Column: Wildcats could ignite spark after statement victory over Gonzaga

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Mike Christy and Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star | The Daily Wildcat Arizona Wildcats guard Gabe York (1) drives for a shot between Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Eric McClellan (23) and Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Josh Perkins (13) during the first half of the No. 19 Arizona Wildcats vs. No. 13 Gonzaga Bulldogs men's NCAA college basketball game at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash. Photo taken Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

Though 2014 provided Tucsonans the rare privilege of rooting for one of the nation’s best football teams while a top-three basketball team was kicking off its season, Arizona fans always have one thing in mind come November. That one thing involves something the Wildcats haven’t been as prone to this fall season: winning.

Saying Arizona’s football season was an utter disappointment might actually be an understatement. Tucson and Wildcat fans needed a pick-me-up more than ever and, as they almost always are, head coach Sean Miller and Arizona basketball were just that.

It hasn’t always been that way, though.

November losses to Wisconsin, Kansas and Mississippi State from 2009 to 2011, respectively, are what defined Miller’s young non-conference career at Arizona. The successor to an all-time legend never quite had Arizona off to a quick start, and the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament just twice in Miller’s first four years after competing in it for 24 consecutive seasons.

Arizona, however, has since rallied off 14-0, 21-0 and 12-0 starts coming into this season, which have all resulted in trips to the Big Dance.

Tucson was in desperate need of a turn around after Arizona football’s worst finish at 6-6 since the 2011 season where it finished 4-8 and missed a bowl game for the only time in the past seven seasons.

The city was clearly amped for basketball season as soon as the Wildcats’ annual Red-Blue Game exhibition rolled around.

After a fall of crushing football injuries and losses, Wildcat fans needed Arizona basketball back at full force.

A young team searching for an identity took the floor and started 4-0 before a dismal overtime victory against a then winless Santa Clara team.

Early statement victories over ranked opponents have driven the Wildcats’ hot starts the last three seasons.

Arizona beat a No. 5 Florida in 2012 to ignite the 14-game win streak and took down West coast rival San Diego State and a No. 25 Michigan on the road in 2013, which was part of the program best 21-game win streak to open a season. The Wildcats defeated then No. 9 Gonzaga at home last year to fuel the 12-game run to begin the season.

Miller and company had a chance for another statement win this year against Michigan State in the DirecTV Wooden Legacy. The Wildcats lost to Providence, though, to prevent a showdown with the then-No. 3 Spartans.

A battle at then No. 13 Gonzaga on Saturday presented Arizona another chance, and the Wildcats seized the opportunity. Few expected them to contend with the Bulldogs on the road, especially after falling into a first-half hole. But clawing their way back into the game and ultimately completing the upset could ignite Arizona’s confidence.

“The fact that we played up here, I think will make us more battle-tested for our own conference,” Miller said. “Now that we’ve had a chance to get a win up here, I hope it gives us a confidence boost at a really crucial time. … This is something for us to build on in many, many ways coming up.”

Arizona has five non-conference games remaining—all in McKale Center against unranked opponents.

The next road test happens to be the Pac-12 Conference opener against rival ASU, before the Wildcats travel to Southern California for USC and a UCLA squad that just took down No. 1 Kentucky.

The Wildcats will hope to have found an identity by the time the meat of the Pac-12 in California and Oregon roll around in late January.

For now, Tucson and Wildcat fans will remain thankful they have even a glimpse of Arizona basketball to help move past a forgetful fall. They can only hope the upset victory over the Zags will light a flame under the Wildcats and help the inexperienced team find its way back to what we’re used to seeing.

The only question is: How many wins will it take for Arizona to be Arizona?


Follow Dominic Baciocco on Twitter.



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