PHOENIX – Every day in practice, Arizona assistant basketball coach Mike Dunlap has a message for the team.
“You can beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion,” he tells the Wildcats.
There’s nothing subtle about that motivation, but the words are also code for, “You can beat anybody.”
Like the No. 4 team in the nation.
By the rankings, Arizona’s 69-64 victory over Gonzaga at US Airways Center on Sunday afternoon was the program’s best win since early in the 2001 season. It feels oh so good, as if anything in this crazy, mixed-up world of UA basketball is possible.
“One thing coach Dunlap just said even right now in the locker room is that we can beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, and we can beat them at home,” said junior point guard Nic Wise.
“We haven’t beaten them in a while. That’s one thing we focus on every day in practice – Pauley Pavilion.”
Confidence is a good thing to have, and the Wildcats have that through preparation and results. But UCLA will wait for another day.
If Arizona wants to go from Zags to riches, it can’t skip ahead, can’t advance pass go, can’t forget what all led up to Sunday’s victory. The Wildcats have gotten to 7-2 through a big ol’ boring dollop of fundamentals from interim head coach Russ Pennell and his staff.
We know a few of these Wildcats will be taking graduate basketball courses in the NBA, but Pennell continues to hammer on the 100-level lessons. He calls it “basketball camp” stuff.
“We do drills where we just work on jump stop, catch the ball, pivot,” Pennell said. “What we have done more than anything else is develop a culture – we have work to do today.
“There will be many days when I will literally show them my practice schedule and say, ‘This is what we have to do today. Now, it’s up to you how long it takes.’
“What happens is that they start to become very workmanlike and very methodical – ‘OK, knock that drill off, go to the next one.’ In the meantime, they are getting better and sometimes, I don’t even know if they know that.”
All that was seen Sunday through an efficient, mostly patient offensive effort against what has been a killer defensive team. Arizona shot 44.2 percent – 10 points higher than Gonzaga’s seven other opponents.
Pressing and trapping, Arizona hounded the Gonzaga offense. UA held the 7-1 Bulldogs to 42.9 percent shooting and 64 points, both season lows.
Gonzaga’s ridiculously smooth sophomore forward Austin Daye scored 22 points, but the rest of the team’s starters were 10 of 32 from the field.
Keep in mind that Gonzaga shot nearly 52 percent earlier this season against Tennessee, prompting Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl to say: “They possess (North) Carolina-like weaponry. Gonzaga and North Carolina look to be the two best teams in the country, offensively, and with Mark Few, Gonzaga is incredibly well coached.”
Speaking of Few . . .
That talk of UA’s search to replace retired Lute Olson can wait for another day, too. Arizona’s coaching appears to be just fine.
What did the coaching staff drill into the team the day before the Gonzaga game? Basic defensive slides.
“I think we’re learning that you can win games on defensive stops and not just by hitting shots,” Pennell said.
Pennell holds no illusion of being the long-term coaching answer for UA. But he has a humility and nose-to-the-hardwood philosophy that appears to be wearing off on the players.
It’s worth noting that it was just about this time last season when the Wildcats rallied to beat Texas A&M at home. The future, then under interim head coach Kevin O’Neill, appeared to be bright.
It all eventually fell apart – physically and emotionally. The former could happen at any time on this thin team, but Pennell’s temperament, and the collective effort of an all-new coaching staff, is more suited to sustaining a seasonlong cocoon of calm.
Yeah, so UA beat Gonzaga. Pennell just checked it off his list and moved on to the next thing: How can I help Arizona get better tomorrow?
“In the locker room, I told them I was so excited about the win that we’re practicing at 2 o’clock (Monday),” Pennell said.
“We have to move forward. If we get overconfident after a game like this, we’re just not worth our salt anyway. We’re just not.”
Overconfident? We’ll see. But does the team now have every reason to believe it can beat Kansas, UCLA, everybody else on the schedule?