Big week ahead for Arizona basketball

Big week ahead for Arizona basketball
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

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By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

That was fun. This week promises to be funner.

With apologies to strict grammarians, the use of the informal comparative adjective strikes a better tone after the Arizona Wildcats basketball team set about restoring its mojo on a Northwest cruise through the Washington schools last weekend.

The Wildcats shot 54.9 percent, outrebounded Washington and Washington State by a combined 28, scored 92 points in the paint, allowed less than 39 percent shooting and generally made a mockery of any sense of competiveness by throttling each foe early in the first half.

Whew.

All that was the aspirin needed to cure the hangover from the loss at Arizona State a week earlier, and Sean Miller's team has now played eight of its past nine games at a very high level -- a let's-at-least-get-to-a-regional-final-level, a potential-No. 1-seed level.

The two victories -- 86-62 over the Huskies and 86-59 over the Cougars -- set the table for this big week of Arizona basketball.

On Thursday, Arizona plays host to a very young USC team that is in last place in the Pac-12 with a 2-11 record. OK, that's not the big news. The spotlight Thursday will be on the return to McKale Center of Jason Terry for his jersey retirement ceremony. It's an overdue honor for Terry, the celebrated sixth man on Arizona's 1997 national championship team and the national player of the year from various media outlets as a senior in 1999.

You'd have to look hard -- and be unsuccessful doing so -- to find another player in the Lute Olson years who played the game with more joy than Terry and had a better (still ongoing) NBA career.

So, yes, that will be fun. Cheers. Smiles. Perhaps a lot of knee-length "CATS" socks.

And then comes Saturday.

The way the unbalanced Pac-12 schedule breaks is that Arizona plays rival UCLA only once this season, and the occasion will be aptly marked by the arrival of ESPN's GameDay program, which will broadcast live from McKale Center from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

The Bruins, to put it ever-so-kindly, struggled in their non-conference season -- an 83-44 loss to Kentucky standing as one of the season's worst train wrecks -- but they have won five of their past six games, including beating Utah and winning at Stanford. They have a talented starting lineup. So, yes, this could be a competitive and mighty fun game, although it's unlikely the Wildcats are going to lose at home any time soon.

This might be a good time to insert a caution that last week's opponents are -- and we're going to be kind here, too -- well, not good. But it wasn't as much about who Arizona was playing as it was about Arizona itself.

T.J. McConnell continued to make a case to not only be Pac-12 Player of the Year, but to insert himself into a nearly impregnable top 5 list of the best Arizona point guards in the past 30 years -- Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Terry, and Jason Gardner. McConnell is shooting 56.5 percent in 12 conference games, a nearly unheard of percentage for a point guard, especially one who is still distributing 6 assists per game for the season.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson slipped and fell Friday night on a dunk attempt, which was good for social media laughs at his expense, but he responded with a smile that Terry could love and threw down a one-handed left-handed slam on Sunday to make all the highlight shows. He made 15 of 19 shots in the two games. Take that, Twitter.

And center Kaleb Tarczewski, in need of an injection of confidence offensively, went 6 for 6 from the field against Washington State and tied for the team high with 17 points.

"It was great to see. I thought he made some great catches," Miller said on his postgame radio interview.

"The other coaches who play against us really admire and respect Kaleb. Sometimes, as a fan, you don't know the game nearly as well. You think you do. You focus more on offense or points per game, but you don't understand the amount of plays that a center is involved in that affect winning, off the ball and rebounding and team defense.

"Kaleb grades out at an A and A-plus in those areas all the time. ... He defends ball screens as well as any big guy in the country. Statistically, it doesn't always show who he is, but when you take him off the floor, you feel the difference.

"It was good for him to get six made field goals as well because he certainly has lost his confidence over the last couple of weeks on offense. He got it back on this trip. He looks good. Obviously, we need him to be able to score in and around the basket, and we know he's capable."

There are less than two weeks before the big showdown at Utah on Feb. 28, and just over three weeks before the Pac-12 tournament starts in Las Vegas. There are no more lulls in the schedule, and Arizona can't afford another lull in its effort.

Shouldn't be a problem this week. It's going to be fun.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.