The national telecast on Tuesday of top-ranked Kentucky's rout of No. 5 Kansas may have put them in a class of their own, ahead of No. 2 Arizona and whoever might be better than the Wildcats at this early point in the season. Still, the thought in Tucson may linger: Can this Arizona team compete with the other Wildcats and their 10-deep rotations, the second of which is arguably as talented, though not as experienced, as Arizona's starting unit?
The answer to that question at this very moment was clear enough by the end of Wednesday night, if it wasn't already.
Arizona beat UC Irvine 71-54, and while comparisons are unfair, they aren't unfounded. This is college basketball, where the best teams rely on 18-year-olds to play big. The Wildcats, from top to bottom, weren't on for 30 minutes, only when it counted.
Irvine scored just four points from the 10:30 mark in the second half to the 1:12 point as Arizona rolled off 24 of its own.
Drastic swings like that happen to teams with odds of winning by 15.5-points.
But the Anteaters also attacked the flawed Wildcats where they knew it would hurt. 7'6 center Mamadou Ndiaye helped them pack the paint, and a zone defense kept Arizona in front of Irvine players. Ndiaye's presence went beyond holding Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley down. It allowed his Anteater teammates to run at Arizona's shooters and worry little about getting beaten off the bounce. Often, it didn't matter anyway.
The Wildcats don't have many shooters. Their best, point guard T.J. McConnell, was ready to take off-balance twos rather than be aggressive with the three-ball. Gabe York didn't get the ball much. Arizona attacked the short corners but it didn't have enough shooters on the court at any one time to make it too dangerous -- keeping Pitts and York in Irvine's defensive sights kept the Anteaters safe. That Arizona's best players aren't floor-spacers is important to understand.
Arizona shot 39.6 percent overall and 4-for-14 from three. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's energy off the bench ended with him scoring 19 points and scoring 11 of those at the foul stripe. The defense clamped down late, but molding a team to play with consistent attacking on both ends so far has to be Miller's biggest task.
A pace of an Anteater: UC Irvine had the game in their style through the first 10 minutes. Arizona led 12-6 about 10 minutes into the game, but soon enough the Anteaters would be taking a 19-14 lead. The sluggish start for the Wildcats included an offense that moved the ball well enough but couldn't make the Anteaters pay by packing their paint with a zone rotation around Ndiaye, who finished with one block but plenty of shot alterations.
Even when Ndiaye was out, Arizona struggled. Of its two proven shooters in the starting lineup, McConnell didn't look for his shot while York hardly saw the ball swung his way. Once again, it appears the Wildcats' three-point shooting will be a problem.
WAKE UP: UC Irvine took a 16-14 lead with seven minutes left in the first half, and that wasn't even the most telling point. It was telling, however, when Parker Jackson-Cartwright took the ball out of bounds, inbounded it to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and saw Hollis-Jefferson walk the ball out of bounds if that step in the taking-it-out process hadn't been done. Miller called a timeout and it was clear that Arizona had itself a game.
The big play in a vacuum: A halftime talk from Miller apparently didn't reach his team ... until a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dunk over the top of Ndiaye sent the McKale crowd into a frenzy.
Defending the corner three, Sean Miller's job: Hey, coach, uh, could you maybe move.
Box score hero: There wasn't any one player in particular that stood out in more than one category. McConnell had six steals, Stanley Johnson had five turnovers and a team-leading 10 rebounds and Tarczewski quietly had a plus-minus of plus-21 in 31 minutes.
The difference on paper: While the Wildcats held Irvine to similarly poor shooting numbers, they won at the foul stripe, hitting 29-of-34 free throws to the Anteaters' 9-for-13. Arizona also had 18 second-chance points, doing more with a relatively equal number of offensive boards.