After defeating Duke in last weekend’s NIT Season Tip-Off Championship at Madison Square Garden, Arizona men’s basketball was rewarded and moved up to No. 2 in the national rankings going into the fifth week of the college basketball season.
Despite all of the hype surrounding the Wildcats’ victory over one of their most formidable rivals in program history, head coach Sean Miller said that he and the team are keeping their focus on tonight’s game against Texas Tech and refraining from becoming complacent.
“One thing [our ranking] is going to say is you are going to get every team’s best shot. There isn’t a team that’s going to play us now that isn’t going to look at our game as something that would be very meaningful to their team and their season,” Miller said. “Being able to go on the road and beat Arizona at McKale Center would be one [upset] that every team in this country would covet having in their pockets as they move towards March.”
Miller said that the way the team practices and gets ready for upcoming games is more significant now than it has been so far this season, and that the team cannot make the mistake of thinking that a win is a guarantee just because it is playing on its home court.
While acknowledging the team’s success and achievements this past weekend, Miller was also quick to brush it aside, saying that in accordance with the high standards set by Arizona’s program, a win like this shouldn’t be viewed as too big of a deal.
“We have four NIT Championships now; I believe Duke has four. We have played Duke eight times as a program and we’ve won five times,” Miller said. “If we truly are about a program of excellence, then [we] have to expect to win and be able to handle playing in big games. We didn’t win a bowl game or the end of a season. That was the seventh game of a long season.”
After gaining valuable experience during their freshman seasons and going on to enjoy productive offseasons, Arizona’s big men Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski have matured over the team’s first seven games this year.
At last Friday’s showdown against Duke, forwards Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker were expected to face off in a matchup between two of the best freshmen in the country. However, neither Gordon nor Parker spent much time guarding each other. Instead, Ashley contained Parker for the bulk of his minutes while subsequently compiling 13 points.
“Nobody on our team defended [Duke’s] Jabari Parker more than Brandon did,” Miller said. “[Parker] is a handful; he’s one of the nation’s premier players, if not the best offensive player we’ll face, and Brandon did a great job.”
Miller said that Ashley made the game hard [for Parker] by following the scouting report, moving his feet well and using his length to his advantage. Miller added that Ashley is a better player right now than he would have been at any time a year ago.
Over the first games of the season, Ashley is putting up an average of 11.0 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Tarczewski has shown similar growth, compiling his first career double-double against Drexel, scoring 15 points with 10 rebounds.
“We wouldn’t have been playing Duke on Friday night if Kaleb didn’t have the second half that he had against Drexel,” Miller said. “He was really a dominant force close to the basket. A year ago, he wouldn’t have been able to have [that kind of half].
“I knew before the season began that both Brandon [Ashley] and Kaleb [Tarczewski] — based on the meaningful minutes they got a year ago — would only improve and pick up where they left off. Both kids worked extremely hard this offseason, and I think it shows.”
— Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17