Barring any late setbacks, Arizona Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski will be back for the Wildcats’ Pac-12 opener on Thursday after missing two games with a sprained ankle.

UA coach Sean Miller said today that Tarczewski practiced at full speed during workouts on Saturday and Sunday, and that he anticipated Tarczewski playing against Washington State on Thursday.

“He’s taken advantage of this break, not necessarily with rest but working really hard at being back 100 percent,” Miller said.

Tarczewski injured the ankle at Michigan on Dec. 14 and sat out UA’s games against Southern and NAU afterward, then continued to work on the ankle during UA’s three-day Christmas break.

Syracuse’s win over Villanova took away three first-place votes for the Wildcats in the Associated Press Top 25. Arizona now has 60 of 65 first-place votes, down from 63, while holding the No. 1 spot for the fourth straight week.

The Wildcats are followed again in the top five by Syracuse, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Oregon is 10th, Colorado is 20th and San Diego State is 21st.

Arizona has now been in the No. 1 spot for 33 polling periods, breaking a tie for ninth place that it had with UNLV.

Nick Johnson said UA had two of its best practices of the season upon returning from Christmas break, after the Wildcats appeared to lose their stride at the same point last season.

“I mean, we pretty much all came to the conclusion that we want to keep this going,” Johnson said. “We had a great season last year but I didn’t think we did what we needed to do in Pac-12 play.

“Our first practice was really hyped and everybody was talking and stuff like that. We were ready to get back.”

A year ago, the Wildcats were coasting off their Diamond Head Classic championship, took a few days off and, Johnson said, returned with something missing.

“People started thinking about themselves too much other than the principles of when we made that run (early last season) -- being a defensive team that’s focused on defense and offense we have a ton of weapons,” Johnson said about UA’s undefeated nonconference season last year. “This year we have a perfect team to stay with that principle. We’re long and athletic on defense and one thing coach said he’s not going to let slip in practice this time is containing in the man-to-man and helping and being the top 10 (defensive) team that we want to be.

"And on offense, it’s just understanding that people are going to have their nights on any given night – one through seven -- I think we have the man at the point (T.J. McConnell) to really facilitate that.”

The Wildcats were asked to return to town by Friday evening and then practiced fully on Saturday and Sunday. UA coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats will practice throughout this week but go lightly on Wednesday.

On the Pac-12 weekly teleconference call today, Miller elaborated on the differences at this point of the season between last year and this one.

“We came off a 12-0 start and we were in Hawaii and the fact that we played three games in four days there, it was almost as if we didn’t have a true break,” Miller said. “Our practices in particular weren’t very good when we got back and that led us into underestimating how difficult it is compete in a conference like the Pac-12. We weren’t at our best and it took us a while to get things going.

“This year because we had a lot of players who went though that last year …. we’re much more focused, sharper and more mature, I think, for what’s to come.”

The Wildcats will get a break Thursday in that WSU leading scorer DaVonte Lacy will not play after having emergency procedure on his appendix on Saturday.

"He's out for a while," WSU coach Ken Bone said on today's Pac-12 teleconference call. "He won't be playing Thursday for sure."

Bone said he learned just before the Cougars' pregame shootaround Saturday that Lacy was ill and found out in midafternoon that he would be hospitalized.

Still, the Cougars beat Mississippi Valley State 85-48 that evening.

"Our guys played a good game," Bone said. "Our focus was very good. And our defense was pretty good, that was the other thing."

Oregon State's Roberto Nelson has been named the Pac-12 player of the week.

Sportswriter for the Arizona Daily Star covering Arizona Wildcats basketball