BY Bob Sherwin 09:33PM 01/18/2011

Light up the marquee

Arizona and Derrick Williams come to Washington Thursday night with first place in the Pac-10 on the line.

Washington's Isaiah Thomas will face fellow Pac-10 player of the year candidate when Derrick Williams comes to town with Arizona Thursday night. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

The buzz is building for the season’s biggest game thus far, Thursday against Arizona at Hec Edmundson Pavilion (7:30, FSN). The 20th-ranked Huskies are the conference pacesetter at 13-4 and 5-1 in Pac-10 play. Arizona is 15-3 and 4-1.

“Our guys understand the importance,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

The setup is Washington’s 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas vs. Arizona’s 6-8 forward Derrick Williams. Thomas, coming off his 27-point, 13-assist game against Cal, is the conference’s third leading scorer (16.5) and leader in assists (5.41). Williams is second in scoring (19.7), second in field-goal percentage (65.8) and has taken 72 more free throws than anyone in the league.

They are two different types of players playing different positions but what they have in common is aggressiveness.

“He definitely don’t want to guard me,” Thomas said, “and I don’t want to guard him. It’s not going to be between me and him, it’s going to be the Huskies vs. the Wildcats.”

They won’t deal much with each other directly but they will command the fans’ focus. Thomas has generated attention over the past four games since taking over the point from injured Abdul Gaddy. He has scored 80 points and distributed 37 assists in those four.

“Isaiah Thomas is playing at a really, really high level,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said during the coaches’ conference call. “He deserves to be in category of the nation’s best point guards. He isn’t getting 1/10th of the credit that he deserves in that category because he is a two guard.

“He leads our conference in assists. He means as much to Washington as Derrick Williams does to us on the offensive end. He makes the game easy for his teammates. What he has shown is his ability to score and he continues to do it, but what he did Sunday with 27 points and 13 assists in a big game at Cal, he was responsible for almost 60 points in a single college game.”

Thomas has worked his way into the contention for Conference Player of the Year along with Williams and Washington State’s Klay Thompson. But Miller believes Thomas should be considered for national honors.

“Everybody in college basketball should be talking about Isaiah Thomas because he’s in a top 25 program, he’s been a conference champion, he’s won in the NCAA Tournament, he’s been in multiple NCAA Tournaments, he’s an upperclassmen,” he said. “The guy’s getting the job done at such a high level that when I turn on TV and they’re talking about the nation’s best guards and he’s not mentioned, it’s really not fair.

“We have, like all teams that play Washington, our hands full in trying to deal with him.”

Washington will have the same challenge stopping Williams. He can shoot the 3-pointer, 17 of 24 for 70.8 percent, but he is such a force inside. He draws attention and fouls. He’s made 134 of 177 foul shots (77 percent) this year.

“He’s one of the hardest covers since (Arizona State’s) Ike Diogu,” Romar said. “He’s shooting 70 percent from the 3-point stripe. He can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. He’s very, very good at drawing fouls. We know how athletic he is. He’s just a tough cover and they go to him quite a bit.”

Williams is going to wear out Washington’s inside players, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N’Diaye, the latter of which has shown a tendency to lapse into early foul trouble early.

“Whatever way we decide to defend him, we just gotta hope that’s the right way to go,” Romar added, “and hope we are prepared for plan B or C or D or E.”

Clearly, Washington and Arizona are the elite teams in the league this season, particularly on offense. The numbers prove it.

Washington is averaging 87.1 points per game and Arizona is second at 77.7. However, it’s closer in Pac-10 games, 80.8 to 74.2.

Arizona passed Washington this week for the best field-goal percentage, 48.7 to 48.6.

Three-point shooting also is close. Washington leads with 40.4 percent with Arizona right behind at 38.9. Interestingly, Arizona has the best 3-point defense in the league, holding opponents to 27.3 percent shooting. Washington is second at 29.1.

If the game comes down to a free throw or two, the Wildcats have a significant edge. They are hitting a league-leading 75.7 percent. Washington is ninth at 65.2.

Arizona leads in defensive rebounds. Washington leads in offensive rebounds. Arizona has the league-best plus-6.7 rebounding margin against its opponents. Washington is second at plus-6.5.

Washington takes care of the ball and distributes the ball better, but not by much. Washington has a 1.51 turnover-to-assist ratio, best in the conference. Arizona is third at 1.09.

That adds up to a big game on Thursday night.


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