PULLMAN – Under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd, the Arizona Wildcats are the talk of the Pac-12.
Washington State is just entering the conversation.
“We’re playing well and having success, and we’ll have some mojo,” Cougars coach Kyle Smith said Tuesday during a news conference. “I think this group is rounding into form, and they know this is our biggest challenge and biggest test thus far.”
Lloyd, a former longtime Gonzaga assistant, has the fourth-ranked Cats (20-2, 10-1) back in the national spotlight. Smith has the Cougs (14-7, 7-3) on a five-game winning streak, and back in the postseason discussion.
The two hottest teams in the conference square off at 6 p.m. Thursday at Beasley Coliseum.
“We’re obviously going into a tough stretch, but we’re pretty thrilled about getting a chance to play a team that looks like they have a chance to play for it all,” Smith said. “We should have a good atmosphere, a good game, and we’ll see what happens.”
The Cougars, coming off their first road sweep of the Bay Area schools since 1993, seem to be hitting stride. They straightened out some of their scoring issues and boast a national top-25 defense , and they appear to be growing comfortable in their roles and in tight games after a rocky stretch of second-half performances late last year.
WSU is up to fourth on the Pac-12 standings and a season-best 36th in the NCAA NET rankings.
“We weren’t very good early, but I knew we had a chance to get better,” Smith said. “Our talent is pretty good.”
So is Arizona’s, to say the least.
“They’re pretty complete – I gotta be honest,” Smith said. “They can play big, they can play small. They pressure defensively and they’re pretty sound in what they do offensively.”
The Wildcats are led by 6-6 sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin, a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft who averages 16.5 points and six rebounds per game.
Their point guard, Kerr Kriisa, is an elite distributor who ranks second in the Pac-12 with five assists per game and controls the pace in an offense that closely resembles the free-flowing system used by Gonzaga, where Lloyd served under coach Mark Few from 2000-2021.
“(Kriisa) makes all the passes and he really understands how to play up-tempo, and that’s a lot of what their program does,” said Smith, who became familiar with GU’s brand of basketball during his past coaching stops at West Coast Conference programs San Diego (1992-2000), Saint Mary’s (2001-10) and San Francisco (2016-19).
“Luckily, I had 20 years in the WCC,” Smith added. “They play a similar style to Gonzaga. You gotta be really tough mentally. You can’t let them just get up and down, and put you in the basket all night. You gotta defend them and hopefully take care of the ball, so you’re not in transition. We’ll have to play our best to get ‘em, though.”
Like the Zags, the Wildcats also enjoy one of the best frontcourts in the NCAA.
Big men Christian Koloko (7-foot-1) and Azuolas Tubelis (6-11) combine for 27 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. Oumar Ballo, another 7-footer, contributes 7.5 ppg off the bench.
Koloko is 10th in the country and first in the Pac-12 with 68 blocks. Arizona ranks first nationally in rebounds per game, second in total blocks and fourth in rebounding margin.
The Cougs might be without 6-10, 250-pound center Dishon Jackson, who hasn’t played since sustaining an eye injury Jan. 8 at Utah.
“It’s 50/50,” Smith said when asked about Jackson’s availability. “It’s dependent on how his vision’s doing and that stuff, but he’d be really helpful Thursday night, I know that much.”
In any case, WSU will be relying greatly on young posts Mouhamed Gueye and Efe Abogidi to hold the line. The two have been solid as of late.
In the past four games, Abogidi has piled up 41 points, 35 rebounds, nine blocks and six steals. Gueye, the reigning Pac-12 freshman of the week, totaled 18 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in his last two games.
Abogidi and Gueye – from Nigeria and Senegal, respectively – know Koloko and Ballo through African hoops connections, according to Smith. Koloko hails from Cameroon and Ballo was born in Mali.
“We’re giving up a little girth there to both of them,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to use our quickness and athleticism and length to try to prevent them from scoring, and compete with them on the glass. They’ll be ready. … They’ve heard enough about (Arizona), and they’ll just have to dig deep and be challenged, and see what they can do.”
The Wildcats have won nine of their past 10 contests, all but one by double digits. They sit atop the Pac-12 rankings in the majority of statistical categories and in the top five nationally in scoring offense (90.9 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (36%). One of their only knocks is 3-point defense. Arizona is allowing seven makes per game from distance, and the Cougars are No. 1 in the Pac-12 with 8.95 triples per game.
Senior guard Michael Flowers rained in eight 3s over the past two games and logged a combined 43 points on 12 of 25 shooting in WSU’s sweep of Stanford and Cal last weekend. He’s been the key to the Cougs settling down in recent weeks, Smith said.
Flowers is pacing the team with 13.7 ppg and 3.1 assists. WSU’s other double-digit scorers are guards Tyrell Roberts (11.1 ppg) and Noah Williams (10.5). Williams, who managed just three points in the Bay Area last weekend, hasn’t been nearly as effective on offense this year as he’d been in 2020-21. Abogidi and Gueye are combining for 15.1 ppg, 11.3 rebounds and 2.62 blocks.
WSU is looking for its second win over Arizona in the last 17 matchups.
“We should be loud and rockin,’ ” Smith said. “I think our students will be out there. On the road is tough in any league, and Pullman’s a tough place to play.”
Arizona raced past Arizona State 91-79 on Monday. WSU hosts the Sun Devils on Saturday at 7 p.m., then begins an arduous final stretch featuring eight games over 20 days – six of those matchups will be against opponents who are also fighting to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
“I think it’s great for our program to just be in that conversation,” Smith said.
“It’s why you coach at this level, to be honest: You get a chance to play against the best,” he continued. “I wouldn’t mind them being spaced out a little. It’s kind of a gantlet. It’ll challenge everything.
“There’s gonna be ebbs and flows. There are going to be a couple of possessions that are going to define your season one way or another. We can’t get too emotional about anything.”
Smith and Lloyd crossed paths on the recruiting trail on several occasions while both were employed by WCC schools. Smith said there was some “overlap,” in terms of international prospects the two had been scouting. He mentioned Ronny Turiaf, a native of France who starred at Gonzaga from 2001-05 before a 10-year NBA career.
“I know Tommy just through the business and being in the WCC,” Smith said. “A lot of respect.”
Aiken absent from Arizona’s lineup
Forward Kim Aiken Jr., a former Eastern Washington star, committed to WSU in April but was denied admission to a graduate program at the Pullman school, so he pledged to Arizona – again. Aiken had been committed to the Wildcat program last spring before coach Sean Miller was fired. This season, the 6-7 junior has appeared in only seven games for Arizona and hasn’t played since Dec. 5 for unspecified reasons.
“I thought he was going to be an integral part of our deal, just with his maturity and ability to defend inside,” Smith said. “It just put more pressure on a guy like Mouhamed to have to come into form. It hurt our depth a little bit.”
Koulibaly still sidelined
Reserve guard Jefferson Koulibaly was held out of the Cougars’ past two games for reasons Smith declined to elaborate on. The third-year coach said Tuesday that the redshirt freshman from Quebec is “probably going to be away” from the team this week, as well.
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