No matter how many wins, no matter how many national plaudits, no matter how big a lead they build in the rankings, the Arizona Wildcats keep pushing.
Storming out to a double-digit lead within the game's first five minutes, the top-ranked Wildcats left no doubt as they moved to 19-0 on the season with a 69-57 victory over Colorado on Thursday night.
In control throughout, Arizona never allowed Colorado to get within six points after an 18-4 run to begin the contest. The Wildcats suffocated their opponents with their swarming, long defense, forcing 16 turnovers against just six assists, as the Buffaloes' offensive sets often came down to bad jumpers at the end of the shot clock.
It's been a similar fate met by the majority of Arizona opponents this season. The Wildcats (19-0, 6-0 Pac-12) have now won each of their last three games by double digits, this victory coming on the heels of a 20-point romp over USC and a 23-point win over rival Arizona State last week. This latest victory allows Sean Miller's squad to match the longest winning streak in school history, a number previously reached in 1993 and 1998.
Wildcats faithful were treated to another banner team-wide performance in a season full of them. Three Arizona players scored in double figures, with Nick Johnson netting a team-high 18 points. Brandon Ashley added 15 points and Aaron Gordon had 12.
"We do what we've been doing, just focusing on the process of Arizona basketball and that's just a little glimpse of what we can do," Gordon said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN).
Jeff Goodman of ESPN noted the Wildcats' unselfishness, highlighting Johnson's leadership:
This Arizona team so unselfish, great leadership. Starts with Nick Johnson.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 24, 2014
Johnson did most of his damage in the first half, as he and Ashley spearheaded the 39-24 effort at the midway point.
Gifted open shots by T.J. McConnell and Gabe York, Ashley scored seven of Arizona's first 11 points as Colorado went without a field goal for more than five minutes. By the time Askia Booker laid the ball into the basket, the Wildcats were already comfortably ahead, the McKale Center was rocking and the Buffaloes looked utterly lost offensively without Spencer Dinwiddie.
They were playing their third straight game without Dinwiddie, their leading scorer who suffered a torn ACL in the team's loss at Washington on Jan. 12. Dinwiddie had played a key role in Colorado's biggest wins of the season, scoring 15 points and dishing seven assists against Kansas and sinking 23 points against Oregon.
His absence was felt in a major way on Thursday. Facing one of the nation's stoutest defenses, Colorado had trouble even getting the occasional open look. The Buffaloes made only eight first-half field goals on 29 attempts, struggling mightily with Arizona's length. Nearly every shot was contested, and turnovers were a major problem, leading to 12 Wildcat points in the open floor.
Johnson was often leading those fast breaks, getting out ahead off teammate steals and going right into attack mode toward the basket. He had 12 points at the half, eight of which came on layups or dunks and six of which were related to turnovers.
Josh Scott's 11 points were just about the only thing that kept Colorado from being totally embarrassed. By the end of the first 20 minutes, the game already felt out of reach—it was just a question of by how much the Buffaloes would lose.
"We dug ourselves a hole," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said, via the AP. "We had trouble scoring the ball and they made shots. We didn't have an offensive rhythm all night."
While the second half was far more kind to the folks from Boulder, the expectations mostly played themselves out.
Wasting no time from the opening whistle, Aaron Gordon scored six points on a 12-7 run that increased the lead to 51-31 and all but sealed things up. Arizona would lead by 20 one more time halfway through the second frame before Colorado got into a rhythm down the stretch, but with a huge lead already built, the Wildcats could relax and merely play efficient basketball.
Xavier Johnson tested the Wildcats' resolve at times, scoring 16 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. Johnson scored eight of 10 points on a late run that pulled the Buffaloes within 11 points with a little over a minute remaining, but that was as close as they got.
Arizona, efficient on both ends of the floor, hit just under half its shots and held Colorado to 39 percent, right in line with the Wildcats' season average for opponents. With the good times rolling and no other Pac-12 team currently sitting in the Top 25, there is no telling how long Miller and his team can stretch this streak.
What's clear is that whoever does end it better be playing their best basketball from the opening tip. Colorado wasn't, and now it has to answer long-term questions after losing three of its last four games.
|F Wesley Gordon||D|
|F Xavier Johnson||B|
|F Josh Scott||B|
|G Askia Booker||C-|
|G Jaron Hopkins||C-|
|F Dustin Thomas||C+|
|G Xavier Talton||C-|
|G George Young||C|
|F Brandon Ashley||A-|
|F Aaron Gordon||B+|
|C Kaleb Tarczewski||B-|
|G T.J. McConnell||C+|
|G Nick Johnson||A-|
|F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson||C+|
|G Jordin Mayes||C|
|G Gabe York||B-|
Players of the Game: Josh Scott (F, Colorado), Nick Johnson (G, Arizona)
Scott gets the Buffaloes' nod here for one simple reason: He was the only effective player on the floor during the first half. If it weren't for Scott's 11 points, which he got via a ton of toughness and by converting difficult looks, the first half could have been the most laughable in Colorado basketball history.
Players not named Josh Scott or Dustin Thomas went 3-of-18 from the field—and that's saying nothing of the defensive effort. Scott wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, as evidenced by his three turnovers and overall shrug-worthy 5-of-11 performance overall.
There weren't many great options here. Xavier Johnson was stellar in the second half, but a majority of his points came after the game was already out of reach.
Scott is going to have to continue taking on a more integral offensive role with Dinwiddie out. Thursday night showed that he at least has the ability to compete with the nation's best team; his teammates' acumen is another story entirely.
As for Arizona, you could choose one of any number of players. Brandon Ashley had his third straight double-digit scoring effort and missed only one of his seven shots. T.J. McConnell could create an open look in his sleep. Aaron Gordon is an open-court marvel and had a nice all-around performance.
And then there's the correct answer, Nick Johnson. With his team-leading scoring prowess (16.3 PPG coming in) and solid defense on the perimeter, Johnson could be lightly penciled in as POTG every night. He's the most consistent perimeter threat on a team that still grades far better defensively than offensively, and it'd be interesting to see how effective the others would be if he were out a game or two.
Luckily, Johnson isn't going anywhere.
Colorado will look to find a way to score without Dinwiddie before leaving the State of Arizona, facing a struggling Arizona State Sun Devils squad on Saturday. Arizona will be in action a day later and should have no trouble extending its winning streak to 20 games against Utah.