Before Saturday’s Arizona-USC game, I struck up a conversation in order to pick the brain of former Wildcat guard Matt Muehlebach, the radio analyst for 1290-AM.
I jokingly asked Muehlebach to tell me what was going to happen so I could start writing my story, and he replied that he suspected Derrick Williams was going to be somewhat limited because of an injury to his right pinky.
In terms of the story, he suggested getting started by leaving a blank space for a name followed by the words “stepped up with Derrick Williams limited …”
Muehlebach knew what he was talking about. What he said before the game works just fine for the analysis after Arizona’s 82-73 victory over USC at McKale Center.
MoMo Jones stepped up — 17 points, 6 of 6 from the field.
Kyle Fogg stepped up — eight points (all in the first half) and six assists.
Jesse Perry stepped up — eight points, seven rebounds, 2 of 2 on 3-pointers (matching his season output from behind the arc).
Kevin Parrom stepped up — 10 points.
Jordin Mayes stepped up — eight points, two 3-pointers.
Alex Jacobson stepped up — two points and three rebounds in 15 minutes for a guy who, until Thursday, hadn’t played since Dec. 5. “I feel like I just ran a marathon,” he said. “I’m exhausted.”
Williams was indeed limited, but not so much by his right hand, which was heavily wrapped to protect the injury. He was limited by foul trouble — two with 10:52 to go in the first half, four with 12:44 to go in the game.
The sophomore star still got his points — 20 of them, 17 in the second half — but it’s easy to say this was Arizona’s best “team” victory of the season.
“We thought he was going to be a little bit slower; his hand was messed up,” said junior guard Kyle Fogg.
“Just mentality-wise, a lot of guys knew we had to step up. From the looks of it, Derrick was still Derrick. What was still good about it, not only did it not slow him down but everyone else still had the attack mentality and everyone else stepped up with him playing well. It was good to see that out there.”
So, Arizona arrives at the halfway point of the Pac-10 season at 7-2 in the league, in second place behind 7-1 Washington, which plays at Washington State on Sunday night. Watch: When the AP poll is released on Monday, Arizona will be ranked in that poll for the first time since Dec. 31, 2007.
“We are light years ahead of how we performed a year ago in every way,” coach Sean Miller said.
“We were 6-3 after the first half of the conference schedule, but we were definitely not good enough in February. This year, we have the depth that helps us both in practice and in games. If someone isn’t having a good night, then we have a person on the bench that can step in.”
And step up.
Arizona’s 7-2 league record is its best since the Wildcats also went 7-2 in the 2004-05 season. That season — the one that ended so painfully in overtime against Illinois in the NCAA Tournament regional final — was the last time the Wildcats were really the Wildcats.
This team isn’t exactly vintage Arizona. But it’s not bad. It has an All-American and a rotation that Miller suggested might now go to 11 to include Jacobson.
Most importantly, the Wildcats’ weaknesses are getting, well, less weak.
And we’re talking about the point guard play.
Jones has put together three consecutive strong games, all victories for the Cats. He has 42 points, 10 assists and only four turnovers in those games. Backup Jordin Mayes has 19 points and only two turnovers in that stretch.
That’s what Arizona needs. Steady point guard play, light on the turnovers.
“One of the things we were able to do while Derrick was out because of his foul trouble was really experience good play because our point guards really ran our team and did a terrific job,” Miller said.
“I think we enter a different category as a team when they play very well and play confidently.”
Miller said Williams’ injury is something that is expected to continue to get better as the swelling goes down; it won’t be a lingering problem for the rest of the season.
He played just 18 minutes vs. USC … and the Wildcats still led by 20 late in the game.
“We’re getting better,” Miller said, “and that’s one thing you want to see.”
And it makes you want to see the second half of the Pac-10 season even more.