Even before the game began, the chatter had started. Hours later on Thursday, the Arizona Wildcats left Pauley Pavilion after sweating out a 79-75 win to set a school-record 16-0 start established more than 80 years ago. It was a wonder if this was the best Arizona team ever.
The best ever? With all the great teams the Wildcats have ran out there in the last 25 years?
Bill Walton mentioned it before the game. Grantland's Mark Titus wondered about it earlier this year. Sure, it's way too early to definitively compare it to past seasons in different eras of college hoops, but it's not completely out there to have the discussion.
So here's a better way of doing it: Could this team become the best UA team ever?
It says something that Arizona accepted it'd have to shut down a UCLA Bruins squad with as much scoring talent as you could ask for on a college team. It was another that the Wildcats looked more than willing to play at UCLA's tempo. Arizona didn't hold the ball to make sure its defense got set until the final five minutes, when clock-winding offense hurt more than helped.
UCLA took its first lead of the second half with 1:40 left in the game, just after it went on a 13-0 run, but Arizona finally began to make plays -- and free throws, thank goodness for the Wildcats -- to close out the game.
Arizona wanted to beat the Bruins at their own up-tempo game, and that was the most impressive part.
When the backbone is built on defense, anything goes. And when a team has the talent to play big, small, fast or slow, whatever is cool to do. Sean Miller asked his team to fix the defense and rebound the ball. After that, do whatever.
Whatever included pushing it back the other way, even after UCLA makes.
In front of a raucous Pauley crowd that included a chanting UofA contingent, former Wildcats Gilbert Arenas and Miles Simon, former Bruin Baron Davis and an odd pairing of Phil Jackson and John Lithgow, the Wildcats showed the ESPN viewership why they are for real.
As usual, there were frustrations. Arizona lost the offensive rebounding battle 16-11, and with 17 turnovers allowed UCLA to outscore it 21-9 in points off turnovers. The Wildcats went just 17-of-26 from the foul stripe and 6-of-18 from three-point range.
But as usual, the defense is what makes this squad in the discussion as "best ever." Arizona held UCLA to 40 percent shooting and 4-of-13 from three-point land. It never broke once the Bruins turned the home crowd back into their favor with just minutes left -- UA came out on the better end after 12 lead changes, all but two of which were in the first half. The Wildcats hit 53.8 percent themselves and won the paint battle 42-22.
Nick Johnson scored 22 points, and Kaleb Tarczewski abused UCLA in the paint by scoring 16 to go with eight boards. T.J. McConnell scored eight points, recorded seven dimes and grabbed seven rebounds. Gabe York added 12 points off the bench.
Sure, the Wildcats could have lost it late in the game. Losses will come, but until it's to a team other than Colorado, Oregon, UCLA or even Utah, the concern shouldn't be all that great.
The longer this streak goes the more evidence we'll have to say just how focused this version of Arizona basketball is. An NCAA tournament run of course figures into everything when it's all said and done, but you know how crazy March can be.
Like a broken record, the win at UCLA added another stamp of approval to the upside crystalizing with a defensive toughness we haven't seen at Arizona in some time.
It's a fair discussion to put on the Wildcats. They welcomed the No. 1 ranking. They see the big picture of every game being about playing well with one another. They're buying in to it all.
Could this be the best Arizona team ever? On paper in talent and because of the defense, maybe.
Because they matched the best start in school history, the reality is they'll wear such a discussion on their shoulders until they prove they can't handle it. Otherwise, we'll be having the same ol' discussion about turnovers and missed free throws rather than enjoying what's been gut-wrenching but beautiful to watch.