The Only Thing Standing in the Way of Arizona’s Pac-12 Coronation is Arizona

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 24th, 2015

For the first half of Thursday night’s battle for first place in the Pac-12 against Stanford, Arizona looked like the team that could only muster 56 points in a losing effort against Oregon State. But in the second half, the Wildcats showed why there is no other team in the conference that can hang with them when they are at full strength and minimizing their mistakes. The Wildcats actually jumped out to an early lead as the Cardinal’s thin frontcourt had absolutely no answer for Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson inside. But Ashley also picked up three cheap fouls in the first 12 minutes of the game and teammate Stanley Johnson picked up two of his own, and when they left the court, things started to fall apart. Without their two biggest offensive mismatches on the floor, Arizona struggled to take advantage of its distinct size advantage and instead settled for contested jumpers. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats’ stout defense made things difficult for Stanford, at least when they weren’t fouling Cardinal players. Stanford made 13 free throws in the first half and star guard Chasson Randle scored six of his 14 first half points from the charity stripe. As a result, a first half that any casual observer would think Arizona should have won ended with Stanford up two points.

Arizona Has the Look of a Team Figuring It Out (USA Today Images)

Arizona Has the Look of a Team Figuring It Out (USA Today Images)

Of course slow starts and early mistakes have become something of Arizona‘s modus operandi this season, and nobody expected the Wildcats to go away. Ashley and Johnson returned to the floor in the second half and immediately made an impact, combining for 10 points in the first six minutes as Arizona slowly but surely took the lead for good. Even more importantly, the Arizona defense decided to start moving its feet and quit picking up cheap fouls, and all of a sudden, their suffocating defense returned in earnest. Once Randle made a difficult layup to bring Stanford within three points with just under 10 minutes to play, the Wildcats’ put the clamps down and the Cardinal didn’t make another field goal for more than eight minutes. By that point, the game was well in hand and Arizona was on its way as the odds-on favorite to run away with the conference regular season title.

The scary thing for the rest of the Pac-12 to consider is that Stanford on its home floor didn’t even play poorly. They shot well over 40 percent from the field as a team; they refused to let the Wildcats overrun them on the glass despite battling foul trouble of their own; they took relatively good care of the ball; and they refused to go away quietly when it looked like Arizona might run away with the game. Yes, Stanford’s offense outside of Randle is a work in progress and may never be completely finished, but the Cardinal are still a quality team in this conference and yet they still couldn’t stop the Arizona juggernaut once it got going.

You don’t realize how difficult it must be to play the Wildcats on both ends of the floor until you see them in person. Ashley is an NBA talent thanks to his versatility, and against college opponents where his size isn’t an issue, he is unfair to try to guard. Johnson is even more unique thanks to his unique blend of size, strength, athleticism and skill, and while Hollis-Jefferson may lack touch around the basket, it is amazing that anyone has ever scored against him. Nothing against Stanford, which boasts some legitimate talent in Randle, center Stefan Nastic, and rangy wing Anthony Brown, but to put it bluntly, the Cardinal just doesn’t have players who look like Ashley, Johnson, and Hollis-Jefferson — and that is the difference.

When the Wildcats stay out of foul trouble and don’t hamper their defense by fouling the opposition, it doesn’t matter which Pac-12 opponent they face. Stanford gamely tried to keep the game close in the second half, but every time they chipped away, Johnson would bull his way to the basket for an easy jumper or T.J. McConnell would pull up and bury a 10-footer off the glass. They just have too many players who can create their own shot on offense to be stopped and too much size and athleticism on the defensive end to allow for much breathing room. But the reason they have lost twice to teams they definitely shouldn’t have is because they still have a tendency to sometimes shoot themselves in the foot.

Against Pac-12 teams, they can play with fire and still rely on their superior athleticism and efficient defense to help them win close games, but it remains to be seen how well the Wildcats’ Jekyll and Hyde act will play against teams that can match them athletically like Kentucky or Duke or Virginia. The good news is that they don’t have to worry about that hypothetical quite yet and can instead focus on playing up to their potential for an entire game instead of just half of one.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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