For about 11 minutes of game time Saturday, the Arizona Wildcats looked every bit the contender.
They shrugged off a clunky start to race ahead of the less-talented Sun Devils, playing defense, rebounding and, perhaps most important, making shots.
Dylan Smith looked good, Nico Mannion couldn’t miss and Zeke Nnaji was dominant. Stone Gettings was solid, Jermarl Baker Jr. was poised and Ira Lee was effective.
The stretch of basketball was beautiful to watch, and it was a glimpse of what the Wildcats could be.
Alas, it was little more than a tease.
As great as those 11 or so minutes were, the other 29 — and especially the final 20 — were at best mediocre, and more accurately disastrous.
The lead started to shrink by the end of the first half, and it wasn’t long into the second when you knew this would be a game. The Wildcats, who just a few weeks earlier had destroyed this same Sun Devils team by 28, was going to have to fight for the win.
Once again Arizona struggled to put away an opponent, and once again they collapsed when the pressure was on late. You can blame the team’s youth, Sean Miller’s coaching or even some questionable officiating — all were factors — but no matter what, the result was another disappointing loss in a “prove it” game.
After the game Miller talked about how his team lacks confidence and to be honest, why shouldn’t they? Besides Mannion’s winner against Pepperdine, Arizona has done little to inspire faith that they will prevail when things get close.
Who will take the big shot? Arizona has had players in the past who seemed to relish the opportunity; this year’s team seems more apt to run from it. Sure they’re plenty capable of blowing teams out (see: Buffaloes, Colorado), but it’s been painful to watch the various ways they’ve let games slip away.
The humor in it all is that regardless of how terrible we all feel right now, the numbers say Arizona is still one of the better teams in the country.
Do our eyes deceive us?
The Wildcats are 10th in NET and 12th in KenPom, and unranked following the loss in Tempe, their 13-6 (3-3) record may belie their overall ability.
Or the computers are lying. Optimism at a time like this is justifiably hard to come by, and it doesn’t matter how good you could be if you aren’t able to maximize your potential.
Fortunately for Arizona, there’s more basketball left to play.
Until a loss is the last loss of the season, all of Arizona’s goals are still attainable. And no matter how upset you are right now and even if you have less confidence in the Wildcats than the players themselves, there’s no denying that when they play well, they can play with anybody in the country.
Moving ahead, Arizona has six home games and six road games. The road schedule does not feature any currently ranked teams, while the home slate offers just one: Oregon.
A win over ASU would have done little to move the needle in terms of Arizona’s potential seeding, just as a loss doesn’t really do much to hurt it. Unless this is a precursor to some kind of epic collapse, Arizona will still be dancing in March. But sooner or later the Wildcats will need to win on the road, and sooner or later they will have to find a way to win a close game.
It has to happen eventually, right?
At some point Arizona will score more points than their opponent in a Pac-12 arena not located in Tucson, and you’d have to think they’ll eventually get the stop or make the big shot to propel them to a close, hard-fought victory.
The problem is that similar to how Miller having never guided a team to a Final Four is a cloud that hangs over him, the longer this year’s team’s road woes last the tougher it will be to push past them.
Miller is of course one Final Four appearance from shedding that stigma and the Wildcats are a win over Washington or Washington State from at least beginning to move on from theirs.
But when it comes to this season’s team, it would be foolish to expect anything from the team, good or bad. They’re as capable of greatness as they are of mediocrity, which means the rest of the ride — however long it lasts — is going to be bumpy.