SALT LAKE CITY — There they were. Three little words on a whiteboard in the Arizona Wildcats locker room: “We’re not satisfied.”
Coach Sean Miller scrawled that message to his team after Arizona schooled Harvard 74-51 on Saturday, creating a wave of momentum that the team will ride all the way to Los Angeles for the Sweet 16.
We’re not satisfied.
Call them confident. Call them fired-up on defense. Call them hot. Say the Wildcats are playing their best ball of the season — including during that 14-0 start.
“I think it’s better now,” said Arizona senior Kevin Parrom.
“I think we’re more consistent on defense. It starts on defense. That’s what Coach always emphasizes, especially now in March. The best teams in March are the best defensive teams. And that is something we’re doing well.
“We’re all coming together as a team, and it’s wonderful right now.”
Did somebody say it starts on defense?
It’s those defensive starts in Arizona’s first two games of the NCAA Tournament that have been the jabs that set up the knockout punches. The Cats held Belmont to 1 of 11 shooting at the start of the game, and then 14th-seeded Harvard missed its first 13 shots.
Arizona had a little luck on its side — shooting ace Laurent Rivard missed two early wide-open 3-pointers on defensive busts — but it tightened up and won the battles and the wars.
That’s how Miller breaks down the game. Four-minute wars, he calls them. That’s the time between media timeouts. Arizona’s two NCAA opponents have shot 1 of 14 in the first war. The Wildcats never trailed.
“They played very, very well, very tough team,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “(They) have all the pieces when you think about what’s necessary to possibly have a championship-level team.”
Arizona held Harvard to a season-low 27.6 percent shooting and answered any mini-threat, usually with points from Mark Lyons. How do you like him now? He tied his career high with 27 points, effectively using ball screens to drive and spin to the hoop, or cutting off of them to sneak inside for lob passes.
Let’s talk about the pieces of a championship-level team. Good point guard play — or, more aptly, good play from your point guard, if you see the difference — is right at the top of the list.
Lyons has made 20 of 32 shots in Arizona’s two NCAA games, scoring 50 points.
“There are times when he’s a flat-out combo guard. There are times when it doesn’t look the same as a team who has maybe a true point guard,” Miller said.
“But I wouldn’t trade him. When the chips are down, end of games, big games, he’s ready. He doesn’t give you that nervous energy; he gives you the opposite, a confidence that I believe has become contagious on our team.”
Defense has become contagious, too. The Wildcats have limited their two NCAA foes to 33.0 percent shooting overall, 28.9 percent from 3-point range. Yeah, Belmont and Harvard were undersized mid-majors with flaws, but it’s just a promising continuation on a theme for Arizona.
Here’s one more number that has a large enough sample size to become a trend: Arizona is allowing only 32.6 percent 3-point shooting, a very acceptable number, particularly against a slew of 3-point shooting teams.
When Harvard couldn’t hit their 3-pointers with any regularity, it didn’t have the size to challenge Arizona inside the 2-point line. Game over.
“We have been playing really good basketball, but today I feel like we didn’t let up,” Lyons said. “We have a tendency to let up when we have the lead and start playing comfortable, but today we kept our foot on the pedal and kept trying to strive for greatness.”
Greatness seems within reach. The West region is a wreck. Top-seeded Gonzaga fell here after sixth-seeded Arizona advanced. The Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5 seeds in the West? Gone, gone, gone, gone.
No. 2 seed Ohio State, which would advance to play the Cats next Thursday in Staples Center, still has work to do Sunday against No. 10 Iowa State.
With upsets everywhere, Arizona didn’t “sleep on Harvard,” as Parrom said. In a span of about 48 hours, the Wildcats went from a popular upset pick in the opening game to a favorite to advance to the Final Four from the West region. Crazy.
“We’re not satisfied” can be just an empty slogan at this time of year, but the Wildcats aren’t just talking about it, they are showing it: Fast starts, wall-to-wall defense, little let-up with the lead.
On to L.A.