Halfway through the Pac-12 season and Arizona is looking good with its 8-1 record, a game ahead of USC in the standings and in solid shape against most of the other teams.
In the loss column, other than USC (7-2) — which plays at McKale Center in two weeks — the Wildcats are two games ahead of Washington (4-3) and three games ahead of UCLA (6-4), Stanford (5-4) and Oregon (4-4). Arizona has already beaten Stanford and Oregon.
USC, which hosts last-place Cal today, plays at UCLA on Saturday. If USC beats Cal (as expected) and the Bruins beat the Trojans — and Arizona takes care of business at Washington State and Washington this week — the Wildcats will have a two-game cushion in the loss column.
“Cushion” might be the wrong word to use with Arizona when factoring most of the Wildcats’ conference games. Not much has come easy for the Wildcats in the Pac-12 despite their lofty record.
When it seemed they had a comfortable lead in six of the nine games, they appeared to rest on that cushion instead of push forward. Rather than lock the door, they left it open long enough before closing it in the nick of time. Once, twice, maybe three times, yes, credit the other team for fighting back, but four, five and six times … when does complacency come into question?
In wins over ASU, Oregon, Stanford, Colorado and twice against Utah, the Wildcats built a double-digit lead only to have the opponent take the lead or narrow Arizona’s margin to one or two points in the late stages of the second half.
Arizona gradually built leads and maintained them in wins over Cal and Oregon State. The Wildcats lost at Colorado 80-77 after trailing 45-29 at halftime.
The following graphic shows the dramatic swings in the six other games. Arizona managed to pull away in the end or have luck on its side, especially in the games against Stanford and Utah in which the opponent took the last shot of the game with the chance to win.[table “” not found /]
“One thing’s for sure — our players understand how hard it is for us to win games,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after yesterday’s 74-73 win over Utah at McKale Center. “A lot of teams are gunning for us. … I give our guys credit for finding a way.”
In these six games, Arizona’s largest lead was an average 12.5 points. Its opponents then outscored them by an average margin of 14.7 points to get back in the game. Arizona’s winning margin in these six games turned out to be an average of 6.2 points.
It’s like watching an EKG. Fortunately for Miller, the Wildcats have not flat-lined in any of these games. But if they continue like this, will that heart keep pumping far into March?
Arizona can not overpower teams like in years past when it was 8-1 at the turn of the conference race.
It is obvious that with a lack of a consistently productive bench, Miller must rely on resiliency from his starting lineup, reserve senior forward Keanu Pinder’s occasional effective performance and his young bench players to limit their mistakes.
With February almost here, the question is if Arizona is walking a fine line or gaining strength through adversity. We’re about to find out.
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.