SALT LAKE CITY — When the Arizona Wildcats were making their run in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, coach Sean Miller relentlessly pounded on a theme.
“Attack or be attacked,” he told his team. “There is no in between.”
Stolen wisdom from Yoda perhaps, but just as applicable today as it was then, if not more so. This group of Wildcats is far, far away from having a player like Derrick Williams, but when all the pieces are moving together, forcibly and in rhythm — as they were Thursday night — Arizona looks ready to take on the college basketball galaxy.
Sixth-seeded Arizona attacked No. 11 seed Belmont from the start and quelled the popular upset pick, 81-64, to advance to Saturday’s round of 32 against — surprise — 14th-seeded Harvard at EnergySolutions Arena.
“You don’t want to be smacked, you want to be the one smacking the other team in the face,” senior guard Kevin Parrom said after beating Belmont. “You want to play hard and send a statement.”
Arizona never trailed, led by 12 at halftime and extended the advantage to 21 points before a 10-0 Belmont run brought a whiff of drama with 5:28 left.
But the Wildcats — a team of slow starts, scoring droughts, defensive foolishness and other periods of ugly play this season — recovered nicely from there. When it was over nobody had to utter the popular March phrase, “Survive and advance.”
Surviving isn’t what Arizona did. Thriving was more like that.
“Some of the best teams in Arizona’s history got hot right now,” Miller said.
Mark Lyons was hot Thursday night, scoring 23 points. The defense was hot, holding Belmont to 25.9 percent shooting in the first half and 29.6 percent from 3-point range for the game. The rebounding effort against the smaller Bruins was sizzling; Arizona had a staggering 44-18 edge.
In short, Arizona did everything it should have done against a dangerous but ultimately out-manned and shorter team. Exactly what you want to do in March. Attack or be attacked.
“I was more impressed with the team that I saw tonight than when I was scouting them,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd. “I thought they were more engaged and more focused, and I think if they play that way they can beat a lot of people.”
Byrd’s comment might have been a slap to the Wildcats of February, but who cares about those guys anymore? It’s about March. Some of the best teams in Arizona’s history got hot right now.
And here just might be the best part: There was confidence, but no hint of satisfaction in the locker room. Parrom rated the defensive effort — certainly one of the best of the season against Belmont — between a 7 and 8. Good, not great, room for improvement.
Senior forward Solomon Hill lamented that two-minute hiccup in the second half that included two Bruins 3-pointers in a seven-second span.
“Our effort wasn’t there in the second half,” Hill said. “Guys were playing the scoreboard. That can’t be something we do. From now on, there are going to be teams that can play with you for 40 minutes and take you all the way down to the wire.”
Miller might now be known for his interview podium theatrics — He touched the ball! — but he exuded his steely and steady calm after this opening effort in the NCAA Tournament. Just get back to work.
“It’s definitely not relief,” he said of his emotions after winning the NCAA opener.
“That’s the thing you have to guard against. We have high expectations and when you’re ranked from start to finish like we’ve been and sometimes you lose games, people on the outside can get down on you.
“No sense of relief at all, just understanding how hard it is to advance for any of us. As monumental as it seems to be able to play in the second round, going from the second round to a Sweet 16 is a whole new level. It’s much more difficult.”
It is, but Arizona made its statement, too. It’s in attack mode.