No. 4 Arizona hosts upstart No. 21 Wazzu for Pac-12 lead


Nobody saw it coming, but the Pac-12 game of the year is set to take place when No. 4 Arizona hosts No. 21 Washington State on Thursday night in Tucson, Ariz.

The Wildcats (20-5, 11-3 Pac-12) have a half-game lead over the Cougars (20-6, 11-4), who entered the AP Top 25 poll this week for the first time this season. Washington State, which was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 in a preseason media poll, continues to surprise and heads to Tucson on a seven-game winning streak.

Oregon is third in the league at 9-5.

With a win, Arizona would be in solid control of the race with five games remaining. The Wildcats have won six consecutive games and are coming off a 105-60 rout of Arizona State on Saturday.

The Cougars clipped Arizona 73-70 in Pullman, Wash., on Jan. 13 as the Wildcats’ Caleb Love missed a 3-point attempt that would have tied the game in the final seconds.

“They’re having an incredible season,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said of the Cougars. “They’ve got all the right pieces. They really play well together. Kyle (Smith) has done a great job putting them in position to be successful. And they’ve done an incredible job of playing with great poise in close games.

“It’s not a fluke by any stretch. We know it’s going to be a battle and it’s probably going to be one of the harder, if not hardest, (games) we play all year.”

Washington State’s Isaac Jones had 24 points and 13 rebounds in the first meeting on his way to Pac-12 Player of the Week honors. Jones is also the reigning conference player of the week and is averaging 15.7 points and 7.6 rebounds.

Myles Rice has been the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week seven times, including the past four. He averages team highs with 15.9 points and 3.7 assists per game.

Washington State’s calling card is defense and a slower-paced offense that will be a contrast to Arizona’s desire to always be in transition. The Wildcats shot just 34.7 percent (25 of 72) in the first meeting and managed only eight fastbreak points.

“It’s just all piecing together right now,” Washington State center Oscar Cluff said after the Cougars’ 72-59 win over visiting Stanford on Saturday. “The whole team is just playing defense together.”

Love scores 18.8 points per game to lead Arizona, while Oumar Ballo averages nearly a double-double (13.0 points, 9.8 rebounds) and leads a strong inside game that owns a plus-11.3 rebounding edge for the season. As a testament to Arizona’s quality eight-man rotation, backup sophomore point guard Jaden Bradley is coming off a career-high, 21-point effort against Arizona State and has not committed a turnover in his past 122 minutes.

The Thursday night game will feature two teams that are peaking, with first place in the Pac-12 on the line.

“Obviously, it’s an important game for a lot of reasons,” said Lloyd, who on Monday received a five-year contract extension through 2029. “But if you win that game and think that you’ve won the league championship, you’re probably getting a little bit ahead of yourself.”

–Field Level Media

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