Things were looking bleak for Arizona on their return home, as a weekend trip to Oregon left the Wildcats with more questions than answers, and a 1-2 record in conference.
A sense of uncertainty filled the air in Tucson, as fans began to question the rotations and lack of quality wins surrounding the program, as a rematch with their rival and a long road trip loomed in the distance.
Eighty minutes of basketball later and the same air is now filled with roars from McKale Center faithful after a 75-54 victory over Colorado and a two-game sweep over the mountain schools this week, perhaps the best Arizona has looked all season.
A much-needed victory, the emergence of another Wildcat and a dominant effort on the glass highlight some of the things from the blowout win on Saturday.
Arizona has had plenty of opportunities to secure resume victories this season, but has never been able to get over the hump, losing all three of their matchups against ranked opponents.
While they lost those three matchups against Baylor, Gonzaga and Oregon by a combined 10 points, close losses won’t move the needle come March as the ‘Cats look to secure a quality seed.
The Wildcats dominated the Buffaloes from start to finish, who ranked No. 20 in the country, to secure that important victory over a ranked opponent — an especially important one since the two schools only play once this season.
The Buffaloes haven’t exactly roamed free in McKale Center since joining the conference in 2011.
Colorado is now 0-8 since joining the conference and has not won in Tucson since 1965, when Arizona was playing games inside Bear Down Gym.
Somewhere, Sabatino Chen weeps.
Junior big man Ira Lee has been around quite a bit in his three seasons in Tucson.
As a freshman, Lee was part of the Pac-12 championship team that lost to Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, averaging 10.2 minutes in 27 games.
Lee played in 31 games last season, starting five of them with an average 6.6 points per game on a depleted roster that struggled all season on the way to a 17-15 record.
With the revelation that has been Zeke Nnaji and the improved depth and roster, Lee has sometimes been forgotten about in the rotation, including not seeing the court again in the second half against St. John’s early in the season because of performance.
All of that was forgotten Saturday, as Lee turned in his best performance of the season with six points and seven rebounds, including two dunks and a stolen inbounds pass. Lee was all over the court, and the fans noticed and chanted his name in the second half.
‘It’s beautiful to hear that,” Lee said postgame. “It’s beautiful to hear that in a win too.”
Lee emerged this week in the absence of Chase Jeter, who missed the games due to a lingering back issue.
“Ira is one of our most consistent practice players,” Head Coach Sean Miller said. “I think the guys on the team will tell you that too. When you’re like that, sometimes you really can break through in games.”
One of the things Miller talked about Arizona needing to improve upon is rebounding, as they came into the game No. 105 in the country in rebounds per game.
Colorado and Tad Boyle typically pride themselves in rebounding and defense, but Arizona flipped the script Saturday, outrebounding the Buffaloes 39-25 and allowing them to shoot just 37% for the game from the field and 31% from 3-point range.
“I’ve been harping on that,” Miller said about the rebounding. “That’s been an Achilles’ heel of ours. It’s great to see us start to get that right, and I believe we’re becoming a better overall rebounding group.”
Follow Mark Lawson on Twitter