Paradoxically, the Arizona Wildcats looked like they pulled off a Saturday morning upset.
The No. 1 basketball team in the land was the underdog even by Las Vegas' standards, and it needed every little swing in its favor to beat the Michigan Wolverines 72-70 in Ann Arbor. Arizona never looked like it was in control, but the Wildcats certainly showed they felt differently.
It was point guard T.J. McConnell, the calming presence, that had the biggest impact offensively, and Nick Johnson was the deal-sealer. Johnson drew a questionable blocking call on Mitch McGary to make two free throws giving UA the lead late, and then defended a missed Nik Stauskas jumper the play after.
For all of Johnson and Gordon's flaws early in the game, they more than made up for it later on on both ends. Gordon struggled with two turnovers on travels in the first-half, but he had two key assists in the final five minutes, one each to Ashley and Tarczewski.
Though people (this guy included) were quick to criticize the UA perimeter defense early, Johnson held Stauskas to 4-of-12 shooting on the day and four points below his 18 per game average. Caris LeVert also had a rough day, hitting 6-of-15 shots.
It was another team effort.
For the first time this season, the numbers didn't favor Arizona. Michigan shot 50 percent after their leading scorer, Stauskas, missed a final heave from three-point range, and the Wildcats gave up 47 percent from three for the game. Yet, they showed the mettle that has thus far set them apart, to whatever degree, from the pack behind them.
Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III was hot from the onset, but it wasn't necessarily all on his man defenders. Michigan pushed the tempo in the first 10 minutes and in the latter part of the first half found Big Dog's son within the flow of the offense. Aided by ball movement and penetration, Robinson put himself in the corner and hit a three over Gordon when the Wildcat was forced to help from the weakside. At the end of the first half, Robinson hit a stepback three on the wing over Gordon despite fine defense.
Robinson would finish the first half with 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting, but he ended the game with just 20 after taking two shots in the second half.
The Wolverines went ahead 37-28 with Robinson's shot just before halftime, but the Wildcats opened with an 11-2 run to start the second half as the defense tightened.
The peak of the mountain the Wildcats had to climb was especially rugged.
Any time Arizona made a big play, UM would answer. A Johnson three-pointer in the first half was answered in the first half by a Spike Albrecht three, and his second after the break was met with a layup and dunk by UM. When Arizona pulled within three, 53-50, with 10 minutes to play, Stauskas earned an And 1 splitting a pick then drew Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's fourth foul -- UA missed the swingman's defensive versatility because of foul problems throughout.
Michigan led by eight with eight minutes left. That's when Gordon put a subpar game behind him. He drew a charge when the seas seemingly parted for Stauskas driving into the lane, found Ashley for a dunk off a drive, then scored a layup off a pass from McConnell to bring UA within two with 3:30 to go.
Who else to give the Wildcats the first lead since a 7-5 score than Hollis-Jefferson, whose free throw on an And 1 layup gave UA a 63-62 advantage.
McConnell ended the day with five points and six assists, and his utility in the pick-and-roll game began opening up opportunities in the second half. The Wildcats struggled with turnovers early, but the offense and defense began clicking late.
How well-played was Arizona's game?
The Wildcats' last turnover came at the 11:08 mark in the second half, and the offense scored 20 points in the final 6:30 -- on the road mind you. Arizona made an insane 8-of-9 field goals and the same from the foul stripe during that stretch.
Had Arizona lost, it wouldn't have been too disappointing. Sean Miller's team would have learned a bit about itself.
It has work to do defending the three-point line with such a big lineup, though Michigan certainly is one of the best teams in the nation in terms of shooting. The Wolverines often had four stellar three-point shooters on the floor. Tarczewski, minus a tweaked ankle, showed his toughness, outplaying Mr. Tough Guy himself in McGary, who scored eight points and only grabbed four rebounds. Tarczewski led Arizona with nine rebounds.
The Wildcats didn't shy away from their identity.
Most impressively and talent aside, the Wildcats are darn tough. Right now, they proved their No. 1 ranking is no fluke.