Your second-ranked Arizona Wildcats …
That’s something that hasn’t been said about UA basketball in more than a decade, with the Cats earning that spot in this week’s AP and coaches’ polls after beating Duke on Friday night to win the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York City.
A long, two-stop flight home, a potential letdown and a quick return to the court made Tuesday night’s game against Texas Tech a test of focus, of Arizona’s maturity.
The Wildcats raced to a 10-0 start, survived some sloppy play on offense and then pulled away for a comfortable-enough 79-58 win at McKale Center. Pretty much what a No. 2-ranked team is supposed to do.
“I was really worried about tonight’s game,” coach Sean Miller said. “I was just hopeful that our team could move from that week and that trip and come here with a lot of energy and play.
“For the most part, I was glad we were able to win with the score that it ended. No question, we could have played better at times, but it’s a long season and it’s difficult to ask for perfection in every game from start to finish.”
The Wildcats were last ranked as high as No. 2 in the March 17, 2003, AP poll, a week after being the No. 1 team in the nation, with Jason Gardner, Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye, Rick Anderson and Luke Walton in the starting lineup, with Andre Iguodala and Hassan Adams in reserve.
As these Cats move on to host UNLV this Saturday, with a game at Michigan looming on Dec. 14, they are keeping an eye on top-ranked Michigan State.
The Spartans play host to North Carolina tomorrow night and are at Texas before Christmas.
Other coaches might dodge talk about rankings or the importance of being No. 1. Not Miller.
“We’ve talked as a team. I think it’s a healthy thing to talk about,” he said.
“Sometimes in your sporting life, an opportunity knocks, an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, if ever. To have a chance to be ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is something that I think all of us would feel really good about.
“That’s not our end goal, but I think when you’re playing with that thought in mind, practices matter, how you play when you’re winning matters … everything we do takes on even more added importance because you’re trying for, in a sense, rarified air to be the No. 1 team in the nation.
“We can’t control what Michigan State does, but we can control our performance, not just in the game but every day in practice. I think our team is thinking in those terms, which will only bring out the best in us.”
Against Texas Tech, it was your typical Arizona highlight show.
Aaron Gordon scored a career-high 19 points and added to his inventory of one-handed power slams. Brandon Ashley had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. T.J. McConnell had a season-high 10 assists.
“And we have to make more shots, because he should have had 13,” said guard Nick Johnson.
Johnson was his all-around excellent self, including pouring in a trio of 3-point shots late in the first half and finishing with 18 points.
“When you play with guys this talented, it makes the point guard look good,” McConnell said.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, all energy and spider-like arms, had nine points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench. Gabe York came in to hit two 3-pointers.
“They have some guys who can really play who come off the bench,” said Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith. “That’s what makes them so good.”
Well, one of the things.
Arizona held Texas Tech to 39.6 percent shooting and had a 43-23 edge on the boards.
“Sean had them ready to play,” Smith said.
“They’re relentless on the boards. I was just impressed with their athleticism around the basket. They’re long. They all got on the boards. That makes a big difference. Forty-three rebounds to 23. Say no more. They were relentless. That’s what impressed me the most.”
Miller’s lone disappointment was the 11 first-half turnovers, including a couple “where you just ask yourself, what the heck is going on?”
He chalked up those miscues to bad decisions, rather than being emotionally flat, and he was pleased that his team committed a mere four turnovers in the second half.
In all, it was a performance worthy of the No. 2 team in the country.
“I think it was a tribute to our team that we were able to focus and play at the level we played,” Miller said.