At the beginning of the month, Point Guard U offered an array of questions for the previously untested Wildcats as they headed into a busy December stretch. Those questions can be found in our previous article: The Fun Starts Now
Thirty days later, Arizona fans have a big smile on their face as the Wildcats sit at 12-0, undefeated in non-conference play, fresh off winning the Diamondhead Classic, and ranked third in the nation. To put it simply, Arizona keeps winning. And along the way this year's roster has proven a great deal about what kind of team they are going to be.
Success in the non-conference does not guarantee a conference championship, but Arizona has shown that they are the clear favorite. Winning the conference with only a few losses should earn Arizona the coveted top seed in the West, allowing their road to Atlanta to go through Los Angeles.
Here's how the team answered our many questions: How will the Cats fare away from home?
Arizona handled games away from McKale exactly like you would hope an experienced team would. After a victory over worse-than-expected Texas Tech, and a tough win over Clemson that was closer than the final margin indicated, Arizona went to Hawaii and won three neutral court games. The last of which was a thrilling back and forth duel with San Diego State. It's common for even the best teams in the country to slip up on the road early in the season, but Arizona avoided trouble. The Wildcats now know that they can rally together in hostile situations, and that lesson should prove valuable on the road in the Pac-12. How will the Cats handle adversity?
In short, Mark Lyons. In a few more words, Lyons and Nick Johnson. And most accurately, Lyons, Johnson, Hill, and Parrom. Each player contributed when his team needed him the most, and the result was eight wins where the Wildcats were tested but never beaten. Whether it was a second half deficit at Clemson, being down six with a minute to play against Florida, or needing basket after basket against SDSU, Arizona was able to make the right play at the right time.
And perhaps even more impressive is that Arizona was able to win with defense. In particular, team defense. When hope was slim against Florida, the Wildcats used a press that resulted in turnovers and every player on the floor making a big play. And after Lyons hit that unforgettable driving bank shot, Arizona was able to stop Florida from getting a real look at the basket. And against SDSU, when an open layup looked like it would ruin Arizona's Christmas, Nick Johnson flew in to save the day with his patented acrobatics.
Critics can complain about strength of schedule all they want, but the fact is that every time Arizona was pushed, they pushed back. And there are only two other teams in the nation that can say that (in theory Wyoming can too, but no one would listen anyway). How will the Cats do in end game situations?
The only thing Arizona fans could ask for is big enough leads that the final minute doesn't matter. Other than that, the Wildcats handled the end of games beautifully. Making plays on both sides of the court, opponents have not been able to stop Arizona from closing out games.
The most obvious reason is Mark Lyons, who scored the final points in Arizona's two biggest wins. But deeper than that, this team has a trust in each other that was clearly lacking last year in similar situations. This year, Arizona has players that want the ball with the game on the line. And thanks to their success thus far, Arizona has players that won't be scared when the game is on the line again.
The biggest factor is the senior leadership of Lyons, Hill, and Parrom. Not many teams in the country can play a trio that has been through as much as those players. Lyons brings a nastiness and a refusal to lose. Hill is on pace to be near the top of the list of games played for Arizona. And Parrom provides the un-teachable ability to do exactly what the team needs. That, and there's simply no situation on the court that can compare to the adversity he's already faced. When Arizona plays all three together in the closing minutes, it makes it impossible for defenses to take everything away, especially considering the other two players on the court are likely Johnson and a young big man. Will the Cats be able to defend the three point line?
After some early season struggles containing opponents from deep, Arizona made steady improvement in that area. The Wildcats held six of their December opponents below 30% from behind the arc. Florida made one tough shot after another to finish over 50%, and Oral Roberts shot 6-12 in a game where that was just about the only complaint defensively.
Arizona's youth has been adjusting to the system, and the stifling three point defense fans had grown used to appears to be returning. If the Wildcats can take away the three point shot and force opponents to beat them inside, Arizona's height and size will continue to win out. How will the Cats improve?
Arizona had the luxury of learning valuable lessons without losing. In college basketball, off nights are to be expected. And against quality opponents, off nights usually mean losses. But even when the Wildcats were not at their best, whether because of bad shooting or turnovers, they found ways to get defensive stops and give themselves a chance to win the game.
The other benefit has been the game experience for the freshmen big men. While Ashley, Jerrett, and Tarczewski have each had bad stretches, together they have taken care of the post for the Wildcats. What was such a glaring weakness a season ago, the post no longer hurts Arizona. And more often than not, the length and athleticism of the Wildcats' big men has created mismatches, especially considering the defensive attention that Lyons, Johnson, and Hill have been commanding.
After twelve games, all that is known for certain is that Arizona has what it takes to win the Pac-12. Of course, consistent improvement is needed to accomplish that goal. The Wildcats can't do it if they don't get better. But they are starting the conference season ahead of every other team in terms of talent, execution, and belief. How will the Cats deal with opposing big men?
Arizona performed decently in this area. For the most part, the Wildcats held opposing big men to under ten points and prevented them from having the dominant performance that can single-handedly win a game. Arizona struggled the most with Erik Murphy (Florida) and Kenny Kadji (Miami). Murphy did a lot of his damage from outside the paint, and Kadji was the only player on Miami to generate any kind of offense. While fans may remember Patric Young giving Arizona trouble, he was limited to just 8 points and 2 rebounds with 4 fouls.
This will continue to be a question as Arizona heads into conference play. But the Wildcats have been able to use their depth inside to wear down opposing big men and get them in foul trouble. Interestingly, the team Arizona had the most trouble rebounding against was SDSU, who doesn't play a traditional center. Controlling the boards against smaller, quicker teams will be essential in staving off any upsets. Will the Cats be able to handle success?
So far, so good. Arizona was able to bounce back from an unbelievably emotional win over Florida to easily take care of their next opponent. And the Wildcats were able to handle two easy wins in Hawaii while still playing tough against SDSU, who was incredibly hungry for a top ten victory.
Most coaches will tell you the season has three components. The Wildcats could not have done better in the first leg. And now that they arethe talk of West, they need to realize that a new season is beginning, one where each team starts 0-0. If the Wildcats can parlay their early success into a strong start in conference play, one of their biggest season goals will be well within reach.
But now that Arizona carries a top ranking and the torch of the Pac-12, the Wildcats will have to understand that every opponent will play their best against them. The same passion and energy the players and fans had for the Florida game will be mimicked in each road game, as every team in the conference will be playing for that signature win to improve their resume in March. Will the Cats get the marquee wins that are so important in March?
Yes, my goodness yes. The great gamble of Arizona's schedule is that with only a few chances for marquee wins, they had to capitalize on them. And capitalize they did. The payoff now is that since Arizona passed each test, there will be few questions come March. Consider that there will not be a team outside of the Pac-12 that can claim a victory over Arizona. Similarly, Arizona can point to wins over the Big 12, ACC (2), SEC, and Mountain West. And four of those came awayfrom McKale Center, which is worth a lot when top seeds are being given out.
The rest of Arizona's opponents will come with question marks. Despite being ranked at times this season, it looks unlikely that any Pac-12 foes will be ranked. UCLA should enter the rankings with a big winover Missouri, but they are likely to fall out after their first conference loss. The sad reality is that the only chance Pac-12 teams will have to crack the rankings is a victory over the Wildcats.
Unfortunately, from a national perspective, Arizona's schedule presents only 2 chances at a good win (if UCLA keeps rolling) and 16 potential bad losses. But, unless other top teams run their conference, a few losses are easily excusable. The road to a top two seed likely requires going better than 14-4 in conference. If Arizona avoids home losses and getting swept on the road, their goal will be well within reach.
December was fun, but now things get real. Enjoy the ride.