Arizona basketball has yet to reach its peak
Missouri's Phil Pressey (1) tries to force a turnover by Texas Tech's Jaye Crockett during first-half action at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Missouri, Saturday, January 28, 2012. Missouri defeated Texas Tech, 63-50. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
Arizona’s non-conference schedule is soft — we’ve all heard it.
Watching top-ranked teams like Indiana and North Carolina or Duke and Ohio State face off makes matchups with Long Beach State, UTEP and NAU seem insignificant.
I intended to write this column about how a weak non-conference schedule and a weak Pac-12 would hurt the Wildcats come NCAA tournament time.
They would still be assured of a berth, especially with UCLA’s Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb leaving the team. But, Arizona wouldn’t be ready for the top-level talent that comes when March Madness hits.
Then I went back and looked at the UA schedule from two years ago. You know, that time former Wildcat Derrick Williams carried Arizona to the Elite Eight.
The Wildcats’ first five games were against Idaho State, New Mexico State, Northern Colorado, Bethune-Cookman and Santa Clara.
This year, Arizona’s first five opponents are Charleston Southern, UTEP, Long Beach State, NAU and Texas Tech.
Charleston Southern is a favorite to win the Big South, and Texas Tech comes from the Big 12. UTEP made the NIT and Long Beach State made the NCAA tournament last year.
Arizona has defeated its opponents, on average by nearly 24 points. The team is doing its job, but it hasn’t really been tested yet — and that’s fine. Head coach Sean Miller said he knows what he’s doing.
“Our peak time is coming,” Miller said.
Still to come on the non-conference slate are the No. 7 Florida Gators (in Tucson), a likely NCAA tournament team in C-USA’s Southern Miss, and potential matchups with Miami (FL) and No. 23 San Diego State in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamondhead Classic during winter break.
Miami, from the ACC, recently upset Michigan State, and San Diego State returns its four best players from a team that made the NCAA tournament — and beat Arizona in the regular season — a year ago.
There has only been one close game so far, a season-opening 82-73 win against Charleston Southern, but that was more a result of the newcomers adjusting to their new digs than anything else.
During Arizona’s regular season, before its Elite Eight run, the team faced just two non-conference NCAA tournament teams in BYU and Kansas, losing to both by a combined 30 points.
College basketball is all about momentum. Winning basketball games at the end of the season plays a much larger role in success during the NCAA tournament than winning non-conference games four months before. The 2010-11 edition of the Wildcats proved that in finishing 30-8 and winning all but three conference games.
“It goes back to our leadership and staying with the process,” sophomore guard Nick Johnson said. “Knowing that, our time’s gonna come, and when it does we gotta execute.”
Arizona might win its remaining non-conference games. It also might get blown out by Florida and lose a few more games. Either way, the Wildcats will be just fine.
In reality, Miller is using the early schedule as a time for Arizona to adjust its many new pieces, including four freshmen and Mark Lyons, a senior transfer and the UA’s new point guard.
“Three of our five starters weren’t even here a year ago,” Miller said. “[The schedule has] given us a chance to practice more. It’s given us a chance to get through this month learning more about ourselves and maybe repairing a few things.”
For a young team like Arizona, the non-conference slate is better served as a time to fit the pieces together and develop the freshmen, than worry about the perception of the team’s schedule.
Miller has been here before, and it worked for Derrick Williams and the 2010-2011 Wildcats, and maybe it’ll work for this group of the Wildcats, too.