Let the march begin
For almost every trial or tribulation there is the chance for a rebound.
A rebound can lead to an open court, fast break alley-oop for a basketball player.
For Arizona (28-3, 15-3 Pac-12 Conference) that chance came following its Feb. 1 loss to California.
“Honor the process” were the three words that have come out of head coach Sean Miller’s mouth more than any other phrase this season.
Wildcats huddle during the second half of the Arizona's 69-66 loss against ASU at Wells Fargo Arena on Feb. 14. The Wildcats initially struggled to replace Brandon Ashley.
“It’s November; we’re taking it slow and honoring the process,” Miller said after Arizona’s season opening victory over Cal Poly on Nov. 8.
The phrase even appears in press releases.
“We’re not worried about that game; we just need to honor the process,” Miller said on Nov. 19.
The phrase is even commonly used among his players.
“It’s about honoring the process and getting better every day to reach the goal,” said Arizona guard Nick Johnson on Jan. 16.
But on Feb. 1, the undefeated process took a hit right as it was picking up steam.
The once-limited Johnson had emerged as the Wildcats’ and the Pac-12’s best all-around player.
Junior T.J. McConnell’s title of being a true point guard was no longer a mirage.
Despite his free-throw struggles, freshman forward Aaron Gordon got comfortable with college basketball and used his athleticism to be a top scorer and rebounder.
Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski over the season learned to create his own shot and showed off a more slim build.
Arizona’s bench was no longer there just to give starters a rest and fill up space, but could actually fill in and be suitable replacements.
And then there’s sophomore forward Brandon Ashley, the Wildcat who saw the most growth since last season. He was Arizona’s silent killer who stretched the court with his versatility.
But what Ashley did that’s most important to the team is that he rebounds better than anyone else.
The 6-foot-8 Ashley gobbled up missed shots near and far from the basket. Always immediately looking to pass it to McConnell for a quick transition basket, Ashley’s ability to rebound was the butter to Arizona’s bread.
So when Ashley went down with a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 1, Arizona’s three preseason goals of being the Pac-12 Conference outright champions, tournament champions and national champions appeared in limbo.
And then the storm rushed in.
With every loss over the following weeks came a rush of opposing students and fans onto the court. Arizona only lost three times but saw opposing fans storm the court five times.
The Feb. 1 loss was excusable. A calm Miller spoke for roughly 10 minutes with the media saying, “Anytime you lose a starter during the game, it takes a lot of resolve on your group and team to fight.”
“I think we all knew we weren’t going to go 40-0,” Miller added. “Believe it or not, we’re going to be all right.”
About two weeks later after losing to ASU 69-66 in double overtime, everything wouldn’t be “all right”.
Standing in front of roughly 15 reporters and cameramen in Wells Fargo Arena, Miller broke an awkward pause to the start of the postgame conference by snarling, ”What you got?”
Miller answered a single handful of questions in three minutes and then left.
With so many questions but no answers, Arizona’s process had seemed to hit rock-bottom.
Miller went back to the drawing board and searched for a way to grab that rebound.
What he came up with was a three-guard rotation and instead of trying to replace Ashley he put it on the players to overcome the loss of one its starters.
“[Miller] talks about our identity,” Gordon said on Feb. 9. “And our identity is offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding.”
They Wildcats have accomplished the first goal; all they need now is a fast break alley-oop to finish the season off.
“We’re best when we’re in the open court,” Miller said on Nov. 11. “And the way we get in the open court is by being a great rebounding team.”
After losing 64-57 at Oregon on Saturday, Arizona has a chance to rebound again, in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments and check off the other two goals.
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella