The priority for the No. 12 Arizona Wildcats in their second match-up against their rival -- this time at home in McKale Center -- was to take advantage of the Arizona State Sun Devils' weak post presence. In the first few minutes, the Wildcats did just that, dominating down low and extending an early lead. But when the Sun Devils switched to a zone, Arizona struggled on offense, and the Sun Devils subsequently hit enough threes to steal a one-point lead midway through the first half.
It would be their only lead of the game. The Wildcats exploited holes in Arizona State's zone defense, ratcheted up their own defense, dominated down low whenever Arizona State foolishly returned to man defense, and went on to crush their rivals, 99-61.
Here are three things we learned in Arizona's sixth-straight victory:
The defense actually showed up
This bears repeating -- Arizona's defense actually showed up. This may be the most important --and surprising- -revelation from Arizona's victory over its rival. A defense that head coach Sean Miller has frequently lamented--even calling them the worst defensive team he has ever coached during his tenure in Tucson--held the Sun Devils to 61 points on 32.3 percent shooting.
At times, I have been very critical of Arizona's defense, particularly its tendency to give up wide-open lanes to the basket. But no such lanes existed in this game. Or at least not enough to make one pull their hair out, or make Miller curse a spit-flying storm. The Wildcats held Tra Holder, who scored 24 points in their last meeting, to just ten points on 3-11 shooting. When Arizona State did penetrate and find some space to shoot, the ball was quite often swatted away by Arizona's help defense, which was excellent all game. The Wildcats had an astonishing eight blocks, half of which were by Kaleb Tarczewski.
The team played with poise
I have been very critical of Arizona's frequent inability to manage its offense and control the ball in tense situations. Turnovers almost single-handedly cost the Wildcats two of their five losses. In their most recent loss (against Oregon), they committed 19 turnovers. But at home against Arizona State, the Wildcats exhibited an impressive mental toughness they have rarely consistently shown this season, committing only eight turnovers.
Kadeem Allen may have scored more points (12), but Parker Jackson-Cartwright did a better job of controlling the offense. He scored just eight points, but dished seven assists, and even more importantly, did not commit a single turnover. His nimble athleticism allowed him to consistently weave through the defense and find the open man. Because of his quick penetration, space inevitably opened after defenders committed, creating uncontested shots. Allen may be the more physical presence, but PJC is arguably the better game manager, and it may be very prudent to keep him on the floor as much as possible.
The Wildcats do have the ingredients to win it all
A reliably sturdy defense and unshakable poise provide the foundation for many championship teams. If last night's victory was not a fluke, nor just the random appearance of a sturdy defense and unshakeable poise, then this team will undoubtedly be dangerous in March. Not many teams have a better post presence than the combination of Ryan Anderson, Dusan Ristic, and Tarcewski, and not many teams have the dynamic threat along the perimeter that Gabe York, Allonzo Trier, and PJC are. Add to this their decent depth and perhaps a few spit-flying curses from Miller to rile his team up when their energy dwindles, and they will be very dangerous, indeed.
Yet, it's all about consistency. I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but there's no denying this simple fact -- it is now obvious that Arizona possesses these much-needed characteristics, but if it doesn't utilize them for 40 minutes, its run in March will end shorter than it'd like.