Arizona Proved It’s a National Title Contender and Isn’t Shy About ItPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 30th, 2013
Brian Otskey is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Friday night’s NIT Season Tip-Off championship game at Madison Square Garden where Arizona toppled Duke.
After most early-season games, especially in November, head coaches and players are very hesitant to make bold statements in public about what heights their team can reach by the end of the season. You’ll usually hear statements like, “we’re a work in progress; I like some things about our team; I’m proud of our guys; etc.” After his team’s impressive 72-66 win over Duke at Madison Square Garden last night, Arizona head coach Sean Miller was anything but conservative when discussing the potential of his 7-0 Wildcats. “I think we can be special, no question,” Miller said. “We have to be an elite defensive team. We have to be able to get stops. We have to be able to use our size rebounding.”
Special may be an understatement. It’s ironic because what Miller said they need to do to be special is exactly what the Wildcats did last night. Arizona took control of the game in the second half after trailing by three points at the break. Using its significant height advantage and defensive pressure, the Wildcats held the Blue Devils to 17 points over the first 17+ minutes of the second half to put the game away. It was a fantastic defensive performance against a team that entered the game averaging 90 PPG in seven games played. Freshman phenom Jabari Parker scored 19 points for Duke but Arizona limited him to the tune of a 7-of-21 shooting night, including an 0-of-5 mark from beyond the arc. Miller had his freshman star Aaron Gordon as well as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson take turns guarding Parker and it worked, keeping the 6’8” freshman out of sync all game long. “When you think about our team being versatile, two players really stand out, Rondae and Aaron, our two freshmen, because they are so interchangeable. But we can get better,” said Miller.
Arizona has the pieces required to make a deep run in March: a terrific defense, future NBA players, a strong front line, good guards, a balanced offensive attack and quality role players off the bench. That said, the biggest difference for Arizona this year is the fact that it now has a true point guard in Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell. He dazzled the Garden crowd to the tune of 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds while turning the ball over only twice. Mark Lyons was a good player for Miller and Arizona last season, but McConnell adds what they’ve been missing — a true point man to direct the offense. “His leadership is huge for us,” said junior guard Nick Johnson. “He’s always in the right place. The only thing he tries to do is run his team and get assists. In today’s day in age, that’s rare,” added Miller. That was the most impressive part of Arizona’s game last night, the chemistry, ball movement and fluidity of its offensive sets. The Wildcats didn’t shoot over 50 percent for the game but they earned quality shot after quality shot all night long. Arizona has a talented group of players but give most of the credit to McConnell for making his teammates better and putting them in positions to score. “We’re a good team and we can play with anybody,” Johnson said.
That was the biggest takeaway from the postgame news conference. With Johnson emerging as a go-to scorer and McConnell confidently driving the bus, Arizona has that kind of swagger about it that championship teams almost always seem to possess. While nobody is going to crown the Wildcats as the future national champions in November, it’s fair to assume they know they can be elite and they’re not afraid to let you know about it. Miller referenced his time coaching at Xavier where he said he learned how important and valuable a tough non-conference schedule can be for a team. This trip to New York saw Arizona get punched in the mouth by Drexel on Wednesday night and a stiff challenge from Duke in the second game. The Wildcats passed both tests and look primed for success in the Pac-12 season. “I think we feel good about how hard we played and what we were able to accomplish,” Miller said. It is hard not to like the position Arizona is in after the first month of the college basketball season. The Wildcats have established themselves as a legitimate Final Four contender.