But Arizona stumbled in paradise, and now the unranked Wildcats (5-3) remain in recovery mode as they get set to face No. 7 Texas A&M (7-0) at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The Wildcats have won two straight since dropping three in a row in the Bahamas, including a 91-88 overtime win at UNLV this past Saturday — a step in the right direction.
While Tuesday’s game is not a top-10 matchup, Arizona — which will likely be without Rawle Alkins (foot) — can quell some of the concerns about the team’s state with a win, while a victory would also greatly strengthen its NCAA Tournament résumé come March.
The Wildcats may not have many more opportunities to do that this season, since they play USC and UCLA just once in conference play, and the rest of the Pac-12 is, well, not very good.
Without Alkins, Arizona has been carried by its high-scoring duo of freshman big man Deandre Ayton and junior guard Allonzo Trier who are both averaging north of 20 points per game. Ayton was recently named Pac-12 Player of the Week.
The Wildcats have struggled to get production elsewhere, especially from their freshmen not named Deandre Ayton.
Last year, Arizona beat Texas A&M 67-63 in Houston, but nearly blew a 22-point lead, and the Aggies are much-improved this season.
Texas A&M began the 2017-18 campaign ranked No. 25 and beat No. 11 West Virginia 88-65 in its season-opener. It hasn’t slowed down since, picking up impressive wins against Oklahoma State and Penn State, and then most recently a road win against USC. The Aggies have won every game by double figures.
KenPom rates Texas A&M as the No. 7 squad in the country, with the No. 16 offense and No. 4 defense.
Here’s an in-depth look at the Aggies.
The Aggies have the No. 4 defense in the country, per KenPom.com. Texas A&M is allowing just 89.1 points per 100 possessions and opposing teams are only shooting 36.1 percent against them this season.
No team has defended the 3-ball better than the Aggies, who are holding their opponents to 22.5 shooting percentage from behind the arc.
This is an elite defensive team to be sure, and, yes, it is capable of playing zone defense. That was one of the reasons it beat West Virginia earlier in the year.
One of the reasons the Aggies are so dominant defensively is because of their length. They start two big men in Robert Williams and Tyler Davis who are 6-10 or taller, and both have absurd wingspans, Williams in particular.
Then D.J. Hogg, their small forward, stands at 6-9 with a 6-10.5 wingspan Reserve big man Tonny Trocha-Morelos has a 7-4.5 wingspan.
Most of Texas A&M’s length is near the basket, resulting in it being one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country and a solid offensive rebounding team.
Texas A&M is shooting 40.6 percent from 3 as a team this season and about 30 pecent of its shots come from distance, which is actually a really low mark, ranking 250th (of 351) in the country.
So the Aggies are selective, but effective from behind the arc.
The main culprits are Hogg and shooting guard Admon Gilder. That duo has accounted for 39 of the 58 3s the Aggies have made this season.
Hogg is shooting a blistering 25-47 (53.2%) from 3, while Gilder is 14-28 (50%). While that is elite efficiency, no one else on the team has shot the deep ball at a good clip. Texas A&M’s third-best shooter has actually been 7-footer Tonny Trocha-Morelos who is 5-15 from behind the arc.
Starting point guard and Marquette transfer Duane Wilson is averaging 10.9 points per game, but is shooting just 6-21 (28.6%) from 3, though he is 18-19 from the free throw line.
Despite having all that length defensively, Texas A&M does a very poor job forcing turnovers. The Aggies are 322nd in the country in defensive turnover percentage. Their opponents are only averaging 11.7 turnovers per contest (clearly that has not hindered them from being an elite defensive team, though).
Meanwhile, Texas A&M turns the ball over a lot itself. The Aggies average 15 turnovers per game with a high 20.4 turnover percentage. However, they have played two defenses in Oklahoma State and West Virginia that are known to force turnovers so those numbers might be skewed a bit.
Wilson, their point guard, has an assist-to-turnover ratio below 2 to 1 and Davis is extremely turnover-prone for a big guy, averaging 2.4 per game.
Both Arizona and Texas A&M are negative in turnover margin this season, so the team that wins that battle Tuesday will certainly have a leg up in the game.
Seeing how both defenses struggle at forcing turnovers, though, there might not be many. That is good news for Arizona’s shoddy transition defense.
Even having a massive frontcourt, the Aggies are oddly a rather pedestrian defensive rebounding team, ranking 190th in defensive rebounding percentage.
But they have improved greatly in that area since Robert Williams, who was suspended for the first two games of the season, returned.
The sophomore big man has the 11th-best defensive rebounding rate in the country (29.8%). The Aggies’ other bigs — like Davis, Hogg, and Trocha-Morelos — are at 16.3 percent or lower. Not a good mark.
Williams is only averaging 22.8 minutes per game, though, so anytime he is off the floor the Wildcats need to crash the offensive glass.
Players to watch
Robert Williams, sophomore, 6-10, 240 lbs
Deandre Ayton isn’t the only top-10 NBA prospect playing in Tuesday’s game. Sports Illustrated projects Williams will be the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Williams’s natural rim-running proclivities and strong upper body make him a productive interior threat and a good bet for the top 10. He’s a little undersized but has the length to play center, and has shown all-around improvement as a sophomore. As a natural offensive rebounder and lob-catcher with some mid-range shooting ability, Williams has a chance to slide nicely into an NBA role. His defensive timing needs work, as he can be slow to rotate and rebound out of his area. Still, his overall feel is better than advertised.
Williams is averaging 8.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks this season with a nice 69 percent shooting percentage. A ridiculous 94.5 percent of his shot attempts are at the rim.
Williams is one of the top defensive rebounders and shot blockers in the country. In fact, he rates as the No. 1 defender in the country with a 12.7 defensive box plus/minus. He is crazy good on that end of the floor.
D.J. Hogg, junior, 6-9, 215 lbs
Hogg is Texas A&M’s leading scorer, averaging 16.9 points per game while scoring from all over the court.
The junior has a shooting line of .474/.532/.760.
But he also averages 7.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game, and rates well defensively, so he is a well-rounded player.
Tyler Davis, junior, 6-10, 266 lbs
If Davis’ name sounds familiar, it’s because he had 21 points and 10 rebounds against Arizona last year.
The big man is a three-year starter and has been a consistent producer for the Aggies.
This season, Davis is averaging 13.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. He does most of his scoring at the rim, but two-point jumpers account for roughly one-third of his shots. He only shoots 33 percent on them, though.
Like Williams, Davis uses his length effectively on defense, rating as one of Texas A&M’s top defenders.
In all, Texas A&M is one of the few teams in college basketball that is actually bigger than Arizona. The Aggies are eighth in the country in average height. Arizona is 14th.
How to watch Tuesday’s game
Game time: 7 p.m. MST
Live stream: WatchESPN
Announcers: Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Bill Walton (guy who talks about a lot of things and sometimes basketball)
How to listen
Radio stream: Arizona IMG Radio Network
Satellite Radio: Sirius Ch. 84, XM Ch.84
Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM