The revamped Arizona Wildcats don't look like they did last season, and not by a longshot. But Sean Miller's team knew its makeup made for a new identity that had yet to show itself in the Red-Blue game, and exhibition outing and a tough season opener against Cal Poly.
Monday for the first time went how it was supposed to.
The defensive identity came out to play on Monday in a 91-57 win against Long Beach State in McKale Center as the Wildcats held the 49ers to 27 percent shooting overall and turned that into fastbreaking, accurate 59 percent shooting themselves.
This isn't a star-studded team in many respects. There's not one scorer, nor one perimeter player who will make NBA-type of moves when the shot clock is running down. By design, that's not how it's supposed to go. On Monday, T.J. McConnell passed the ball, accounting for seven assists of his eight total before he even took his second shot attempt from the field. Nick Johnson was the ball-hawk and didn't get his shots often unless he was handling one of numerous Arizona alley-oops in transition or otherwise. That was enough to help him to 14 points by the end of the night.
Brandon Ashley (16 points, seven rebounds) and Aaron Gordon (14 points, 10 rebounds) played unselfish ball and only attacked with one or two dribbles, or off rebounds. Gabe York, perhaps the forgotten man this offseason, came off the bench to score 14 points and add six assists while looking under control and completely comfortable.
Ashley, who caught the criticism of NBA draft scouts this summer, finished with a team-high 16 points and two blocks while hitting 7-of-9 shots. His only flaws came in his over-aggressiveness leading to foul trouble that ended his night with six minutes to play. So as much as people may point to Gordon and McConnell's influence, the returnees in Ashley, York -- and of course Johnson -- deserve to receive the credit when it's due.
But it is and will always be about the defense.
The Wildcats held LBSU to 14.3 percent shooting in the first half and led 44-18 after 20 minutes. Center Kaleb Tarczewski struggled again with boxing out smaller players, but he finished with nine points and 10 rebounds. He teamed with Ashley and Gordon to challenge most every shot at the rim to hold LBSU to 14 points in the paint, and Arizona of course held down the perimeter with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson, Gordon, York and McConnell holding the 49ers to 21.7 percent shooting from three-point range.
Arizona's supposed weakness, its own three-point shooting, was hardly an issue, and the Wildcats hit 7-of-17 three-point shots. York was hot all night and even Gordon and Ashley all picked their spots nicely in terms of taking long jumpers.
With the game already in hand in the first half, Arizona used the second half to debut forward Zach Peters, the transfer from Kansas who only this past week was medically cleared to play after recovering from multiple concussions.
The garbage minutes also gave point guard Jordin Mayes a chance to score some easy buckets and raise his confidence level.
Most of all, the game sends Arizona into Thursday's always-difficult game against San Diego State with a sense of just how it'll have to win games this season. It won't be behind one Aaron Gordon or one T.J. McConnell often.
There are a lot of weapons on the Wildcats' team, but the one defining theme will be that defense.