#rushthetrip Day Two: Exhilaration and Apprehension as McKale Center Watches Cats EscapePosted by Bennet Hayes on February 7th, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
West of Lawrence, Kansas, there may be no better home court than either of the two I visited to start this trip. The folks at UCLA, Gonzaga and Utah State might all have reasonable gripes (especially Bruins fans) with that assertion, but back-to-back nights at The Pit and McKale Center is about as good as college basketball can get. Some 450 miles separate the two universities, so six hours of driving (which included a successful journey through Truth or Consequences, New Mexico) brought me to Tucson to watch Arizona host Oregon.
The obvious storyline entering last night’s game was how the Wildcats would bounce back from not only their first loss of the season, but also the season-ending injury suffered last weekend by Brandon Ashley. Not surprisingly, the hoops-savvy McKale faithful were keyed in on Ashley’s absence (and its impact) throughout the evening. It began in pregame warmups, when Ashley’s crutch-waving at midcourt fomented the student section into a moderate frenzy, and continued when his replacement in the starting lineup, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, received the loudest ovation of any Wildcat during introductions.
But the rallying cries of the pregame festivities couldn’t help but morph into utter apprehension during the 40 minutes of play, as the loss of Ashley manifested itself in ways that many had predicted. Ironically, Hollis-Jefferson was phenomenal (not entirely shocking), and likely saved the Cats (who would steal a two-point victory) with a stat-sheet-stuffing double-double, but this smaller Wildcats’ lineup lost the rebounding battle to an Oregon team that had outrebounded only three of its previous nine Pac-12 opponents. With the floor-stretching Ashley out, Aaron Gordon had to spend increased time on the perimeter, where he looked even more lost offensively. His charity stripe struggles (2-of-11 on FTs) and unsuccessful offensive forays filled the McKale Center with a tangible awkwardness, undoubtedly stemming from the knowledge that their individual expectations for him were unlikely to be fully met — at least this year. The Cats also shot just 4-of-16 from behind the arc (including 0-of-5 from Nick Johnson), seemingly real proof that Ashley’s three-point stroke would be missed on a team with relatively few proven shooters.
The sense that a once-indomitable force had found sudden vulnerability was apparent in a crowd that looked on nervously for much of the night. That said, Sean Miller’s team also allowed a Pac-12 also-ran (can we say that yet about the Ducks?) to dictate play for the first 37 minutes, so it’s not like there was too much to cheer about anyway. Otherwise, the crowd was amazing. Nary an empty seat to be found, the Rowdy (capital R) student section was as good as any I’ve seen, with red and blue swarming the senses. When I scampered to my seat minutes before tipoff via the floor, I noted the power of the scene before me. Energetic band, beautiful cheerleaders, raucous student section, jam-packed building brimming with enthusiasm: If you could box up the pageantry of college athletics into a tidy, perfect, little package, this was it.
Sad confession: I didn’t get the full Tucson experience, as my postgame activities were limited to a quick dinner before I set out for Phoenix (a stopover before a weekend in LA). But as I walked back to my car, I noticed Hollis-Jefferson ambling out of the McKale Center. A week ago, the freshman had been a key rotation player for a national title contender. But now, after Ashley’s injury, and after playing the game of his brief college career, he had become far more than that. The success of the Wildcats certainly hinges upon more than the straight-up Ashley for RHJ swap, but on this night, Hollis-Jefferson was the guy who saved the McKale faithful from a bout of full-fledged panic. Whether he, or any other Wildcat, can accomplish that feat all the way into April is quite suddenly a far iffier proposition.
Next stop: Malibu (Saturday).