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Pac-12 Tournament: Are we overlooking Arizona right now?

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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.

No. 14 Cal goes 0-2 in Las Vegas Invitational

Jaylen Brown
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After midnight on the east coast on Thanksgiving, No. 14 Cal blew a 15 point second half lead against San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs to use a 30-6 run to put away the game and advance to the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s the same San Diego State team had scored 43 points in a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last week.

Not 24 hours later, the Golden Bears were shredded defensively by the Richmond Spiders, losing 94-90 in the consolation game of a four-team tournament they were considered to be the heavy favorite in.

It’s a disappointing two-game stretch for Cal, who entered the season as a Pac-12 favorite and had looked the part for the first four games of the season.

And the issue appears to be on the defensive end of the floor.

Richmond is a good Atlantic 10 team. Terry Allen and Marshall Wood are high-major big men, Shawn’Dre Jones is a jitterbug at the point and Chris Mooney runs a Princeton-esque system that is very difficult to prepare for without a day in-between games. So it’s not really surprising that the Spiders gave Cal a fight.

But 94 points?

On the heels of giving up 44 points in the second half against the offensively-challenged Aztecs?

That’s a problem, one that I’m sure that Cuonzo Martin is going to address this week in practice. Martin has managed to put together a roster that is build for small-ball, with four talented perimeter players surrounding a first round pick in the post. But that’s not the style that he’s known for. Martin played his college ball at Purdue in the Gene Keady days. He cut his teeth as a head coach at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley. His team’s at Tennessee were known for being tough and physical defensively.

That’s how Martin coaches, which is part of the reason Cal had such hype entering the year.

The talents of Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews on a team with a coach that gets teams to defend the way Martin does? It’s no surprise that pundits would be optimistic.

But as of now, they have some work to do defensively if they want to live up to that hype.

Tyler Ulis injured as No. 1 Kentucky beats South Florida

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MIAMI (AP) Jamal Murray had 21 points and No. 1 Kentucky scored the final 15 points of the first half on the way to beating South Florida 84-63 in the HoopHall Miami Invitational on Friday.

Skal Labissiere added 17 points for the Wildcats (6-0), who led by as many as 31. Charles Matthews scored 11 points and Isaiah Briscoe finished with seven assists for Kentucky, now a winner of 37 consecutive regular-season games and 39 in a row against unranked opponents.

Chris Perry scored 14 points for USF (1-5), which has lost 18 consecutive games against teams ranked in the Top 25. Jaleel Cousins added 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, and Jahmal McMurray scored 11 points for the Bulls.

Kentucky played the second half without starting guard Tyler Ulis, who departed with a right elbow injury after getting hurt while fighting for a ball loose on the floor.

Kentucky announced after the game that the injury was a hyperextension of the elbow and that he will be day-to-day.

The Bulls were within 27-21 with 6 minutes left in the first half after McMurray banked in a 3-pointer only a few feet away from where John Calipari was standing, and the look of anguish on the Kentucky coach’s face was clear.

It didn’t last long.

The Wildcats scored on seven of their next nine possessions and the game was over by halftime, Kentucky going into the break with a 42-21 lead.

It was a reunion for plenty of people on both benches. Calipari squared off with his former assistant Orlando Antigua, now in his second year leading USF. Antigua’s staff includes another former Calipari assistant in Rod Strickland, plus former Kentucky basketball staff members Mike Malone and Dominic Lombardi.

So the staffs have plenty of familiarity. On the court, there was plenty of disparity. Kentucky finished with a commanding 23-6 edge in points off turnovers and finished with 16 assists to the Bulls’ six.