It was February 1st when it looked like Arizona’s season was changed.
Early in the first half of a loss at Cal — the Wildcats’ first loss of the season — starting power forward Brandon Ashley broke a bone in his foot and was lost for the season. That came after Arizona won a dogfight at Stanford and before Sean Miller’s club sandwiched a two-point win over Oregon and an overtime win at Utah with a double-overtime loss at Arizona State.
During that three-week stretch, the only time that the Wildcats scored more than 67 points came when they pounded Oregon State in Tucson.
The Wildcats looked lost. Their offense had stalled enough that it didn’t matter how tenacious their defense was. Arizona, once considered to be the best team in the country, didn’t look like a Final Four contender.
Fast forward to the middle of March, and anyone that had doubted the Wildcats looks silly.
Because after a 63-43 evisceration of Colorado, that came a day after the Wildcats pounded Utah into oblivion with a 71-39 win, the Wildcats will head into the Pac-12 tournament title game playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the country, and that could very well include both Florida and Wichita State.
Doesn’t it feel like they’re flying under the radar?
Maybe it’s because we know what they are. Maybe it’s because so many other teams that were considered contenders — Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State — have serious question marks as we enter the last weekend before the NCAA tournament begins. Maybe it’s because all anyone wanted to talk about for the last three weeks was whether or not Wichita State actually deserves to be in the same conversation as the Arizonas and the Floridas of the world. Maybe it’s they actually as a No. 1 seed locked up while the likes of Villanova, Michigan and Wisconsin are battling it out for that last spot on the top line.
Whatever the case is, this is your wake-up call.
Arizona is as good as, if not better than, they were when they were the nation’s No. 1 team.
Because, as crazy as it sounds, their defense has actually gotten better.
Aaron Gordon may be the best defender in the country. He’s big enough to guard fours and quick enough to stay in front of point guards. He can block a shot and rebound in traffic with anyone, and he can pick a point guard’s pocket. He’s a nightmare at the top of a press and he’s the prototype when it comes to big men that can defend the pick-and-roll. He’s a perfect fit in Arizona’s pack-line defense …
And there’s a valid argument to make that he’s the third-best defender on this Arizona team.
That’s how good Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are.
And while being forced to play Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson together has hurt Arizona’s half-court offense, putting three athletes like that on the floor together makes Arizona very good in transition, which is something that Miller has made a point to emphasize in recent weeks.
So be forewarned.
They may not have the same level of hype as they did three months ago, but this Arizona team is more-than-capable of winning a national title.
Don’t be fooled when you fill out your bracket.