Arizona drops Belmont as everyone forgets the obvious

Streeter Lecka

As everyone was reminded that the Arizona Wildcats' three-point defense could be at the Belmont Bruins' mercy, it was Sean Miller's team minding us that they can play with anyone in the nation.

Everyone let it be known: Arizona's defense could have given up a number of threes. They could, and did, have mental lapses.

But despite all the supposed national experts believing that Belmont's three-point shooting could doom the Wildcats, there wasn't nearly enough talk about how Sean Miller's team would make the Bruins look more than inferior from a physical perspective during an 81-64 win in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Three-point shooting can go awry. What won't is Arizona having four players on its roster at least five inches taller than Belmont's tallest rotation player.

The Wildcats won the rebounding 44-18, and they scored the difference in the game (17) off the offensive glass. It was dominating as can be for a team that still hasn't shown the ability to put the final club to the opponent's head.

That's not to say the Wildcats didn't defend the three well. Belmont still got off 27 threes, and that was an issue for the Wildcats. But the Bruins seemed so stuck on continuing to find the long balls, that they were forced, and UA held the them to 29.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 39.2 from the field. It's not as if Belmont had a choice, as any interior attempts they got -- rare as it was -- were contested by UA's big men.

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats got their own three-point looks thanks to solid inside-out play. Sometimes, because of the massive advantage on the interior, it was simply inside play.

Mark Lyons led UA with 23 points by hitting three in-rhythm threes and often getting into the paint, where there was no resistance to challenge him at the cup.

Arizona never looked like it'd be in trouble save for mental lapses. They knocked around the Bruins, and still led early on despite picking up six offensive fouls, most of which came on questionable-at-best charging calls.

Solomon Hill was hardly effective on Thursday as he battled foul trouble and wasn't his usual aggressive self. But the trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom added 12 each. Johnson led the team with five assists, effectively acting as a point guard, Parrom contributed eight rebounds and three assists, and Tarczewski grabbed eight boards while thriving in the paint.

Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley combined for 13 rebounds off the bench, and were equally important in contesting shots in the paint. UA doubled up Belmont 36-18 in their points scored in the paint, and for the game the Wildcats shot 57 percent, hitting 9-of-17 shots from beyond the three-point arc.

So as inferior as Arizona made Belmont appear, it's still unclear how good the Wildcats really are; sure, they have their issues, but the ability to defend any team in the nation appeared to be on full display on Thursday.

And for the so-called experts, the win acted as a statement against ignorance. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith laughed off a Belmont victory early in the game. Simply put, speeding up and pressing a more athletic Arizona team wasn't going to work.

Next time against New Mexico or Harvard, it might not come down to such simple things. But who knows.

It's not like any of the experts expressed such obvious deficiencies about Belmont.

Three-point defense

So much for Arizona's poor three-point defense. Arizona's length and athleticism seemingly surprised the Bruins, and a number of potential shots ended in pump-fakes and second-guessing from the three-point happy Bruins. While leading scorer Ian Clark still poured in 21 points, he was held steady and took -- and often made -- what little Nick Johnson gave him.

Furthermore, stretch four Trevor Noack went scoreless, and that could've been the difference against UA's young big men, who are not used to defending on the perimeter. But Miller also tagged acting power forward Hill on Noack for stretches, taking that disadvantage away.

The Pac-12 isn't all that shabby?

Last year at the Pac-12 Tournament, the level of sound basketball was lacking. Games were scrappy but poor in execution, and the talent wasn't high.

This season, there was a noticeable difference. Even in Arizona's loss to UCLA, the Wildcats looked solid, and now it's a wonder if the league hasn't made a leap out of a black hole. Oregon easily handled a talented (but maybe poorly-coached) Oklahoma State squad, 68-55, and Cal outlasted their own 5-12 matchup against the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, 64-61.

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