The world turns, the days pass, the season rolls . . . and Arizona is still No. 1.
To mark yet another week of the Wildcats at the top of the polls, this tribute is offered: 10 words, 10 reasons to really like Arizona’s chances come March.
Pressure. Clearly, the Wildcats are not spooked by it. The No. 1 ranking is supposed to be hotter to hold than a bowl just out of the microwave. It changed hands six times last season. But Arizona moved to the top in early December and has refused to leave for eight weeks now. One reason might be the Wildcats’ attitude about the whole ranking business. Rather than be burdened with the notoriety of the position, they seem to enjoy the neighborhood.
“We really embrace the fact that we are the No. 1 team in the country,” coach Sean Miller said, and that was a month ago. To run the table would be asking a lot. The Wildcats have seven Pac-12 road games left, and will be public enemy No. 1 in each. But eight weeks is a long, long time to be the target in today’s college basketball.
Balance. Pick a Wildcat, any Wildcat, and he can hurt an opponent. Arizona has had four players score in double figures in 14 of its 20 games. Against Arizona State, the Wildcats had seven. The gap between leading scorer Nick Johnson and No. 7 scorer T.J. McConnell is not even 10 points a game.
And since 57.9 percent of Arizona’s field goals come off assists, the open man rarely gets missed.
Defense. Let’s state the obvious. It’s easier to win if the other team can’t shoot, let alone score. The Wildcats are fourth in the in the nation in both field goal percentage defense (37.2) and points allowed (56.7). Only eight Arizona opponents have broken 60 points, only two have broken 70.
Freshman. Every contender this year has to have at least one in a starring role, right? Sunday’s win against Utah was Aaron Gordon’s sixth double-double of the season. He might not have Jabari Parker numbers but he has a 0 on the right side of his team’s record.
Muscle. Always a useful commodity in the intense struggles of March. Arizona’s DNA is to defend hard and hit the boards harder. “Our identity,” Johnson called it. The Wildcats have outrebounded 18 of 20 opponents, and average 10.1 more rebounds.
Coaching. In Miller’s first nine years as a head coach, his teams went to four Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights. His Final Four debut seems a matter of when, not if.
He apparently has his players all-in when it comes to his process; enjoy the accomplishments, but never stop thinking about tomorrow. The Wildcats won a school record 20th consecutive game Sunday, and as Miller said, “When you compete against the history of our program, any record is significant.”
But it was Gordon who mentioned, “We’re not worried about who we just beat or who we’ve beaten in the past. We’re just focusing on the next game and the next series.
“It feels good, but that’s not our top priority.”
Resilience. Arizona has stayed perfect by wearing opponents down and thriving in the second half. UNLV managed only 16 points after halftime, Washington was 10-for-33 shooting, Drexel 14-for-38, New Mexico State 5-for-21. Utah had nine field goals. Michigan had seven total rebounds in the second half of a 72-70 loss to Arizona, or one less than the Wildcats had on the offensive end alone.
That has helped the Wildcats survive their one obvious flaw. Free throw shooting. They’re 270th in the country in free throw percentage, and Gordon might be in need of a hypnotist with his 45.3. It could be costly one of these nights. If the game is close at the end, when do opponents start resorting to hack-an-Aaron?
Averages. As in the law of. Surely, a West Coast team is going to break through sooner or later. The last national champion west of Kansas was 17 years ago. By the way, that was Arizona.
Talent. Yeah, that helps. Miller is a recruiting wonder. Only two coaches had three consecutive top-10 rated incoming classes from 2011-13, according to the Arizona sports information department. One was John Calipari at Kentucky. Of course. The other was Miller.
Record. Not every night will be pretty. In fact, the Wildcats have not always brought their A game recently. But this being Super Bowl week, a famous Bill Parcells quote comes to mind. “You are what your record says you are.”
Arizona is 20-0.