Arizona Basketball: Wildcats Ace Non-Conference, Eye PAC-12 Play

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

With the non-conference schedule over and done with, Arizona takes its perfect record into league play. What awaits might be the strongest PAC-12 the Wildcats have encountered in a few seasons.

The results are the same but hopefully this year's team follows it up with a more convincing league performance. A year ago, the Wildcats were unbeaten going into PAC-12 play, highlighted by a frenetic home comeback win over Florida, a Diamondhead Classic title featuring a blowout of Miami and a last minute win over San Diego State. The feeling was euphoria in Tucson and around the nation with Wildcats fans as Arizona appeared to have its first elite team in some time. However perhaps the signs were there the Wildcats weren't the top 5 team the fan base believed.

I certainly fell for the narrative, but PAC-12 play started and it was apparent right away that the 2012-2013 Wildcats weren't going to roll through the league without taking a few lumps. After *winning* its opener against Colorado, Arizona would go on to lose two of its next five and in all finish 12-6 in the league, good for a tie for second but fourth in the PAC-12 tourney after tiebreakers. The biggest issue seemed to be freshmen bigs, who weren't quite ready to carry the load, and an over-reliance on three pointers given Mark Lyons -- for all his brilliance -- wasn't one to set up teammates the way we see T.J McConnell do.

Still, the Wildcats gave Arizona fans a heck of a run reaching the Sweet 16 before taking a gut punch from the Buckeyes on a last-second shot. Hopefully in 2013-2014, Arizona has another gear it can take things to, and that will begin to write its narrative in league play where the PAC-12 figures to be improved.

After hitting its low point two years ago when regular season champion Washington didn't even get an invite to the NCAA tournament, the PAC-12 appears to be making strides back to a respectable conference from a national standpoint. Early indications are positive. Oregon joins Arizona on the list of unbeatens and finds itself in the top-15 led by a core of talented returning guards and some new transfers that Dana Altman loves bringing in. Joseph Young and Mike Moser are those guys this season, and they've fit in with their new teammates immediately. With Dominic Artis set to return from an early season suspension, the Ducks appear to be the biggest challenger to Arizona thus far.

Colorado and UCLA both have been in the top-25 and while both have to deal with losses from a year ago, no Arizona fans should need a reminder about what challenges those teams can present. The Wildcats finished with an 0-3 record against UCLA a year ago, and the tight battles with Colorado time and time again figure to be no different this year. In fact, games against UCLA and Colorado early on in PAC-12 play figure to be candidates for Arizona's first loss.

Beyond that, you have Cal and Justin Cobbs who have had early season struggles but are talented enough to turn it around; Utah and a program quickly improving under Larry Krystkowiak; Stanford, who owns a win over Uconn; and yes, even the Sun Devils and All-American candidate Jahii Carson. Fact is, the PAC-12 won't be the pile of mediocrity it has been in recent years and frankly that should bode Arizona well.

The Wildcats have steamrolled the teams you'd expect them to and answered the bell against each of the talented opponents it has faced. But there's probably even a higher gear the team is capable of and will need to bring out to perform like they are expected. Fortunately, this appears to be Sean Miller's best team yet and the balance of strong guard play and an enormous front line that to this point has worn opponents down bodes well for the Wildcats. Last year if Arizona wasn't hitting its perimeter shots and getting out on the run, things went south fast. Its half court offense was extremely subpar, and it simply couldn't go inside to Kaleb Tarczewski or Brandon Ashley and expect a basket.

With yet another elite defensive team under Coach Miller, these Wildcats have more room for error than teams of the past but they'll have to be consistent if they want to bring home the PAC-12 championship. All you really can ask as a fan is to have your team healthy and playing well come March Madness. In recent years we've gotten that. However, more so than recent years, the Wildcats will be playing NCAA caliber opponents almost weekly in the PAC-12 and will play in March-like games that has often benefited recent champs from stronger leagues. It's really an added bonus.

There will undoubtedly be highs and lows throughout PAC-12 play, and the Wildcats are bound to take a few losses most likely. In the long run, it should serve them better. Everyone in the league benefits from a stronger PAC-12 in terms of national perception and appeal to recruits.

The only question now is "Can Arizona carry over its elite non-conference play through the PAC-12?" -- something it simply did not do a year ago.

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