Today the Washington State Cougars will try to "gray out" the Arizona Wildcats at Beasley Coliseum (3:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1). That will be a tough task, as U of A is a juggernaut without a real weakness. What's more likely is that Arizona is the gray, coming in to rain on WSU's parade - and, yes, I am advocating a parade for the five wins this team has earned in Pac-12 play. Remember when Coug fans were hoping they'd win one after Idaho?
For WSU to get a 6th win today, it will take an otherworldly performance from nearly every player on the team. Arizona is good at almost everything - during conference play, the Wildcats rank in the top half of nearly every statistical category that KenPom tracks. The only two that Arizona hasn't performed at least average in? Shooting 3-pointers, which Arizona mitigates by shooting 3s less often than any other team in the league, and opponent free throw percentage.
The Cougars won't get many offensive rebounds and they will struggle to find open looks on offense. If they can get through Arizona's Pack-Line defense there is some hope at getting to the free throw line. I say it every game, but WSU absolutely needs to be aggressive. For all Arizona's awesomeness, Sean Miller doesn't go that deep into his bench - the Wildcats rank 247th in bench minutes. Foul trouble could provide a window, if only a small one.
As mentioned above, the Wildcats don't take a whole lot of 3s, and they've replaced those for the most part with 2-point jumpers. To their credit, they make 2-point jumpers at a high rate (42 percent), but it's still a curious strategy that I can't help but think is largely influenced by one player - point guard T.J. McConnell.
McConnell will likely be slobbered over repeatedly by the FOX Sports 1 crew calling the game this afternoon. He's one of the "gritty, hard-working" players with that "it factor" that commentators love. I've even heard calls for him as the conference's player of the year, which is just a touch ridiculous.
I'm not saying McConnell isn't a good player. He is a plus defender who contributes steals at a high rate. He's got a solid mid-range game and excellent assist numbers. But beyond those assists, he doesn't have the profile of a playmaker.
Being a point guard on this team would be a dream. Every single Arizona player that has logged minutes this season has an offensive rating of 103 or better and an effective field goal percentage of 50 or greater.* Every. Single. One. So, why wouldn't Arizona's point guard have great assist numbers when guys finish so well?
*For reference, WSU has a whopping two players (DaVonte Lacy and Brett Boese) who have posted both an offensive rating above 103 and an effective field goal percentage 50 or greater.
The reason I don't see McConnell as a true playmaker is because he rarely gets to the free throw line. His free throw rate resembles that of a spot-up specialist. But he's not, he's a point guard with the ball in his hand all the time. He should be getting more free throws by default.
He may have some sort of leadership quality elevating his team that we can't define, but I'm working in definable things here. Arizona has the talent level and the quality of head coach to be an elite team, and they are. Let's not ascribe it to something mystical, let's just assume this is how it was supposed to play out.
That all being said, McConnell will probably have a great game against WSU today.
If one is to slobber over any player on this Arizona team, and advocate them for conference player of the year, that player should be Stanley Johnson. The 6'6 freshman does almost everything for the Wildcats. He's a threat to score inside and out. He's one of the best rebounders in the conference. He gets steals, and he draws fouls (while also being a top-rate free throw shooter). He's awesome at most definable things.
And Johnson is just one of many studs on this team that WSU will struggle to match up with. This is the spot where I typically summarize the way WSU can use its strengths to attack a weakness in the opponent, but there really isn't one for Arizona. For the Cougs to win today, something, or somethings, weird will have to happen.