for the Pac-12 conference heading into the 2019-20 season. Through the first third of the season, Arizona and Washington looked set to fill those expectations, however the first half of conference play has been disastrous for both programs. The Huskies have dropped seven of their last nine outings and are quickly heading out of consideration for any post-season tournaments. The issue is that this big slide in performance started occurring before the team suspended starting point guard Quade Green for the rest of the semester. Likewise, the Wildcats started their season blowing out power 5 opponents and helping to prop up the conference as a fully recovered product capable of sending a handful of teams to the NCAA Tournament. Consistency issues of late have resulted in Sean Miller’s squad losing three of their last five matchups. Both of these teams need to rattle off wins in order to reach consideration for selection into the field of 68.

Arizona’s Freshman Trio Drives Sean Miller’s Wildcats

Arizona may not have garnered the same amount of preseason hype as Oregon did this year, but they certainly rose up the ranks as though we should have. Rising up to #12 in the AP Polls, the Wildcats have since lost all momentum and are not playing up to their potential in conference games. All three of their conference losses have come on the road and a pair of them were by a single point (Oregon in OT, Arizona St). This team is undoubtedly run by an NBA-bound Freshman trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji – together they combine for 53.5% of the Wildcats points.

Mannion has done an exceptional job coming into the program and controlling the reigns like an upperclassmen. He’s done so well in fact that he could in consideration for the top PG headed into this Summer’s draft. An elite first step and excellent use of change of pace with the ball, slashing into the lane is never an issue. His best characteristics however are his leadership and court vision. This Arizona team loves to push the pace and Mannion is the driving force behind not only orchestrating flawless fastbreak opportunities, but finding quick shots in the halfcourt as well. His communication on the court is going to be critical in this matchup against a Huskies team that utilizes a very unique 2-3 zone.

His teammate Green has superb chemistry with Mannion, as the two played together for four years on West Coast Elite. Green’s low maintenance play often undermines his contributions to this team – 12.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG. He takes his opportunities as they come and doesn’t rush chances. He makes the high effort plays that every team needs and he flat out gets the job done. He’s exactly the kind of player that Sean Miller wants in a physical and gritty game against Washington. Nnaji, the other star Freshman, arrived in Tucson as the lowest rank of the three but has abruptly emerged as the Wildcats top offensive weapon.

Nnaji is explosive around the rim, whether scoring the ball, blocking shots or collecting rebounds, but his most dangerous area is letting him shoot in the midrange areas. At 67% from the floor, Nnaji hits on 55% of his short midrange attempts and an even better 62% from longer midrange areas. This could be Arizona’s X-factor in the game against Hopkins version of the 2-3. His hasn’t show himself to be a huge contributor passing the ball in the halfcourt, but this could be an area tonight where we say “look at the plays he opened up for his teammates.”

The attention of Washington will be on these three players, but Sean Miller has scary amounts of depth remaining in the starting lineup and on his bench. Center Chase Jeter is still questionable for this game, but Stone Gettings and Christian Koloko have both stepped in with a lot of consistency in the last several games. Transfer products Jemarl Baker (Kentucky) and Max Hazzard (UC-Irvine) have come in to provide excellent production and experience behind Mannion and shooting guard Dylan Smith, who is the team’s top 3-point threat. Washington’s zone may be formidable, but so are the offensive weapons brings to the table.

The Huskies Must Overcome Poor Late-Game Execution

Mike Hopkins team could be in much better shape entering this game, despite not having Quade Green available for the last six outings. If the Huskies had found a way to play with more consistent offensive possessions down the stretch, we could be looking at a ranked-Washington program capable of being selected to the Big Dance. Double-digit leads over Oregon, Utah and Stanford dissipated quickly in the final minutes, before the Huskies dropped each in heartbreaking fashion. In fact, six of their last seven losses have been by six points or less and the Huskies have managed themselves decently considering their vast issues on the offensive end of the ball.

Freshman forward Isaiah Stewart has been the only reliable option for the Huskies this season. He leads the team with 18.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 2.2 BPG – an undeniable monster around the rim – but this team’s offensive spacing and scheme does not provide him many isolation opportunities given their lack of quality threats elsewhere on the floor. Stewart is double, even triple-teamed on almost every offensive possession leaving his teammates open to take almost any shot they desire. The issue is just that the rest of this Washington team is not ideally to function efficiently in the half-court at this time.

Fellow stud Freshman Jaden McDaniels has tons of talent as an NBA prospect, but his shot selection could improve. McDaniels, standing all of 6’10”, has the capability to put the ball on the floor and create mismatches for himself almost anywhere on the floor. However, the main issue is he mentally does not want to take shots inside of the elbow. He still puts up 12.6 PPG, good enough for second on the team, but it has created issues on a game-to-game basis for him in terms of production and being aggressive enough shooting the ball.

That can be overcome, but undoubtedly this team’s biggest issue comes at the point guard spot. Marcus Tsohonis has stepped up in Quade Green’s absence, but this team has looked lost during this transition. Almost half of the Huskies’ offensive play clock is wasted on every single possession trying to set up plays and getting guys in the right spots. Add that in with your top scoring option getting doubled at every opportunity and the rest of the team lacking consistency scoring the ball, you have quite the conundrum to figure out.

A lot of offense can be created from this squad’s stellar defensive principles. They’re incredibly long and rangy and Mike Hopkins has developed and tweaked Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone from Syracuse into his own monster. At times this zone can represent a 4-1 or a 1-4 zone depending on where the ball is on the court, but collectively all players rally to the ball and successfully defend possessions at a high rate. It’s difficult to comfortably hit 3-pointers against this zone, but venturing into the paint puts teams at the mercy of the nation’s 2nd-best shot-blocking team (6.5 BPG). This side of the court is the saving grace to remaining competitive in a lot of their games.

Conclusions: Washington has not had troubles keeping up in the wake of Quade Green’s absence, but have lacked the ability to close teams out down the stretch. The home-court advantage in this game cannot be forgotten, but Huskies cannot afford to play recklessly against a defense that is only marginally worse than they are. Arizona’s offense can play with any team in the nation and are one of the deeper teams Washington will have to face this season. Nico Mannion will have to lead the Wildcats again and find safe ways to get the ball into the short-corner or the high post to crack the Huskies 2-3. With his IQ and change of pace, he should not have an issue opening up some opportunities for his shooters.

Prediction: Arizona 70, Washington 65

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