Escape at Michigan Shows Arizona is Not a Dominant No. 1 Just Yet

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 14, 2013

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Arizona survived a 72-70 tooth-and-nail battle against Michigan on Saturday afternoon, more than likely maintaining its position as the top-ranked team in the country.

Rather than asserting itself as the team to beat, Arizona looked an awful lot like a team that should have been beaten.

Are we headed for another season without a dominant No. 1 team?

So far, that certainly seems to be the case.


Dec 14, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Nick Johnson (13) forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) and forward Aaron Gordon (11) celebrate in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Center. Arizona won 72-70. Mandatory Cred
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Good News for Arizona

Less than seven minutes into the game, Michigan took a lead that it would not relinquish for more than 31 minutes of game time.

But in the end, Arizona won the game. We can discuss how good or bad the Wildcats looked until we're blue in the face, but the win is all that matters.

Unless Syracuse beats St. John's by 50 points on Sunday afternoon, the Wildcats will still be the No. 1 team in the nation on Monday.

Though the second-chance opportunities usually resulted in nothing, Arizona was all over the offensive glass. There were 35 rebounding opportunities on Arizona's end of the court, and the Wildcats hauled in 17 offensive rebounds.

Michigan's Mitch McGary was held to just four rebounds while Arizona had an overall rebounding margin of plus-13.

In each of their 11 games this season, the Wildcats are at least plus-8 on the glass.

Free-throw shooting was also a clutch component for the No. 1 team.

Save for Gabe York's final free-throw attempt, the team was a perfect 14-for-14 from the line. Nick Johnson went 6-for-6 over the final 25 seconds, but perhaps most impressive was big man Kaleb Tarczewski swishing each of his four free-throw attempts.

Take it from someone who has watched players named Plumlee miss a lot of free throws over the past six years: a seven-footer who can make 76 percent of his free throws might be the best asset a team can have.

It also has to be worth noting that the Wildcats accomplished this win while playing in a game that started at 10 in the morning back home.

As Sean Miller told Greg Anthony after the game, "Anyone who lives on the West Coast knows we had that 5:30 AM wake-up call this morning."

Perhaps you're a morning person and that sounds like a grand old time, but there aren't many schools in the country that can wake up and win a road game against a team that entered the game with a 36-2 record at home over the last two-plus seasons.

If it looked like T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were sleepwalking through the first half, it's because they might have been.


Dec 3, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller during the second half against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at McKale Center. Arizona defeated Texas Tech 79-58. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Bad News for Arizona

Early tip-off time notwithstanding, Arizona looked painfully mortal in the first half for the fourth time in its last six games.

The Wildcats trailed by nine at halftime against Michigan, just like they did against Drexel in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Both Duke and UNLV held a three-point lead over Arizona at intermission before eventually letting it slip away.

It's one thing to be able to take an early punch in the mouth and bounce back from it, but someone will inevitably make this team pay for not dominating the first 20 minutes if that trend continues.

Arizona might have the best seven-man rotation in the country, but Saturday's game showed that seven won't always be enough.

With 11 minutes left in the game, both Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley had three fouls, while Tarczewski was in the locker room getting his ankle examined. Michigan led by seven at the time and could have put the game on ice by sending Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III to the rim over and over again.

Instead, Robinson's rim-rattling dunk while Tarczewski was rolling on the floor in pain was his last field-goal attempt of the game. The man was Michigan's entire offense in the first half, but he couldn't even get off a shot down the stretch.

If you're looking for something that Michigan did differently to let Arizona back into the game, there you have it.

Another wart on Arizona's face after this game is an inability to play in transition. Michigan got out to its early lead by forcing turnovers and creating fast-break points. On the other end of the floor, Arizona squandered multiple 3-on-2 fast-break opportunities.

After one particular botching of a fast-break chance, Jim Nantz pointed out that a fast-paced game really neutralizes Arizona's biggest strength: having three big men in the half-court offense.

If a play-by-play commentator and a few tweeters have figured that out, certainly a number of Pac-12 head coaches have done the same, and will look to run Arizona into the ground whenever possible.

Also, it's a bit concerning that the half-court offense ran almost exclusively through Brandon Ashley on Saturday. It's possible that Sean Miller felt there was a mismatch and insisted on getting Ashley a ton of touches, and certainly a fair number of those attempts were on put-backs of offensive rebounds.

Nevertheless, this should be the first and last time that Ashley has more field-goal attempts than McConnell and Nick Johnson combined.


Will Anyone Dominate the 2013-14 Season?

Arizona could eventually become the team that everyone falls in love with. Lay down the law from start to finish in a road game against UCLA on January 9, and perhaps we'll forget about the fact that the supposed-best team in the country has won 45 percent of its games by single digits.

For now, though, it's almost easier to question Arizona's staying power than it is to blindly follow this team into the future. If the 2014 NCAA Tournament started today, not even Arizona would automatically get penciled into the Final Four.

This flies in the face of everything we believed before the season began. It was barely even a month ago that we assumed the five or six best teams in the country would be light years better than their closest competitors.

Instead, it's looking like there aren't any dominant college basketball teams this year.

Not yet, at any rate.


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