UA Wildcats break 10-year hoops drought…climb to No. 1

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                </div>  Arizona Wildcats‘ basketball coach Sean Miller needs to send a thank-you note to Roy Williams. When Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels upset No. 1 Michigan State last week, it […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Arizona Wildcats‘ basketball coach Sean Miller needs to send a thank-you note to Roy Williams.

When Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels upset No. 1 Michigan State last week, it opened the door for the No. 2 Cats to replace the Spartans as the top team in the country – the first time Arizona has enjoyed the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll since back in the latter years of the Lute Olson era.  More specifically, March 10, 2003.

Arizona ran away with the voting, announced yesterday, collecting 63 of the possible 65 first-place votes. Syracuse picked up the other two.

The move up to No. 1 also breaks a long dry spell for the Pac-10/Pac-12 conference, which hasn’t had a team ranked at the top since January of 2006 when UCLA held that distinction.

Arizona is undefeated through nine games and has the kind of quality wins that moved this squad quickly up the national ladder from a pre-season position of No. 6.  The Wildcats won the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament by beating No. 5 Duke for the tourney title, followed that by defeating a good Texas Tech team by 21 points, and Saturday held on to beat UNLV, 63-58, in a teeter-totter game that had 18 lead changes and never allowed either team to take more than a six-point lead.

In a wild game that included 30 turnovers, most of them in the first half, it was Arizona’s stifling defense in the second half that proved the difference.  UNLV shot 64 percent from the field in the first half, but the Cats clamped down after intermission and held the Rebels to 28 percent shooting the rest of the way.  They also forced 16 UNLV turnovers.

T.J. McConnell, Arizona’s junior point guard who transferred in from Duquesne and sat out last year, was everywhere, doing everything necessary to secure the win – and the opportunity to move ahead of every other Division I team in the country. He finished with 13 points, six assists, and seven rebounds – and played 35 minutes with just one turnover.

Thanks to what Miller called “one of the poorest shooting nights” of the season, the Rebels led 42-39 at halftime.  But the defense stepped up in the second half to take control.  “We talked a lot at halftime about, if we truly are a good defensive team, then we should be able to turn this thing around.”

And they are a good defensive team.  The Cats went into that game as the seventh-ranked team nationally in field-goal percentage defense and 13th in scoring defense.

They also took control of the boards, where they rank 14th in rebounding advantage.  The Cats have out-rebounded their opponents in every game this season and, against UNLV, finished with a 41-29 advantage.  Aaron Gordon, the 6’9″ forward who is in the starting line-up as a freshman, joined with 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski to lead the efforts on the boards; each had eight rebounds.

There have been great expectations for this team, considered by most to be bound for the NCAA Final Four in March.  They have a legitimate point guard who can score as well as distribute the ball, one of the best front courts in the country, athleticism around the perimeter, a 7-foot shot-blocker in the middle, and scoring talent across the board.

But they’re probably peaking a little sooner than what Miller would like.  Back in October, the fifth-year head coach told Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin that “In November and December, there are going to be moments when we don’t look like a great team.”

As the Wildcats stand now at the pinnacle of college basketball, it isn’t hard to see the greatness.  It’s there… but it’s also a long way to March.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)