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Arizona basketball: Cats need more punch to break out of big bunch

Sean Miller

Sean Miller’s team didn’t have enough of something Sunday night against Cal. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats joined the club. It was a tumultuous week in college basketball.

Down went No. 1 Indiana. Same for No. 2 Florida. And third-ranked Michigan. No. 5 Kansas lost … twice. And then the seventh-ranked Cats tumbled Sunday night, 77-69 to Cal at McKale Center.

The kicker: All those losses were to unranked teams.

It is one of those seasons in college basketball. Nobody is great, not even close. Nos. 1 through 16 are largely interchangeable. Seventeen through 32 aren’t far behind. No high seed in the NCAA Tournament will be safe after their first game.

It will be a fascinating March (yes, even more so than usual). Good luck filling out your bracket.

“It happens. It’s college basketball,” Arizona senior Solomon Hill said of college basketball turning into Upset City last week.

“Teams are going to give you their best shot. A lot of teams that are getting beat are teams that have been up there through most of the year.

“You have to come out and match the intensity of the other teams. Cal had a great chance to come out here and add a game to their resume. … You have to be ready for every team’s best hit, best punch. That’s the respect that you have when you’re a top five or top 10 team. You have to be able to take every team’s best punch and punch them back.”

The Wildcats, through the next five weeks will be punching and counterpunching, fighting for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The first goal toward that step is the Pac-12 regular-season championship. Arizona still has to grind through four road games — Colorado and Utah this week, USC and UCLA starting at the end of this month.

“I don’t think any team really expects to sweep the road,” Hill said.

“The most important thing is to win at home. We’ve dropped two games at home. This next road trip is going to be something big for us. We have to expect more out of ourselves, especially on the defensive end.”

What to make of these Cats?

They are 20-3 overall and tied for first with Oregon and UCLA at 8-3 in the conference. Coach Sean Miller likes to remind everyone of the team’s record, fending off any potential criticism.

You wanted to see him try a zone against Cal’s superb Allen Crabbe on Sunday night? Well, Arizona does what it does — it’s a man-to-man team.

“We were 20-2 playing the way we play,” Miller said.

“That’s something moving forward when we find ourselves in the situation that maybe we have to take a look at it,” he conceded. “But when you’re in a single possession game, a two-possession game, you really need just that one stop or back-to-back stops for that game to be tied.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get those stops here.”

And so the Cal game became Arizona’s first “bad” loss of the season. The Bears had been a miserable 1-9 against Top 100 RPI teams in the country.

Still, barring a total collapse, the Wildcats likely will earn their best NCAA seed since 2005 (when they were No. 3) or since 2003, when they were a No. 1.

Tucsonans know what excellence looks like. From a 16-season period — 1988 to 2003 — Arizona was worse than a No. 3 seed only twice, and never lower than a five.

Those were 16 consecutive seasons of almost always thinking the Cats had a legit shot of winning the national championship.

Solomon Hill

It’s time for Solomon Hill and Arizona to, figuratively at least, put up their dukes. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Does this look like one of those teams?

This is a strange team to read. The resume is excellent, with wins over Miami, Florida, San Diego State and a 4-1 record in conference road games. But the Cats haven’t exactly been exuding a you-can’t-touch-us vibe.

They have been resourceful, usually clutch, and have the mix-and-match pieces to find solutions to most problems. On the other hand, they have disappeared for huge stretches of games.

Neither the offense nor defense, not point guard play, not the big men, not the seniors, not the freshmen, not the outside shooting … none of it has been rock solid.

When most of it comes together, Arizona is as good as anyone. When it doesn’t, go see Cal.

On Sunday, the main culprit was a defense that Miller had praised several days earlier as his best in four seasons at Arizona. The Cats allowed Crabbe and Justin Cobbs to hit 20 of 29 shots while their offense went through a cold snap that has been more common this season.

Spanning halftime Sunday night, Cal went on a 21-2 run to take control.

It was a tough game for a top 10 team. Welcome to the club. Try to do better next time. Prepare for the coming free-for-all in March.

“We all look in the mirror, including myself, saying, ‘What could we have done better?’” Miller said.

“We’ll watch this closely and move on. It’s tough to win every game. We’re 20-3. We’re getting team’s best shots. Many times they enter the game with nothing to lose and everything to gain. The responsibility we have is to be ready.”

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