Top-ranked Wildcats open league play against Cougars

12:19 PM, Jan 2, 2014   |    comments
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Tucson, AZ ( - The top-ranked Arizona Wildcats get their highly anticipated Pac-12 slate underway on Thursday evening, as they play host to the Washington State Cougars at the McKale Center.

Sean Miller's Wildcats sit atop the national rankings with a flawless 13-0 record. Arizona has a couple of marquee victories over San Diego State and Duke along the way, as it embarks on its league schedule. The Wildcats closed out non-conference play in impressive fashion, making light work of instate foe Northern Arizona on Dec. 23, 77-44.

Ken Bone's Cougars are treading water as Pac-12 action gets started. Washington State is 7-5 on the year and enters with wins in four of its last five games, including an 85-48 rout of Mississippi Valley State last weekend.

Arizona holds a huge lead in the series, 57-16. The Wildcats have won six straight matchups and are 28-8 against the Cougars in Tucson, all-time.

The Cougars took advantage of a out-gunned MVSU squad last time out, shooting a sizzling 60 percent from the floor and owning a 44-30 rebounding advantage in the lopsided win. Que Johnson led the team offensively, with a game-high 19 points. Joining him in double figures were Royce Woolridge and D.J. Shelton, who finished with 16 and 14 points, respectively. Shelton completed a double- double by grabbing a game-high 13 boards.

Washington State is by no means an offensive juggernaut, but does possess a +6.9 scoring margin. The team is netting a modest 70.7 ppg on the year and doing so on .443 shooting. WSU also holds a positive rebounding margin (+4.0). To make matters worse heading into league play, leading scorer Davonte' Lacy (18.9 ppg) is currently sidelined due to appendicitis. That will throw a larger portion of the scoring burden on players like Woolridge (10.9 ppg), Johnson (8.8 ppg) and Shelton (8.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg).

Like most teams at or near the top of the national rankings, Arizona has thrived at both ends of the court this season. The team can run with just about anyone, averaging 76.3 ppg on a solid .492 shooting. However, defense is the team's primary strength, holding foes to a league low 56.7 ppg and just .372 shooting (second in the conference). Arizona also leads the league in rebounding margin (+12.5). The Wildcats are also at less than full strength with an ankle injury sidelining center Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), but there is plenty of depth to assuage the loss on a short term basis. Guard Nick Johnson headlines the play at the offensive end, netting 16.0 ppg. Sophomore Brandon Ashley (12.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and freshman Aaron Gordon (12.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg) provide frontcourt balance. Junior T.J. McConnell (6.5 ppg) isn't much of a scorer, but his role is as primary facilitator, where he doles out an impressive 6.5 assists per game to rank third in the Pac-12.

The Wildcats didn't have their starting center, but didn't need him, as they completed their second straight perfect non-conference slate by rolling over the Lumberjacks last time out. Arizona put the clamps on NAU defensively, limiting the visitors to a meager 36 percent shooting, while forcing 23 turnovers. Johnson led four Wildcats in double figures with 20 points. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 14 points, while Ashley and Gabe York tallied 11 and 10 points, respectively.

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