By Christian Caple
The News Tribune
TUCSON, Ariz. — Even as the Washington Huskies continue to rank among the Pac-12’s worst defensive teams, their foremost challenge on Sunday afternoon, coach Lorenzo Romar says, will come on the other end of the court.
That isn’t a good thing.
The Huskies (9-11, 2-6 in Pac-12) haven’t guarded well for much of their conference slate. Such deficiency remains atop this team’s checklist for why it doesn’t win very often. But UW also hasn’t scored the way it would like, shooting only 42.0 percent through its first eight Pac-12 games, a mark that ranks 10th in the league despite that area being one of the Huskies’ purported strengths.
Arizona (19-2, 8-0), ranked 7th in this week’s Associated Press top 25 poll, ranks 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Even without considering what the Wildcats’ duo of 7-footers and cache of scoring guards might do to Washington’s defense, this could be a long afternoon for the Huskies.
“We haven’t scored the ball well since conference has started,” Romar said Saturday afternoon in the lobby of UW’s team hotel in Tucson, shortly before the team departed for its practice at McKale Center. “So in the midst of that, you have, in my opinion, the best defensive team in our league in Arizona. We’re going to have to find a way to score points.”
Arizona is one of two Pac-12 teams unbeaten in league play — the other is Oregon, which beat UW by 22 points in Seattle on Jan. 4 — and there is little to suggest the Huskies are capable of slowing their roll. The Wildcats have won 13 consecutive games and recently regained sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, who was suspended for the first 19 games of the season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
They’re big, they’re talented, they guard, and they shoot 43.6 percent from 3-point range, good for second in the Pac-12. The Huskies, meanwhile, have just two Pac-12 victories, over Colorado and Oregon State — those teams have one league victory between them — and have failed to even be competitive against the few top-tier teams they’ve faced so far.
At Gonzaga, a 27-point loss. Against Oregon, a blowout loss at home. Against Utah, a 22-point loss at home.
The last time the Huskies played at McKale Center, they trailed only 44-41 at halftime before losing 99-67, falling apart in the second half as the din of 14,790 screaming fans overwhelmed them.
Romar recalls his young team becoming distracted by the atmosphere. Well, this year’s team is only moderately older, and none of them have ever won a game in an arena as intimidating as McKale. This season, they haven’t even come close. And Arizona is better than a year ago.
“Last year, I thought we played them really good for a half,” Romar said. “In the second half, they hit a few buckets, and you could see the crowd wanting the gladiator effect to just happen to us, and I thought we got rattled a little bit in the second half, and they just distanced themselves like that. We can’t let that happen.”
Compounding the challenge is the return of Trier, who surprised many by choosing to return for his sophomore season rather than declare for the NBA draft. His suspension was shrouded in mystery until recently, as the school announced three days before its Jan. 21 game against then-No. 3 UCLA that Trier had tested positive for PEDs and would return once the drugs had left his system.
The 6-foot-5 guard from Seattle was cleared in time to help Arizona beat the Bruins, scoring 12 points in a 96-85 victory in Los Angeles. He scored 17 in a 79-62 victory Thursday night over Washington State.
“I know he’s been like a caged animal in there, waiting to get out and devour some people and some teams,” Romar said. “I know how hard ‘Zo works on his game. … He gets a few game reps in, there’s no doubt, I see him being better than he was.”
Arizona should be, too.
“As good as they’ve been,” Romar said, “they’re about to get better.”
And not just because they’re playing the Huskies.