Arizona Proving It's a Legit No. 1: Wildcats Persevere with Road Win over UCLA

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2014

USA Today

The potential for Arizona to be one of the best teams in the country was there in the preaseason.

Aaron Gordon proved that he was a legitimate talent this summer as the leading scorer for a U-19 gold-medal winning team that included Marcus Smart. Shooting guard Nick Johnson has always been a dynamite athlete with a solid jumper. Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley were often ignored in the U of A offense as freshmen but showed potential. And the Wildcats were finally getting their point guard that would get the whole team involved. 

Jan 9, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller in the second half of the game against the UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion. Arizona Wildcats won 79-75. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

But best in the country?

The Associated Press had them sixth, the coaches fifth and I ranked them sixth in Bleacher Report's preseason rankings.

Two months in and after another convincing road win on Thursday at UCLA, 79-75, Arizona is no longer just about potential and promise. The Wildcats have proven they are a worthy No. 1.

A year ago, we witnessed teams treating that No. 1 ranking like a hot potato. In January alone, the top spot traded hands four different times.

The Wildcats, now ranked No. 1 for five straight weeks, have handled it well and find a way to win even on nights when they're not at their best. That's a testament to their defense and McConnell, who has been better than anyone—outside of Sean Miller and maybe the poor teammates he left behind at Duquesne—could have imagined.

McConnell makes it hard for the other Wildcats to not be successful. He's the best passer in college basketball and he gets his teammates a handful of easy buckets every game they don't even need to work for. 

Through 16 games, McConnell has had at least five assists—he had seven against UCLA—in all but two games. To understand what a luxury that is for Arizona, consider that last year's starting point guard, Mark Lyons, had at least five assists only five times all season.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 09: T.J. McConnell #4 of the Arizona Wildcats steals the ball from Norman Powell #4 of the UCLA Bruins before taking the ball the length of the court and scoring on a layup at Pauley Pavilion on January 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, Ca
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

McConnell's unselfishness has rubbed off on his teammates, who don't seem to care who gets the glory. Gordon is a lottery pick who is one of the most talented players in the country, yet he's averaging only 12.4 points this season and couldn't be more content. As he told my colleague Jason King last week, he just wants to be a "good teammate" because "winning is the ultimate stat."

Gordon and company will keep racking up the numbers that matter in that case, because it's hard to see this team going into any sort of funk.

Even when the offense is off, Miller's team is incredibly hard to score against with its size up front and the effort that Johnson and McConnell give on the perimeter. Johnson held UCLA leading scorer Jordan Adams to 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting, and McConnell had two separate hustle plays that prevented what should have been easy layups in transition for the Bruins.

A year ago Louisville ended up as the nation's best, but it lost three straight games in January and in five overtimes to Notre Dame before it really figured itself out.

Arizona keeps getting better by winning and has had plenty of chances to stumble now with road games at San Diego State, Michigan and UCLA. No team in the country has three better road wins than those.

Bill Walton said a lot of crazy things on Thursday's ESPN broadcast, but one had a lot of truth to it.

This might just be the best team Arizona has ever had.


C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.