A 14-0 start to last season was not enough to prevent a stumble in Pac-12 Conference play. So, Arizona decided to switch things up in for 2013-14, playing all 13 games before the holidays to give the team "a true break," head coach Sean Miller said.
A 13-0 start and the nation's No. 1 ranking later to open this season, the Wildcats are looking for better results after five practices since their last game 10 days ago. UA will open its Pac-12 schedule and debut its new video board above halfcourt Thursday against Washington State (7-5).
Tipoff at McKale Center is scheduled for 8 p.m.
"I think everybody is excited about the conference season," Miller said. "Should be a heck of a run over these nine weeks because of how good our conference is this year."
The game also should mark the return of center Kaleb Tarczewski. The 7-footer sat out the previous two contests with a right ankle sprain suffered Dec. 14 at Michigan.
Tarczewski warmed up prior to the Wildcats' 77-44 win over Northern Arizona on Dec. 23 but was held out to allow for more rest. The team narrowly won the rebounding margin that night, 31-30, and that is where the sophomore is expected to immediately help after dominating the rebounding margin prior to his injury.
Arizona is outrebounding opponents by a margin of 12.5 per game, one of the best marks in the nation.
"He's taken advantage of this break," Miller said. "He practiced full-speed on Saturday, came back (Sunday) practiced full speed."
The overall defense, although not acceptable to the team's own standards, has not suffered significantly. Three of UA's last four opponents have scored less than 50 points - including its two lowest point totals of the season in back-to-back games without Tarczewski.
Southern University scored just 43 on Dec. 19.
Among those also looking for a bounceback year in conference play is junior guard Nick Johnson, who leads the team with 16 points per game. But his scoring production dipped each of the last two years against the Pac-12.
This season, Miller has tabbed Johnson as the team's most valuable player through the nonconference season and an all-conference performer. Against the Cougars he has struggled mightily, averaging just 5.8 points on 29.2 percent shooting in four career games.
The 6-3, 200-pounder is looking for one big team goal, however, and is approaching the league slate as if the records have been wiped clean.
"I've never won a Pac-12 championship," Johnson said. "I think I've been one game off both years. So just trying to do that extra little bit to get us that game.
"We want to keep this going. I don't want it to be last year."
The Cougars will be without their leading scorer for a second consecutive game.
Junior guard Davonte Lacy, who ranks fifth in the Pac-12 with 18.9 points, missed Wazzu's 85-48 win over Mississippi Valley on Dec. 28 after suffering an appendix attack.
"We missed his presence and his emotional leadership," said forward D.J. Shelton, who has reached double figures in rebounds in four of the last five games. "He's one of the more vocal guys and we just knew more people had to step up and fill in the role."
The Wildcats won both games against the Cougars last season by an average of 15.5 points.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
1" align="left" />Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor