The Pac-12 title race is wide open this season, and it would be unwise to discount the defending champions even if they are in a transition year.
The Arizona Wildcats handled the Colorado Buffaloes 64-56 on Thursday to open Pac-12 play, their ninth straight win in a conference opener.
The victory came the same day two of the Pac-12’s top teams suffered devastating losses. Arizona State fell at home to Utah by double digits while Oregon lost star center Bol Bol for the season due to a foot injury.
“It’s up for grabs and I think everybody sees that,” said UA guard Brandon Williams. “I’m not going to name teams, but we just have to be ready every game.”
Arizona (10-4) outplayed Colorado (9-4) in virtually every facet of the game, using a total team effort to do it. Nine Wildcats registered in the point column, Williams leading the way with 14. Brandon Randolph (11) was the only other Wildcat to score in double figures.
Arizona shot 43 percent, won the turnover battle, and held the Buffs to 36 percent shooting. The Buffaloes owned the rebounding margin (36-30), but narrowly.
The only Wildcat who failed to score was Justin Coleman, who only played four minutes off the bench after he dislocated his shoulder in practice Monday.
Williams started at point guard in his stead and took advantage of the opportunity, tallying a game-high six assists to just two turnovers. Dylan Smith started at shooting guard, finishing with seven points and three rebounds.
“I thought Brandon Williams did an excellent job,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “That’s not an easy situation that he walked into in his first Pac-12 game. Although he’s played the 1 quite a bit this year, he’s predominantly played off the ball with Justin being our point guard. So to just kind of throw him to the fire like that, he did a really good job.”
Williams said he wasn’t fazed by the increased responsibility since he regularly practices at point guard.
“Obviously J Cole wasn’t playing so I had to step up,” Williams said. “Just leading the offense and just being that vocal leader, kind of like the quarterback of the team, just looking at guys off pick-and-rolls and just making smart decisions.”
Arizona led by 15 at the half and maintained a double-digit lead until a layup by Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV made it a nine-point game with 5:19 left in regulation. Smith answered with a 3 to push UA’s lead back to 12.
CU’s D’Shawn Schwartz hit a corner 3 in transition to make it a seven-point game with 2:43 left, but Randolph responded with an acrobatic layup to extend UA’s lead to nine.
Williams put the game on ice by sinking an awkward jumper in the lane to put UA up 10 with 1:18 left. The Wildcats only shot 33 percent in the second half after shooting 52 percent in the first half, but the Buffaloes were worse at 32 percent.
Colorado stayed in the game by going 12 for 14 from the free-throw line.
“The first 20 minutes of this game was among our best basketball year of the year,” Miller said. “We moved the ball really well against the zone, we play good defense, good on offense without Justin Coleman at the forefront of it. That made us feel really good at the half. But with the type of team we have, we had a hard time putting two halves together.
“Colorado deserves some credit but we had just some plays that are head-scratchers throughout the final 20 minutes. We went from playing maybe our best basketball in the first half to maybe some of our worst of ball in the second half. I was just happy that we were able to hold on, win, talk about it, learn from it and move on to Utah.”
The Buffaloes got off to an 11-6 start by sinking five of their first six shots, but the Wildcats answered with a 13-2 run to take their first lead. They only built on their cushion from there, leading by as many as 16 in the first half.
Arizona continued its shooting struggles by going 5 for 18 from 3. Smith made two triples. Randolph, Ryan Luther, and Emmanuel Akot each made one. Williams was 0 for 4. Arizona got 18 points from its bench, six more than Colorado.
Freshman Devonaire Doutrive provided a spark, breaking out for eight points and four rebounds in a season-high 12 minutes.
“As we’ve watched him grow in practice really from the onset I thought there could be a period of time where he’d become important to our team because his style is so much different than everybody else,” Miller said.
“He’s an offensive rebounder, he’s a tremendous athlete, he had a couple turnovers which is expected playing that many minutes as a young player when you haven’t earlier, but he’s clever. He understands when to pass, when not to, and I was just really excited to see it because that’s kind of how things are supposed to go where a young guy just fights, scratches and claws his way into the lineup, doesn’t give up on himself, stays with it, and I believe that he’ll be a big part of what we do this year and certainly if you watch him you know that his best days are in his future.”
The Wildcats host Utah on Saturday at 12 p.m. MST to complete the first weekend of conference play, which requires a quick turnaround as the Pac-12 always does.
Miller expects the Utes to be confident after their road victory over ASU, but couldn’t offer much of a scouting report.
“I haven’t watched Utah,” he said, “but anything can happen in conference.”
Now more than ever, it seems.
Ayton inducted into Ring of Honor
A special guest attended Thursday’s game in the form of Deandre Ayton. The former Wildcat was inducted into Arizona’s Ring of Honor, reserved for the top players in program history:
Deandre Ayton was inducted to Arizona’s Ring of Honor at halftime pic.twitter.com/Anc7kf0BUU— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 4, 2019
In one year at Arizona, Ayton earned these accolades:
- Consensus First-Team All-American
- Pac-12 Player of the Year
- Karl Malone Award
- First-Team All-Pac-12
- Pac-12 Freshman of the Year
- Pac-12 All-Defensive Team
- Set a new Pac-12 record for double-doubles by a freshman with 24 for the season, which was also the most double-doubles in a season by any player in UA history.