Saturday night’s game against the #9 Arizona Wildcats is potentially huge for the Washington Huskies. A win would give UW three blue chip premium wins (along with at Kansas and at USC) that very few bubble teams could match. Beat Arizona and hold serve the rest of the way and the Huskies are all but guaranteed a tourney berth. And if that weren’t enough, this game also means the return of one (clears throat) Lorenzo Romar. Sound familiar? To help set up this titanic matchup we sought help from Arizona Desert Swarm contributor Ryan Kelapire to answer some questions about the Wildcats in what has been a very interesting year for them. (You can view my answers to Ryan’s questions here.)
UWDP- What kind of a role does Lorenzo Romar have as an assistant for Arizona? Have there been any noticeable changes in recruiting or team management since his arrival?
ADS- It’s hard to tell, frankly. Players have talked about how Romar has helped sharpen UA’s transition attack, but that’s about it. And Sean Miller is never willing to divulge any specific details about what Romar actually does. As far as recruiting goes, Arizona is hardly recruiting anyone these days because of the FBI investigation, so Romar’s potential there has been stifled.
So maybe Romar’s most important role is being the “good cop” of Arizona’s coaching staff (with Miller being the “bad cop”). Romar seems a bit more level-headed than Miller during games.
UWDP- Has the FBI investigation had any effect on the team and has there been any indication that more news will be coming eventually?
ADS- I think it has had an effect on team, but mostly because it led to Book Richardson being fired. He was the coach on staff that was the closest with players. Miller has talked about how he has trouble reaching Arizona’s players this season, which Richardson was stellar at. And I think the investigation is on the players’ minds to some extent, but I think it’s far enough in the past that they are thinking about it anymore.
To answer the second question, there really have not been any signs as to when (or if) Arizona will be punished for its role in the probe. Things have been silent since the findings of the investigation went public in September.
UWDP- What are Zona fans’ expectations for this team at this point in the season? Still Final 4 or bust?
ADS- Yeah, I would say it’s Final Four or bust. But it does depend who you ask. There are some fans who don’t think a Final Four is very likely because of how awful Arizona’s defense has been this year. Others see Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins and think Arizona can beat just about anybody.
Personally, I would be surprised if Arizona made the Final Four. One, it hasn’t made it since 2001, so it’s kind of a “I’ll believe it when I see it” type thing for more. Two, the defense is far from where it needs to be. But given the raw talent level, the Wildcats are capable of beating just about anybody which could manifest into something special in March if they are clicking.
UWDP- Along those lines, what’s the approval rating of Sean Miller in Tucson given the FBI and the “lack of NCAA tourney success” (which UW would kill for by the way)?
ADS- I’d say his approval rating has dipped from like 90% to 80%, but only because of the FBI investigation. Arizona fans really take for granted how consistently competitive this program has been the last several years. Sure, they have not made a Final Four but as you pointed out, other schools would kill to be a perennial top-20, top-15 team like Arizona has.
I will say that Miller’s best trait is as a recruiter, so it will be interesting to see how he fares down the road if the Wildcats continue to have trouble luring in top recruits because of the FBI investigation. Obviously if that happens and the product on the court worsens, Miller will lose favor quickly with UA fans, who have become pretty spoiled.
UWDP- How has Arizona rebounded after losing 3 in a row at the Battle 4 Atlantis?
ADS- Pure talent, for one. Anytime you have three guys like Ayton, Trier, and Alkins, you’re going to win a lot of games. Especially when the Pac-12 is as unimpressive as it is this year.
Another reason is because it has become clear who should and shouldn’t be on the floor. The Wildcats’ starting five is tremendous, but they don’t have much outside of that. So now the starters are playing more minutes than before which is a good thing.
Finally, Dusan Ristic and Ayton have been more cohesive as a frontcourt pairing. Early in the season, it was difficult for Arizona to play both its 7-footers concurrently, especially defensively against smaller lineups. But they have gotten much better at that — mostly because Ayton has improved as a perimeter defender — and now they don’t have many problems playing together.
UWDP- Deandre Ayton has seemingly been everything you expected and more. Which of the other newcomers have been bright spots as well?
ADS- Uh, that’s a good question. Arizona’s recruiting class was ranked No. 3 in the country, but it has been a huge disappointment so far. Of the five freshmen, Ayton is the only one that is a reliable contributor. Brandon Randolph can hit a jumper here and there, Ira Lee is an energy big, and Emmanuel Akot has some interesting tools, but they just aren’t ready to be players Arizona can count on.
Alex Barcello was expected to be Arizona’s backup point guard and he doesn’t even play. Arizona did add UNC Asheville transfer Dylan Smith, and he has been similar to Randolph in that he can get hot from the perimeter, but if those two aren’t hitting shots they don’t bring much to the table.
UWDP- What’s the biggest defining characteristic for Arizona on each end of the floor?
ADS- On offense, it’s star power. Guys like Ayton and Trier are averaging 20 points per game, and can single-handedly carry Arizona offense. Or they can do it at the same time plus get help from Alkins, like what we saw against Washington State. Ristic, a traditional back-to-the-basket center, is averaging in double figures too. Those four do almost all of Arizona’s scoring. So I guess you could describe it as an unbalanced attack.
On defense, it’s size. Ristic is a legit 7-footer and Ayton is 7-1. Arizona has trouble stopping dribble penetration, but sometimes those bigs can bail them out just by challenging and altering shots at the rim.
Despite having every physical attribute possible, Ayton was actually a lackluster shot-blocker at the beginning of the year. But he is quickly changing that narrative, tallying multiple blocks in seven of the last eight games. He had six against Stanford the other day.
UWDP- Is Rawle Alkins healthy and is he going to be able to take on a bigger role in the game against Washington?
ADS- Alkins is day-to-day. He played Wednesday at Washington State so he should play Saturday so long as he doesn’t experience any soreness in his surgically-repaired right foot. But what type of role he has is a different story. He played just 16 minutes against WSU, though Arizona also beat the Cougs by 28, so he didn’t need to play a lot.
If I had to guess, I’d say Alkins will play like 25 minutes against UW. Maybe more if it’s a close game. Or if he could sit out altogether if his foot didn’t respond well to Wednesday’s game. Before that game, Alkins had missed two straight games and three of the last four.
UWDP- What’s your score prediction for the game on Saturday?
ADS- Well it should be a close game, because nearly every conference game has been for Arizona this season. It probably all depends how Arizona handles UW’s zone and if it takes care of the ball or not. The Huskies have been a surprise team this season, no doubt, but I think the Wildcats will win a tight one — something like 79-75.
Thanks again to Ryan Kelapire for helping us out. You can follow Ryan @RKelapire and the website @AZDesertSwarm.
You can follow me @UWDP_maxvroom