Staff Writer Frank Catallier
Sitting at 15-3, Arizona goes into the toughest stretch of games they have played all year and potentially the toughest four games of the year. In these four games, Arizona fans will find out if this team is truly a contender for the Pac 10 race or if we are still a year or two away.
When thinking about Washington, one word comes to mind, explosive. They play a fast paced game, trying to get up and down the court as quickly as possible. This could play into the Cats favor because they too also favor playing that style of basketball. Arizona’s problems at the point guard position have been well documented and in a fast paced game that puts added pressure on the lead guard to make smart decisions. Even though Arizona has lost three of the last four games in Seattle, they have played relatively well losing by 6, 5, and 9 points. Last year the Cats were able to play the Huskies tough despite getting only ten minutes from Derrick Williams due to foul trouble.
The same cannot be said about the Cats’ recent performances against Washington St, losing 3 of 4 by an average of 12 points per game. Coach Olson always stressed winning at home and splitting on the road. That will be vital this weekend. As much of a problem as UW will be, beating WSU will be no easy task either. WSU has the best player in the Pac 10 not named Derrick Williams in Klay Thompson. They also have DeAngelo Casto who destroyed the Cats last year inside, not only with points, but on the boards. No matter what happens in Seattle on Thursday night, the Cats need to have energy and focus on Saturday as well.
After the trip to the northwest, the Cats return home to face the LA schools which are both match up nightmares for Arizona. USC might be the toughest game of the year because of the influence of Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic who are both athletic 6’11’ post players who can face up.
UCLA’s bigs may not be as big of a problem as USC’s, but they pose a different challenge. Reeves Nelson is having a great sophomore season, and was a thorn in Arizona’s side last year. He’s mobile, strong, and plays with incredible toughness. His counterpart is freshman Josh Smith, who is simply huge. Smith is 6’11” 300 lbs, and uses his size and strength to bully defenders. He has struggled with foul trouble against quicker, more skilled opponents, so it is possible that UCLA turns to sophomore Brendan Lane, who is having a much bigger impact in his second year. Though UCLA’s big men may not get the attention that Vucevic or Stepheson gets, they leads the Pac-10 in blocks per game.
To say the least, the next four games will be the toughest stretch Arizona has all year given the first two games in the state of Washington. The one thing the Cats can’t do is go 0 for 4 in this stretch if they hope to return to the NCAA tournament.