Column: Arizona basketball is back on track
Deep in the heart of winter break, Arizona men’s basketball made a pledge.
After the Wildcats wrapped up nonconference play with a perfect 13-0 record and ran their nonconference regular season win streak to 27 games by beating NAU 77-44 on Dec. 23, they revealed their goal.
The Wildcats recalled the 14-game win streak they had to open 2012-13 and how they stumbled down the stretch last year. They made it clear it wouldn’t happen again.
“One of the things we just talked about is that last year we were 12-0, and we then went 12-6 for the next 18 games,” head coach Sean Miller said after the NAU game. “We missed the regular season championship by a game. This year’s team, our goal is to compete for the conference championship.”
Arizona guard T.J. McConnell celebrates with teammates after a bench player scored during Arizona's 88-61 win over the Colorado Buffaloes. About a week earlier, Arizona's reserves scored zero points in their double-overtime loss at ASU.
To put it simply, the No. 4 Wildcats (25-2, 12-2 Pac-12 Conference) refuse to lose.
When the Wildcats get down in a game, they inevitably fight back. In Saturday’s 88-61 win over Colorado (20-8, 9-6) — which has won 16 home games this year — Arizona weathered a Buffalo comeback after a 22-5 dream start to the game.
This year, the Wildcats made it clear they won’t lose six Pac-12 games as they did in 2013, one of which was a 71-58 loss in Colorado.
Since making the pledge, though, Arizona has had the challenge of playing without Brandon Ashley. UA struggled to adjust to his absence and lost two of its next four games.
It looked like history was repeating itself; things looked dire for the Wildcats just a week ago.
In Arizona’s first loss, at Cal, junior guard Nick Johnson was an abysmal 1-for-14 from the field, and junior point guard T.J. McConnell had zero assists.
In its Feb. 14 loss to ASU, the Wildcats were about as accurate as Tim Tebow. They scored only 66 points in 50 minutes, making 23 out of their 64 shots.
What a difference a week makes.
Last week Arizona responded with back-to-back wins on the toughest road trip in the Pac-12.
The road trip was in two states, roughly a mile high and against an up-and-coming team in Utah and a Colorado school that is 61-9 at home under head coach Tad Boyle.
On Saturday, Arizona made the Buffaloes look like their anemic football team, forcing them to miss their first 14 shots and then dropping 57 points on CU in the second half.
In that game McConnell had 10 assists and four steals, Johnson scored 20 points and previously struggling freshman forward Aaron Gordon, who fouled out on Wednesday against Utah, had a career-high 23 points.
Even more impressively, Arizona’s sixth-man freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out, and it didn’t matter at all.
It’s hard to call a game where Arizona never trailed a “comeback,” but it certainly felt as one.
The post-Ashley Wildcats are back. On Saturday against Colorado, it looked like Arizona was playing the Lumberjacks again, not a team that had beaten Kansas and had won five of six.
Arizona’s press conferences aren’t usually all that eventful, but on that Festivus night it gave us a glimpse of that drive it had over winter break.
With four games left in the regular season, Arizona is two games ahead of second-place UCLA and owns the tie-breaker over the Bruins.
On the other end of the spectrum is Colorado. After the Buffaloes lost to Arizona in Tucson, CU sophomore forward Xavier Johnson said Colorado would win the rematch in a “20-point blowout.”
And in a 9news.com article, CU junior guard Askia Booker said, “Arizona is going to be in for a rude introduction.”
Colorado can talk the talk, but Arizona can walk the walk.
—Follow James Kelley @jameskelley520