Tuesday night's 71-67 loss to UNLV marked Arizona's first non-conference defeat in 39 games. The streak had to end at some point. Although losing is never the desired outcome, Arizona coach Sean Miller took some positive thoughts out of the tough loss.
"This was a much needed night for us to take a step backwards and work on the things we need to work on, rekindle our fire defensively because to win on the road, you've got to be a great defensive team."
Arizona's non-conference schedule was not overly difficult. However, it was not a cakewalk by any means. According to teamrankings.com, the Wildcats are ranked 23rd in strength of schedule. That takes into account overall performance as well as the difficulty of opponents.
Miller has already led the Wildcats to several notable non-conference victories: They defeated Missouri, Kansas State and San Diego State to win the Maui Invitational. Arizona had a couple relevant wins over Michigan and UTEP. Finally, its most impressive non-conference win came in an overtime thriller with Gonzaga.
The Wildcats should be well-prepared heading into conference play. Their first challenge will be a highly anticipated one as Arizona faces its arch rival Arizona State on January 4th. The two teams split the season series last year as the Wildcats defeated ASU in a 91-68 rout at home followed by a 69-66 double overtime loss in Tempe.
That was just one of Arizona's four regular season losses last year. Two of those defeats came against California and Oregon on the road. Additionally, Arizona dropped the Pac-12 Championship game to UCLA.
ASU has not started off the year particularly strong posting a less than impressive 7-5 record heading into conference play. Although UCLA has already piled up four losses, they have come against legitimate opponents in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Kentucky. California has a record of 10-2 but has also been defeated by powerful foes in Wisconsin and Texas.
Washington, who Arizona will face only one time on February 13th, was the last undefeated team in the Pac-12 until blowing a big lead against Stony Brook on Sunday. The Huskies' most credible wins have come over San Diego State as well as Oklahoma. They are similar to the Wildcats in that they win games with their tireless defense. Washington gives up just over 58 points per game but that number is almost sure to rise within the next month or so.
The Pac-12 may have improved depth this season with other strong competitors such as Utah, Stanford and Colorado. The Utah Utes are currently ranked one spot behind the Washington Huskies at number 14. They will surely be an upcoming team to watch in conference play.
Sean Miller's squad dictates games with its haughty defensive effort. The Wildcats have given up just 60 points per game thus far and are second in the nation in blocks per game. Arizona caps off its defensive possessions strongly as it boasts a top-five defensive rebounding percentage.
Size is the least of Sean Miller's concerns. Both Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are tenacious bulldogs and defensive stalwarts. Brandon Ashley is a 6'8 stretch power forward with a silky smooth jump shot. The Wildcats also have an experienced seven-foot center in Kaleb Tarczewski. Dusan Ristic, a seven-footer out of Serbia, will serve as a useful backup to Tarczewski.
Clearly Arizona's front court must live up to its high expectations. High-IQ point guard T.J. McConnell runs the show and does it well. McConnell contributes in many areas and is especially valuable as a rebounding point guard and on-ball defender. He is currently averaging 7.6 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Starting two-guard Gabe York provides stellar outside shooting which is absolutely crucial to the success of the Wildcats.
The 2014-15 conference schedule should be another compelling one for the Wildcats. There are certainly high stakes involved as they are widely expected to finish atop the Pac-12.