Next time, Arizona might just stick with the 2010-11 non-conference schedule.
That slate – filled with home games and just two stern tests against Kansas and BYU – had Wildcats coach Sean Miller worrying if a fast start would crumble when conference play rolled around. (I said no. Yay me!) It didn’t, mostly because Derrick Williams was stupendous and they shot lights out from beyond the arc.
This season, Miller approved a slightly tougher schedule with more road games and more games against better teams. (Though the numbers disagree with that assessment.) The result was a 9-4 record and a slight confidence drop.
Living up to preseason expectations wasn’t something Arizona had to do last season. This season? Not so much. But Miller does see a bright side. They’re tested, ready and have played against pretty much every style of hoops.
They played big teams (Gonzaga), smaller teams (Florida), experimented with the freshmen (Duquesne) and figured out they needed to be more physical (Miss State). Or, as Bruce Pascoe writes, the schedule provided some teachable moments.
In the end, the Wildcats finished with a Top 100 schedule, played at a number of sites, against a number of different styles.
The schedule was a notch below the murderous schedules [Lute] Olson put together toward the end of his reign but tough for a team that was redefining itself without Williams and point guard MoMo Jones, becoming a smaller team best when on the run.
“You’re playing at Florida, Mississippi State in the (Madison Square) Garden, a tough New Mexico State team on their home court and Gonzaga in Seattle,” Miller said. “But all of those games have made us better. I really believe, our team believes, that our best basketball is ahead and that’s what we’re pointing towards.”
Another benefit? The Pac-12 should provide some respite from the non-conference slate.
Cal, Washington and Stanford are the conference’s best teams, while Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington State are all a notch below. (ASU, Utah, Colorado and USC? Ugh.) Arizona should hold court against all of those and steal a few road wins at the Oregon schools and Wazzu and Stanford.
Their at-large NCAA tournament profile isn’t terrible, but it isn’t overwhelming, either. If they open well – after an early trip to L.A., most of January is filled with should-win games – I’m guessing their confidence will grow and they’ll end up being what I expected of them to start the season: the best team in the Pac-12.
Their lack of height won’t be as big of an issue – only UCLA has a decided advantage — and they’ve settled on a reliable rotation that focuses on their upperclassmen and freshman Nick Johnson, with a dash of Josiah Turner when needed. Also, Arizona’s finally starting to hit some shots, which is always the big cure-all in hoops. Everything gets a little bit easier.
Then maybe that non-conference schedule won’t look so bad.
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