The Arizona Wildcats basketball team is off to their best start in program history. The cherry on top of the sundae is Thursday night's 91-68 dismantling of in-state rival Arizona State.
The Wildcats (18-0, 5-0 Pac-12) don't generally consider the Sun Devils (13-5, 2-3 Pac-12) to be a legitimate rival in men's basketball, having won 31 of the past 39 meetings, yet the two schools battle mercilessly in all sports for state bragging rights.
Several heralded and vaunted Arizona teams have played in the history of the program including NBA greats Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr and Mike Bibby, but none of the campus legends have done what this 2013-14 team has done—and continues to do.
Here are the highlights (and lowlights) of this record-breaking season.
Head coach Sean Miller has stressed one thing above all else: playing and winning as a team. It was evident that his philosophy was working Thursday night when seven players scored in double figures.
"No doubt about it, we have a group of guys that play with a lot of energy, a lot of effort and are willing to share the ball," Miller said in the postgame press conference. "One of the best plays of the first half happened when the ball got kicked off from Brandon Ashley. He made it a quick pass to T.J. (McConnell) and he took the wide open shot."
Guard Nick Johnson leads all players with 16.3 points per game but Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are close behind. Point guard T.J. McConnell is the consummate point guard, thinking first of the assist and shooting only when needed. He leads the team with 118 assists and was third in the conference prior to Thursday's game with 6.2 assists per game.
"As we've said a ton, we're unselfish. Everyone's unselfish, not just one guy," McConnell said in the postgame press conference. "We can score at any position and that's what makes us dangerous."
The biggest complaint about this record-breaking, undefeated 18-0 team is that they are horrid from the charity stripe. Perhaps they are trying to do it the hard way, without anything being given to them—but I highly doubt it.
Through 18 games, Arizona is shooting a mere 67 percent from the line, good enough to be ranked 10th in the conference. Only USC and Washington State, who are a combined 1-8 in conference, are behind Arizona.
The big story is that freshman phenom Aaron Gordon is absolutely tragic from the line, hitting only 39 of 85 for 45.9 percent. As dynamic of a scorer that Gordon is, teams can quickly take him out of the game in Hack-A-Gordon style.
T.J. McConnell and Gordon's fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also rank toward the bottom of the conference in free-throw percentage. Free throws proved to be big in close games against Duke and Michigan when the 'Cats hit 21 of 26 and 14 of 15 respectively. If they had shot 53 percent, like Thursday night's performance, those close games could have easily gone the other way.
It's all smiles for the junior from Gilbert, Ariz. as he became 48th player in program history to reach the 1,000-point plateau. Johnson is the embodiment of everything that Coach Miller looks to instill in his players. It's not that far of a reach to say that Johnson will return next year for his senior season as that's just the kind of man that Johnson is—honoring his commitment.
As Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star noted:
If Johnson returns for his senior season, he could crack the top 10 of UA’s all-time scorers. He could play another 50-60 games through the end of next season, and even 50 games at his current average of 16.3 would get him to 1,824, which would be seventh, just behind current UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who had 1,849 between 1991 and 1995.
Johnson not only leads the team in points per game, he is also the one guy you want on the free-throw line, hitting 82 percent. He also places second on the team in three-point percentage, steals and assists.
"I think he’s played with a chip on his shoulder in a healthy way." Coach Miller said to Pascoe. "If there’s anybody who means more to his team than Nick does to ours, they’re an all American."
The Pac-12 does an excellent job of knocking each other out of the rankings so it's safe to say that every team in the conference will bring their 'A' game when they play the No.1 Wildcats.
Both the AP & USA Today preseason polls had three Pac-12 teams ranked in the Top 25 with Arizona at No. 5 and Oregon and UCLA in the upper third. By the time that Arizona became the No. 1 team in the country, Week 6, Colorado had also joined the Top 25.
Then came conference play.
The 12-0 Oregon Ducks, ranked in the Top 10, needed overtime to beat Utah and have lost three straight to Colorado, Cal and Stanford.
The 14-2 Colorado Buffaloes, with their only losses to ranked teams, started conference play with two wins, but almost like clockwork, they needed overtime to beat Washington State and have lost their past two games. They will most likely drop out of the rankings before returning to Tucson next week.
Next up for the Wildcats is the aforementioned Colorado Buffaloes followed by Utah at home before heading up to the northern California schools and a surprising Cal Bears team that is 13-4 and 4-0 in conference. If the Buffaloes are unsuccessful in breaking the Wildcats' streak on Thursday, this Cal team led by Justin Cobbs will be looking to play giant killer.
Which would not be a bad thing. I have seen streaks sometimes get bigger than individual games with the pressure mounting to keep it going. Nobody is hoping or wishing that Arizona loses, yet it wouldn't be the worst thing to happen.