Long before the 2012-13 season began, the Arizona Wildcats were believed to go as far as Mark Lyons could take them.
It had nothing to do with Arizona being Point Guard U, rather a simple explanation from national analysts that alluded to Lyons' makeup. He left Xavier under somewhat pointed remarks from coach Chris Mack, and it's become clear exactly why the guard came to Tucson with so much skepticism in his wake.
A 68-64 victory against the Utah Utes on Sunday showed the best and the worst of Lyons. After it was all over, the Wildcats stood 21-4 with the biggest worries about their future surrounding their senior guard. It was he who put all the doubts and frustrations for a potential loss out on the table, but it was also Lyons who scored or assisted on 13 of 15 of UA's final points during the last six minutes of the game.
Indeed, it was Lyons who had previously chucked up nine three-pointers -- often without a single pass and with hardly many seconds off the shot clock -- and made only one. At the same time, Lyons went 6-of-6 on two-point attempts and 5-of-6 from the foul stripe to finish with 18 points, five assists and five turnovers.
Live and die by Lyons' streaks of frustratingly-thoughtless decisions and his amazingly clutch playmaking, Arizona might. On Sunday that was the case. Is that a bad thing? Maybe.
A senior both thick-skulled and thick-skinned, Lyons won't change much. Arizona fans need to accept that.
What they can banter over with a hope of change, however, might include three-point defense that allowed Utah to shoot 7-of-16 from three-point range despite Kevin Parrom appearing in the starting lineup rather than Brandon Ashley. Turnovers issues, especially in the first half, had the Utes scoring 18 points off 12 turnovers for the game. And struggles from Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson would certainly be valid reasons for concern.
Hill shot 4-of-11 for the game to score 10 points. Johnson took only three shots from the floor, all three-pointers, and got to the foul line for only three attempts. He played fine otherwise, totaling four assists and four steals. Ashley, meanwhile, looked inspired by his benching, scoring 10 points to go with three steals.
Lyons had his fourth turnover just before the half, resulting in a four-point swing that had UA leading just 33-25. Complain about him -- totally fair -- but don't toss him under the bus.
Did Arizona play that poorly? Not that poorly. The Utes only shot 39.6 percent from the floor. Complaints arose during the game about Arizona's offense against Larry Krystkowiak's zone -- yet the Wildcats shot a healthy 47.2 percent for the game themselves, hardly a sign Utah's zone showed any significant weakness of the Wildcats.
To discount the fact that Utah is a team whose defense has frustrated the Wildcats for the last two seasons would be foolish anyway.
To expect the Wildcats to be a team that would go on 15-0 runs as did Lute Olson's top-10 teams would be foolish as well.
Parity is a big deal in college hoops these days. It means that the sub-.500 Utahs will play with top-10 teams when they aren't right. It's when a Penn State team that is 0-12 in Big Ten play will play with a No. 4 Michigan Wolverines team only to lose separation in the closing minutes to fall 79-71. No. 2 Duke fell to a Maryland squad this weekend; this after the Blue Devils had smashed the Terps by 20 just a few weeks back.
This is a different era in college basketball, where NBA All-Stars don't come off the bench.
This is an era where top-10 teams are led by players like Mark Lyons, who are frustrating saviors. Sure, he may doom them with his erratic play eventually. But he's not going to change.
Arizona is better with him than without him.
The Wildcats have issues. They have solid contributors, senior leaders and inconsistent freshmen talents. There's nothing schematically and nobody on the roster that's a known factor game-by-game. Sean Miller has few sure-fire attributes to lean on other than size and experience.
But neither does anyone else.