January 24, 2008

Biggest game of the year

It's Jan. 24 and [tm]Arizona[/tm] sits at 12-6 and 2-3 in the Pac-10. No matter what happens tonight against [tm]Washington State[/tm], the Wildcats will have plenty of time to build their NCAA tournament résumé and try to become a bigger factor in the conference.

With that said, tonight's game is the biggest of the season to date. Two months from now, UA fans might be able to look back and say this game changed the course of the season, one way or the other.

Five reasons why Arizona's game against Washington State tonight is the biggest of the year:

1. Huge RPI builder

Arizona's RPI currently sits at 9th and while there's a very long way to go to determine where the UA ends up, the team's #1 strength of schedule should keep that number high all season long, provided the Wildcats continue to stay competitive.

With that said, there's not going to be a better opportunity to boost the UA's RPI than tonight. There's a little bit of a discrepancy between Wazzu's #6 ranking in the Associated Press and #17 spot in the RPI, but as the season moves along that gap will shrink, especially if the Cougars keep winning.

Assuming Washington State is a top-10 RPI team at the end of the season - and it should be close - the only way the Wildcats get a more quality win all year is if the team beats UCLA, a task which should be much more difficult than knocking off Wazzu.

2. Momentum

The past month of basketball has pretty much been a wash for the Wildcats. Since Dec. 21, the UA has won, lost, won, lost, lost, won, lost and won, in that order.

Jerryd Bayless' four-game absence didn't help, but the bottom line is that the UA has struggled to gain any kind of momentum since its six-game win streak over the course of November and December.

The Washington State game would be a great time to get momentum going, coming off of a big win at Cal and heading into a very winnable home game against Washington. The Los Angeles road trip next week could very easily end up winless for UA if the Wildcats aren't playing good basketball heading into SoCal.

Such a young team might not be able to recover from losing three of its next four games. This game could launch Arizona's season in one direction or another.

3. Pac-10 race

While most realistic fans don't expect Arizona to win the Pac-10, the Wildcats still have every reason to believe they're in the conference race, especially if they can defeat one of the main contenders in Wazzu.

The team's youth, lack of depth and three early losses means the Wildcats' backs will be up against the wall the rest of the way, but the players need something to play for each game and still being involved in the Pac-10 race will do more for the team than playing each game for NCAA tournament seeding.

A loss to Washington State and even the most optimistic players on the team would realize their conference hopes are already over. Defeating Wazzu would let the players still control their own destiny.

4. Confidence

This is a young team and youth ultimately cost the Wildcats in losses to the AP's two best teams in the country - Memphis and Kansas. With Texas A&M's reputation fading fast, the Wildcats need to know they can close against a legitimate Final Four contender.

Games against Kansas, Virginia, Arizona State and Stanford were all lost because of the team's lack of execution down the stretch. You don't beat good basketball teams if you can't make plays when the game is on the line.

If Arizona beats Washington State tonight it's because the Wildcats played great basketball over the last four minutes. Doing so would put the team at its highest point of the season confidence-wise.

5. Arizona can win

Yes, it's an obvious statement that Arizona can win, but this Washington State team is the epitome of every squad that has given the Wildcats trouble over the past two decades. The Cougars are well-coached, play very good defense and run a slowdown, methodical offense.

If a team doesn't play good defense for just one out of the 35 seconds on the shot clock, Washington State will take advantage.

Even if you play Washington State to a draw for 36 minutes, the Cougars have to be considered one of the most clutch Pac-10 teams to come around in recent history, as the last four minutes of the game usually see a new player become the hero each time.

Last year, Arizona's repetitive defensive lapses and inability to make plays at the end of the game cost the Wildcats in two narrow losses to Washington State. Both games were very winnable and greatly affected the UA's chance at a Pac-10 title and a decent seed in the NCAA tournament.

Arizona's two losses to Washington State last season were similar to most games the UA played against tough competition. The Wildcats stayed competitive with offense and let the other team remain in it due to the UA's lack of defense before Arizona crumbled with the game on the line.

The 2006-07 Arizona team was built to lose to Washington State nine out of ten times. This year is different, as the UA can now play the Cougars' game.

Washington State will slow it down and force Arizona to play defense, something that the team can do this season, unlike last year. Washington State will force Arizona into a half court offense, which the Wildcats are comfortable in this season, unlike last year.

If it's a close game, Washington State will once again have players that can execute and hit the big shots. The UA has lost games in the closing moments this season, but this team still shows much more grit than last year's, which was great at finding ways to lose after being competitive for most of the game.

On top of that, from a pure matchup perspective, Arizona has to like where it stands. First of all, the Cougars only have one true post threat in Aron Baynes and make their living from the perimeter, so it's the perfect style of team for the UA's man-to-man defense.

Furthermore, Washington State's lack of size will allow the UA to play smaller and not have to worry about continuously being beat in the post.

With all of this said, the Cougars have a serious edge when it comes to experience. The UA relies on its youth and if Arizona is going to come up with the win of its season, it's going to need to grow up quickly.

Nothing comes easy against Washington State, but Arizona has a lot to gain tonight. Must-win games have been regularly lost by Arizona over the past two seasons and this isn't a must-win game, but winning this non-must-win game in January will go a long way to not having to play in any must-win games in March.

A win over Washington State would be significant for the Wildcats moving forward.

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