So, this is what Arizona could look like when all things go well?
This is how it looks when a team gets challenged and responds after a tough loss on the road against a good team?
So, this is what things could look like in the future if – yes, if – all the stars align and come together for 40 minutes.
Preview or aberration? In this world of college basketball – hell, Arizona basketball – the Wildcats will take it, given the stars aligned in its 81-72 win over USC on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles.
The one thing Sean Miller knew – as he was going after win No. 300 for the third time – was that his team would play hard after Thursday night’s debacle against UCLA.
“I have a good pulse of our guys,” he said when I asked what gave him the indication his team would come out and play hard. “We were disappointed how we performed against UCLA, especially in the high-effort department. We addressed it. I just felt we’d be ready to play.”
And, well, they were. USC struggled against Arizona’s Azuoulas Tubelis AND Jordan Brown, both who dominated near the basket. Tubelis had 16 points and 15 rebounds. Brown had 16 points and 10 rebounds. They provided the needed one-two punch in defeating USC’s one-two combo of the Mobley brothers.
Dalen Terry stepped up and hit two crucial 3-pointers.
Lead guard James Akinjo was surgeon-like in the backcourt running the offense. He had 20 points and seven assists.
And Arizona outrebounded USC 43-36, returning to form on the rebounding end.
Where has this team been? Had it been capable all season? What just happened?
So, I asked when Miller settles into the charter plane on the team’s return or when he has time to reflect at home late Saturday what will he think?
Will he think like I thought when I knew Arizona was going to win this game: where has this team been?
Miller said “it’s challenging for every team right now” saying COVID-19 has thrown things for a loop. The unknown is always there, he said. He reflected on UA’s first trip to Stanford and how everyone was scared to get on the plane and the thoughts racing in their heads to get on that plane. Checking into the hotel didn’t feel right.
Now, nearly two months later, Arizona played perhaps its best game of the season and picked up its best regular-season win since beating Michigan State to start the 2016-17 Armed Forces Classic. To me, it’s been that long. I often ask: when was the last time Arizona beat a team it wasn’t supposed to?
Then came Saturday.
The Cats pulled it out against a ranked Trojans team, one trying to win their first Pac-12 Conference season in, well, forever.
“I really admire the guys on our team,” Miller said. “There is one thing that I’ve learned from all of this is: when you challenge young people and you’re fair with them but you really, really challenge them it’s amazing what they can do. I feel that way about our group.”
Big wins will do that to a coach. And clearly this one will feel good for awhile in as much as this was a game that – at least for a day – Arizona can play with some of the elite teams in the country. This was Arizona’s way of saying it belongs in conversations of tough teams and NCAA Tournament worth (although UA won’t be eligible because it self-imposed a year ban on itself).
Akinjo went as far as calling it a “statement game” to prove UA hasn’t left the discussion of top teams.
“Every game down the stretch is kind of like that, truth be told,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “I think our guys recognize that USC has had a great season, competing for the Pac-12 championship.
“What is it we have to play for? We’re playing for each other. For our pride and the love of the game.”
And, perhaps to get Miller his 300th win as a Wildcat. He’s now 300-108 (.735) as UA’s coach in 12 seasons.
“I’m just really excited for our team and coaching staff,” he said downplaying the 300-win mark. “It hasn’t been easy, nothing’s been easy. We’ve been in really tough games in which I thought we’ve played hard and played well. We weren’t good enough to leave with a victory.”
Saturday, UA showed it was capable from start to finish – something it hadn’t done often enough in the conference season.