Top-ranked Arizona remained undefeated on Wednesday night, rallying late to win 60-57 at Stanford and remain undefeated.
But while the final 10 minutes showed why the Wildcats are off to the best start in school history, the rest of the game was a study in how the pressure of being No. 1 might be taking on a life of its own.
Arizona (21-0, 8-0 Pac-12) has gotten off to slow starts several times in the last few weeks, such as when it trailed Utah 12-2 at home on Sunday before ultimately winning 65-56.
Against Stanford, the Wildcats were down 9-2 and trailed 31-30 at halftime. The Cardinal (13-7, 4-4) led by as many as seven in the second half, but they managed just two field goals in the final 12:34 as Arizona turned to the lockdown defense that has paced its perfect run.
From when it fell behind by seven with 12:34 left in the second half, Arizona generated stops on 16 of Stanford's final 19 possessions.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) January 30, 2014
After Arizona tied it at 53 with 6:30 left, the game went without a point for nearly four minutes. Yet as every second ticked by, it felt more and more like the Wildcats were in control as they forced Stanford into nothing but bad (or heavily contested) shots.
It's not surprising that Arizona has struggled of late, though. As the No. 1 team, you get everyone's best shot, especially on the road. It was a packed house at Maples Pavilion, and there's no doubt the Cardinal's eclectic student section was making plans to rush the court if victory was theirs.
The mark of a true No. 1 is being able to handle that extra push and, after fighting off the initial flurry, throw a counterpunch. Arizona has done that each time, regardless of how the final scores might appear.
Looking at the box score, the casual fan is going to look at this game (along with the Utah win and some less-than-stellar starts against USC and Washington) as a sign that Arizona is slipping. A closer look, though, will show this has been the Wildcats' pattern all year.
Arizona has road wins over two Top 10 teams (Michigan and San Diego State) as well as a neutral-site victory over No. 17 Duke. The Wildcats trailed at the half against Duke and Michigan—they were down nine at the break in Ann Arbor—yet never once showed the typical symptoms of a panicked team.
Same goes for Arizona's last game before moving to No. 1 on Dec. 9. Hosting UNLV, the Wildcats trailed 42-39 at the half, the most points they've allowed in the first 20 minutes all season. The Runnin' Rebels scored 16 in the second half, and Arizona won by five.
The Wildcats are now 6-0 when trailing at the half. In those six games, they've outscored their opponents by an average of 9.3 points in the second period.
But that aforementioned box score is going to show some glaring issues for Arizona, namely a sudden backslide in rebounding (it has failed to win the glass battle in three of its last six games) and continued pathetic free-throw shooting (18-of-29) that included a pair of missed one-and-ones in the final 33 seconds.
Noted stat guru Ken Pomeroy, who has been charting the likelihood of one of the three remaining unbeaten teams finishing the regular season without a loss, dropped his percentage to 48 percent after Arizona's win over Utah. It went back up to 51 percent following Wednesday's games (Syracuse also won), but with a Saturday night trip to take on a deadly California team, the chance of Arizona staying perfect is dropping by the day.
California was as hot as anyone in the Pac-12, if not the country, before laying an egg at USC and then falling to UCLA last weekend. But the Golden Bears (14-7, 5-3) were 10-0 at home before Wednesday's overtime loss to Arizona State, and they beat Arizona in Tucson last season.
If ever there's a time for the Wildcats to drop a game, it will be Saturday. But then again, if the Bears don't get in enough blows early, Arizona might just pull it out late once again.