USA TODAY Sports
Though they've been in the same league for only a year, the Colorado Buffaloes and Arizona Wildcats already have a rivalry brewing.
Time: 6 p.m. MST
Blowing past a defender, Colorado's Carlon Brown drove hard to the hoop, and each split second went by without an Arizona defender stepping over to help. The senior wing cocked the ball back, dunked the ball after a windmill, and that about summed up the Wildcats' season.
That was the Pac-12 Championship game of last year, when Sean Miller's team fell 53-51 to the Buffaloes in Los Angeles.
It was also a great way to sum up Arizona's lost season of 2011-12. Brown's dunk, and really the lack of any Arizona player to stop him from doing so, said a lot. It said that the Wildcats were starting a junior college transfer, who was the size of a small forward, at center. It said the Wildcats didn't have that "it" factor. It alluded to how Arizona would take an NIT berth -- lifelessly.
If there's any reason to believe the Arizona Wildcats will take their Pac-12 opener on Thursday against the Colorado Buffaloes quite seriously in McKale Center, look no further than the 2012 Pac-12 Championship game.
The Buffaloes are a different team in 2012. Though they lost Brown, they return rebounding machine Andre Roberson and sophomores Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, the team's two best scorers who earned a wealth of experience in 2011-12. The trio has only gotten better. The two guards score between 14 and 15 points per game on average, and both (especially Dinwiddie at 46 percent) are threats beyond the arc.
The 6-foot-10, 210 pound Roberson is still good for 12-and-12 a night, but his frail frame will be tested against the Wildcats.
And they aren't the same Wildcats that Colorado saw last year, but there's still the memories -- Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson, Kevin Parrom -- from last season that make CU a known opponent for the 12-0 Arizona squad.
The Wildcats now have more than depth on the frontline. That Carlon Brown dunk wouldn't be quite that easy this season; even if he didn't try to windmill it. The "it" factor is there, as the late shot by Mark Lyons against Florida and the block by Nick Johnson against San Diego State attest to.
Arizona has never shown lifelessness. They've only played possum with teams good and bad before turning it on to pull out wins.
Colorado very well can be considered a top-four Pac-12 team and a legitimate NCAA tournament squad. At 10-2, their only losses came in an ugly, 90-54, outing at now No. 6 Kansas and a 76-69 loss to Wyoming, who along with Arizona is among the four teams without a loss at this point in the year. An Arizona victory would be the first 13-0 start since 1931-32.
What would Miller and his coaching staff like to see out of the Wildcats?
John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus and ESPN wrote Wednesday that the Wildcats' are showing signs of a national championship-like team (ESPN Insider required). The offense has been insanely efficient at times, and the scoring distribution is similar to last year's Kentucky squad that won the national championship.
Thus far on the young season, Arizona has scored 1.44 points per turnover-less, or "effective," possession, an extraordinary figure that beats anything recorded last season by 74 teams in major-conference play. And by "anything recorded," I specifically mean, yes, even better than what Kentucky posted last season in SEC play (1.41).
The obvious problem for the Wildcats is turnovers -- nothing we haven't talked about before. Gasaway writes that the Wildcats are scoring 1.13 points per possession, but if they bring the turnover numbers down to the NCAA average, that could increase to 1.17 point per possession. Add that up, and Arizona will be mighty deadly.
Talent-wise it's clear the Wildcats have the advantage against CU after they lost last year's season series 1-2, and motivation should be one problem they won't have to worry about.
But to get the most out of the Pac-12 schedule that will only get easier after Colorado, fixing the issues at hand will be the thing that makes or breaks Arizona's postseason success.